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Old School Cool. Why Restored Brownstones Are Sparking An Artisanal Cottage Industry

Wood, glorious wood. Never has vintage millwork been so valuable to NYC townhouses.

By Jeff Vasishta May 1, 2017

The old school marketing lingo which accompanies historic brownstones, with their century old woodwork is the stuff of real estate cliché. “Dripping with original details,” “beautiful wainscoting, pocket doors and mantels.” The phrases are almost as old as the properties they are trying to sell. Old wood, though, is the new currency in townhouse NYC. For the first quarter of 2017, brokerage Halstead tracked a five percent increase in pricing for town homes throughout brownstone Brooklyn, with the price for one now averaging $2.38 million. Be prepared to up that number if it’s “dripping with original details.”

A cottage industry has built up in the repair and restoration of these old homes with artisans, woodworkers and paint strippers finding themselves a busy as if they just arrived on Ellis Island, tool bag in hand from the old country a century ago. The NY Post reports that the uptick started in 1965 with the formation of the Landmark’s Commission (LPC). As historic neighborhoods began to be designated, recent gentrification has only fueled the desire to return large swathes of Brooklyn back to its Victorian era beauty — albeit with the addition of central air, LED lights and Sub Zero refrigerators.

Related: Size Doesn’t Matter As Architects Plot High Rises On Odd Shaped NYC Lots

“It is a big part of New York’s economy now,” says Jackie Peu-Duvallon, a historic preservation consultant who runs her own firm. “It’s proliferated in the last 20 or so years.”

Restoration companies such as EverGreene Architectural Arts founded in 1978 and Vincent Battiloro’s The Finest Brownstone Wood Restoration are enjoying a roaring trade.

“The business changed when young professionals realized that instead of paying $1 million for a studio in the city, they could buy a brownstone in Park Slope,” Battiloro says. “I’m getting busier every year,” he adds. “I’m 75, but they won’t let me retire.”

For many homeowners, simply picking up approximate replicas or original details online or from a lumber supply house won’t do. Recreating the original details is the only way to go. That’s where true artisans charge top dollar.

Related: While Manhattan Gasps, Brooklyn Bloats With Full Offices

Deborah Mills, a custom wood carver based in Long Island City, admits her skills come with justifiable price tag. “Wood carving is often one of the last things to come into a project, when homeowners might already be over budget,” she says. No detail is too intricate for her firm, she says.

“It’s surprising how often people see a beautiful work and think it could never be replicated today,” she says. “Well, we could do it.”

A townhouse at 1 Verona Place in Bed-Stuy recently made news for becoming the most expensive brownstone in the neighborhood when it went into contract for $3.3 million. Rather than restore or buy antique wood work for the gut renovated project, the developers Christaan Bunce, a principle at the design firm KGBL, and Adam Dahill, a mortgage broker chose to recreate large parts of millwork the house in the style of its original inception a century ago.

“I think of our homes as Modern Victorians,” Dahill said. “Old world craftsmanship, with details that never go out of style coupled with modern day fixtures in kitchens and baths.”

Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jeff Vasishta

Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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