Published: November 8, 2013
Doug Derryberry and Serena Mulhern with their children, Justice and Jane, in the townhouse they are renovating in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
The New York townhouse has been through a lot since it began appearing in profusion in the 19th century.
These stately buildings started life as single-family houses sheltering comfortable middle- and upper-class families and their servants. By the Great Depression, most had been chopped into single-room apartments, the unlucky among them getting the greatest wear, as rooming houses for the down and out.
In the ‘60s, plucky young New Yorkers with more enthusiasm than cash began buying these down-at-the-heels beauties and spiffing them up for their families, usually retaining tenants who provided rental income and in many cases were impossible to dislodge.
In the past few years, the historic townhouse has started to come full circle. Thanks to the growing appetite for larger and more luxurious private urban dwellings among people happy to pay upward of $10 million, many townhouses have been returned to the elegant single-family homes they once were.
To the casual passer-by, the changes may be invisible. On the East and West Sides of Manhattan, in Greenwich Village and in large swaths of what is commonly called Brooklyn’s brownstone belt, brick, brownstone and limestone facades encrusted with corbels and lintels continue to mirror a distant era.
But these ornate fronts conceal profound shifts in occupancy, demographics and financial structure. Townhouses represent only a small fraction of the city’s housing stock, but because they define certain beloved neighborhoods, the implications of their transformation are great — though whether the shift represents boon or blight depends on who is being asked.
“These houses have always been commodities — they were built, after all, by real estate developers,” said Patrick Ciccone, a preservationist who is preparing a revised edition of “Bricks and Brownstone,” Charles Lockwood’s landmark 1972 study of the New York townhouse. “So returning a townhouse to single-family occupancy might be the most historically appropriate thing to do, given its original use.”
But, Mr. Ciccone added, in the process of such conversions, what may be sacrificed is the life and activity on the street produced by variety in the size, density and affordability of residences. “So what’s good for one house,” he said, “can also be bad urbanism for the city as a whole.”
This time around, a different breed of New Yorker is working the magic on these buildings. As tenants move or die off, many owners are reclaiming entire buildings. Perhaps most important, developers are doing the same, a process that often entails a gut renovation and high-end amenities (elevators and wine cellars de rigueur).
Notwithstanding the rear glass walls increasingly common in retrofitted townhouses, the better to brighten dark interiors, many 21st-century buyers harbor an unexpected taste for Edith Wharton-style décor. They wax eloquent about coffered ceilings and mahogany wainscoting. Savoring a 19th-century aesthetic, they seek meticulously preserved period facades along with lush interior details like carved moldings and wood-burning fireplaces, even if reinterpreted in contemporary materials.
And the numbers of these buyers is growing. According to Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, 15 of the 48 townhouses sold last year on the Upper West Side were multifamily dwellings being returned to single-family homes, either by developers or what are called “end users.” “That’s nearly a third of West Side sales,” Mr. Guerrieri said, “a high percentage and one that’s been increasing in recent years.”
He and other townhouse watchers attribute the shift in part to a desire for bigger and more opulent homes that provide a degree of privacy unavailable in condominiums and especially co-ops. These homes also often offer other benefits: Residents can have a garden; they can own a dog without asking anyone’s permission. Many of these houses are in picturesque neighborhoods with an embracing sense of community.
“But money is the driving force,” Mr. Guerrieri said. “Values are rising, and developers are seeing the big numbers that these houses sell for.”
Because supply is limited — estimates suggest that fewer than 10,000 pre-World War I townhouses survive in Manhattan, with perhaps 50,000 citywide, mostly in Brooklyn — operating in this market can be highly profitable.
For couples like Doug Derryberry and Serena Mulhern, whose home must double as a work space, the benefits of a spacious and flexible townhouse are considerable. Mr. Derryberry, a musician and record producer, and Dr. Mulhern, a physician, own a two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot condominium on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. But as their family grew to include two children, Jane, 5, and Justice, 3, the challenges of combining work and family proved daunting.
