Sculptural dwelling takes cues from arched bays of carriages houses common to Clinton Hill’s Vanderbilt Avenue. On February 7, 2017, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered and approved an application to construct a new building on a vacant lot at 311 Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill Historic District. The site, currently used for parking, is on a through-block lot, with an existing 1890 townhouse facing Clinton Avenue. The planned building will rise to four stories, with the top floor set back from the main facade.The application was designed and presented by architect Ramona Albert. Albert noted that Vanderbilt Avenue possessed a varied character, and historically hosted many carriage houses, several of which were later repurposed and survive, with three on the block at issue. The block is anchored by the Queen of All Saints Cathedral, at the corner of Lafayette Avenue, and is otherwise filled with residential structures of varying heights. Albert said the design team had looked at the geometry of carriage houses, and the proposal was inspired by the historic buildings’ arched bays and central columns of windows. She noted that arches were also found within the facade arrangements of the district’s residential architecture.
The proposed building would have a large arch spanning the three streetwall floors, with double-height windows above the garage at the base. The arch would be offset to the south of the facade, with a blank column of wall separating the arch from the adjoining rowhouse. The new building would be clad in pre-cast panels of a pale color, intended to relate neutrally to historic masonry in a contemporary manner, and evoke travertine, a volcanic limestone used in classical structures. The set back fourth story, with a railing around the roof, would be visible to pedestrians from some viewpoints, especially from the south where the property is adjoined by an empty space used as a kindergarten playground.
The project would retain a garden at the lot’s interior, and the rear facade would have wooden balconies at every story above the ground floor.
The Historic District Council’s Kelly Carroll urged Landmarks to reject the proposal for failing to respect the district’s context. Carroll said the said arches in the district’s historic architecture were always part of a symmetrical tripartite facade, and that the proposal was constituted of a “grand gesture on a monolithic, asymmetric facade” that would interrupt the scale of the block. Neighborhood resident Adrienne Walsh condemned the proposal’s “overwhelming height and breadth,” and said construction could cause nearby historic buildings to destabilize and collapse. Kathleen Walsh said the design did not complement the district’s historic architecture, and would have a jarring effect. Cornelius Walsh, owner of the adjoining building at 309 Vanderbilt, said his home faced “imminent collapse” if the project went forward.
Landmarks Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan stated that Brooklyn Community Board 2 recommended disapproval of the proposal.
The property’s owner, Adrian Devenyi, responded to testimony by stating he had retained engineers who had vetted the project and would safeguard construction.
Commissioner Fred Bland endorsed the proposal as a “lyrical, beautiful building,” and encouraged commissioners to take a broader view of the meaning of context in a historic district. Commissioner Michael Devonshire found the design generally appropriate, but that “faux travertine” was not an appropriate material for the district. Commissioner Adi Shamir-Baron said that while the building was not typically contextual it was nonetheless appropriate, finding the monumentality of the cathedral an important reference point, and praising the proposal’s dignity and sculptural quality. Commissioner Michael Goldblum, who said the proposal gave him a “Philip-Johnson-in-his-classical-mode type of vibe” found the plan conceptually appropriate for heterogeneous district, but asked that the applicants further explore proportions and materials.
Commissioner Jeanne Lutfy disagreed with the majority, saying the proposal looked more institutional than residential, and the double-height windows were not appropriate for the district. Commissioner John Gustafsson praised the quality of the design, but did not find it appropriate for Clinton Hill, saying “Lincoln Center doesn’t belong on this block.” Chair Srinivasan determined the building to be generally appropriate as a non-literal contemporary expression of historic carriage house architecture. Srinivasan found enough consensus to call for a vote, but asked the applicants to work with Landmarks staff in modifying the materials utilized on the exterior. Commissioner Bland cautioned against modification of the proposal by Landmarks, saying it would be detrimental to meddle with an “unusual and different design” by an “accomplished architect.”
Commissioners voted to issue a certificate of appropriateness, with Commissioners Lutfy and Gustafsson dissenting.
LPC: 311 Vanderbilt Avenue, Brooklyn (19-6243) (Feb. 7, 2017) (Architects: Ramona Albert Architecture).
By: Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law).