“I always had work space in the house,” Mr. Derryberry said. “But by the time the second one learned to walk, it became clear I needed space outside the house. My wife would say to the children, ‘Leave Daddy alone, he’s working.’ They’d say, ‘No, he’s not, he’s just playing the guitar.’ ”
Yet when Mr. Derryberry maintained a studio elsewhere, the shuttling from place to place, often with quantities of unwieldy equipment, made a hectic schedule even more demanding. “My equipment seemed to metastasize,” he said. “Plus, we underestimated the complexity of the hours from 5 to 8, the hours of dinner and the baths.”
On nearby Prospect Place, a century-old three-story townhouse with a fig tree in the pocket-size front garden offered a solution. The couple bought it for about $1 million in December 2012, shortly after the final tenant departed.
The plan is to return the structure to single-family use, to create a studio for Mr. Derryberry and to add an elder-friendly guest suite in the rear for two pairs of doting grandparents. Many traditional architectural elements will be preserved, among them two fireplaces and the white oak paneling on the parlor and upstairs floors. Thanks to James Wagman, the couple’s architect, and Cramer Silkworth, an engineer, this will be a passive house, ensuring maximum energy efficiency and a minimal ecological footprint.
Mr. Derryberry and Dr. Mulhern have been deeply involved in the reconstruction of their future home. But veteran developers more typically assume the risks and headaches involved in restoring these down-on-their-luck properties to their former glamour, especially with top-of-the-line townhouses in neighborhoods like the Upper West Side.
This is what happened with the Renaissance Revival townhouse at 304 West 90th Street being prepared for sale by Omek Capital, a Long Island real estate investment firm that specializes in townhouse redevelopment. The five-story 1891 structure, designed byClarence True, contains 7,300 square feet of space and has 12-foot ceilings and a south-facing garden. Once home to seven apartments — “tiny but great,” said Keith Strand, the Harlem-based architect who is redoing the structure — the house is on the market for $12.995 million.
Sasha Maslov for The New York Times
Keith Strand is the architect overseeing the return to opulence of a townhouse on West 90th Street in Manhattan. A project of an investment firm, it can be yours for $12.995 million.
Along with five bedrooms and nine baths, amenities will include an elevator to whisk residents from the walk-in wine cellar and steam-room-plus-gym in the basement to the topmost terrace (one of five). The maid’s quarters have a kitchen and an en-suite bath. Three types of marble are being used for finishes.
“Back in the ‘70s,” Mr. Strand said, “this sort of work was more do-it-yourself. But now it’s luxury finishes, appliances, everything high-end.” As if to offset a rear wall sheathed with glass, the brownstone facade is being restored in traditional fashion, and Mr. Strand is especially pleased that the stoop, ripped out decades earlier to create an extra downstairs bedroom, is being replaced.
Though work will not be completed until February, on a recent weekday David Kornmeier of Brown Harris Stevens showed the house to three potential buyers, who stepped gingerly around exposed floorboards and dodged masked workers to inspect premises stripped to the studs. Mr. Kornmeier expected nine more visitors in the coming days, and he is not surprised that traffic has been brisk. “It’s almost impossible to find an 8,000-square-foot apartment in Manhattan,” he said. “To get just 7,000 square feet of space at 15 Central Park West would cost you $88 million.”
A similar old-school beauty will go on the market in the coming weeks at 38 West 87th Street, where Allerand Capital is putting the finishing touches on an 1891 Gilbert Schellenger townhouse priced at $18 million. The company bought the 6,300-square-foot building, which contained 10 apartments, for $5.15 million in 2011. When finished, the house will have six bedrooms, a grand salon, a formal dining room, three fireplaces, two roof decks, a terrace and a full butler’s pantry with a dumbwaiter.
“The house will be beautiful, mint-modern,” said Ann Marie Folan, the Douglas Elliman broker who is handling the sale with her colleague Eileen Foy. “But it will capture a traditional look with the staircase, fireplaces and exposed brick.”
Proponents see the shift to one-family occupancy of townhouses as representing a resounding vote of confidence in the city, a sign of robust civic health.
“This trend, which we’ve been seeing in the oughts and the teens, represents an investment and belief in New York City,” said John Berson, a partner of Sawyer/Berson, a Manhattan architecture firm that specializes in townhouses. “It represents people saying, in effect, ‘They’ll have to take me out of here feet first.’ It also raises the overall value of a block. There’s enormous benefit to preserving these beautiful houses.”
Critics bemoan the reduced street traffic and less lively street life — fewer schools, churches, delis and dry cleaners, and especially fewer children — that come with lower density and altered demographics.
“There’s something nice about the fact that people are restoring these houses to single-family living, as they were intended,” said Arlene Simon, who grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, moved in 1960 to a $115-a-month parlor-floor apartment in a West Side townhouse, and currently observes neighborhood change from her perch as president ofLandmark West!, a preservation group. “It’s nice that the stoops, which were removed in the midcentury, are being restored.”
But with fewer people per building and with some homes serving as pieds-à-terre, Ms. Simon fears that street life on townhouse-lined blocks will be noticeably quieter. “And of course street life makes all the difference in the world,” she said.
Brian Sawyer, Mr. Berson’s architectural partner, shares these feelings. “When you walk down a block and you see house after house with one buzzer instead of 12,” Mr. Sawyer said, “there will be a silent change. In some ways it makes the block less interesting. At night, if you live in a city, there’s nothing more delightful than looking into those lighted windows and peeking into someone else’s life. When there are fewer people living on a block, something changes. The changes don’t kill the entire block, but there’s a noticeable difference.”
Critics of the shift also cite the gradual disappearance of the townhouse rental apartment, leading to a small but palpable depletion of the city’s housing stock. The loss is deepened by the fact that these apartments, immortalized in films from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” to “You’ve Got Mail,” were so beloved.
Mr. Sawyer remembers moving to his first such place in the late ‘80s.
“I walked into this studio on Morton Street in the Village that was for rent for $400,” he said. “The plaster was crumbling. But I was overjoyed. There were huge ceilings and moldings and a fireplace. I put a tent in the middle of the room to sleep in. I lived there for 10 years, and it was one of the best times in my life.”
Sasha Maslov for The New York Times
Keir Dougall and Wendy Schick Dougall have lived for years in a townhouse in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with their sons, Jared and Cailan (top). It was only recently that they decided to return the building to its original single-family self.
Families taking over newly restored townhouses, however, may be hard-pressed to discern downsides, as was the case for Keir Dougall and Wendy Schick Dougall, lawyers who in 2001 were living in an apartment in Park Slope when they bought an empty three-family building on nearby Garfield Place just months before Sept. 11. The 4,000-square-foot structure, for which the couple paid $1.1 million, had over its century-long existence been home to a succession oftenants. The abundance of fire doors, emergency exits and multiple locks survived as a ghostly reminder of their presence.
But although the final tenants had moved out by the time the couple bought the house, during their first decade at their new address the building remained configured as a multiple dwelling, an inconvenience to them and their sons, Jared, now 11, and Cailan, 13.
“We lived for much of that time in compressed quarters, with two small children, all of us smushed into one large bedroom,” Ms. Schick Dougall said, “and it was adding lots of stress to our lives. We had no closets. We couldn’t have people over. By the time the kids were approaching their teens, it was clear that they needed more privacy and so did their parents. It was now or never.”
In spring 2012 the couple hired Ben Baxt of Baxt Ingui Architects, a Brooklyn firm, to retrofit the house for one-family use. In August, after a year in a rental, the family returned to find the evidence of the building’s time as a three-family dwelling almost entirely erased.
The original oak floor edged with mahogany can be seen in the formal dining room. Period details rescued and brought to glowing life include two original fireplaces and wood molding delicately carved with swirls and fruit. The renovation produced so many closets, Ms. Schick Dougall has lost count.
The project satisfied many of the couple’s goals, notably providing an abundance of space. And as Ms. Schick Dougall, who grew up on Long Island, added: “We were not apartment people. Plus, to be honest, I’m secretly a suburban girl. I think that sort of thing is in your DNA.”
These days, the only indication of the house’s previous incarnation arrives with the mail. “Once in a while we still get letters addressed to the old tenants,” Mr. Dougall said. “We just mark them ‘return to sender.’ ”