Commissioners Request that Applicants Rethink Plan for New Rowhouse in Historic District

Rendering of 39 South Elliot Place. Image Credit:

Rendering of 39 South Elliot Place. Image Credit: R.A. Max Studio.

Materials and proportions identified for criticism in proposal to build limestone-clad rowhouse on narrow vacant lot. On May 24, 2016, the Landmarks Preservation Commission considered an application to construct a new building on a vacant lot at 39 South Elliott Place in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene Historic District. The mid-block lot was once occupied, but the building was demolished prior to the district’s 1978 designation. The new building will be used for residential purposes.

The daughter of Peter Vitakis, the owner of the site, testified that the intention was to build something “plain and simple,” that would not detract from the district’s historic architecture. She stated that environmental sustainability and security were of paramount importance when conceiving of the design and heavily informed the choice of materials, and the building would be constructed using “the most advanced technology.”

Ana Eskreis, President of R.A. Max Studio presented the proposal for the new four-story building. Eskreis stated that in studying the area, it had been determined that the block was fairly homogenous in scale and materials, constituted mostly of brownstone residences, but with a variety of facade arrangements. The new one-bay building would have an offset entrance at the base, without a stoop. The facade would be arranged into a base, middle, and top, crowned with a cornice. Eskreis said the large window at the second story was intended to recall a piano mobile.

Eskreis said that the designers had considered using imported stone for the facade cladding, but out of environmental concerns, had decide that the stone must come from within 500 miles of the project site.

Eskreis said the building would have triple-pane tilt-turn windows for maximum energy efficiency, and noted that stone was considered one of the most durable and sustainable cladding materials. The stepped rear facade, as well as the sidewall, would be clad in cement stucco.

Two residents of the adjacent 37 South Elliott Place expressed concerned about the effect of excavation on nearby historic foundations, and requested clarification on what the applicants intentions were for the chimney and other rooftop furniture. The Historic Districts Council’s Barbara Zay argued that the proposal needed to be “rethought and dramatically refined,” asking that it better relate to the adjoining building at number 27, that the materials be more appropriate for the district, and that the facade proportions were awkward and lacked depth.

Eskreis responded to the testimony by stating that the accretions at the rooftop would include a stucco parapet, a bulkhead, stucco parapet, and chimney whose length was determined by code. She said the rooftop furniture would be minimally visible from public thoroughfares, but presented no sightline studies. Eskreis further stated that she had studied the site “in a geological manner,” and the new building would be separated from its neighbor at 37 South Elliot by two inches, so as to not to structurally impact the adjoining building. 41 South Elliott is distanced from the new building by an existing garden on the neighbor’s property.

Commissioner Michael Devonshire noted that quarries for Indiana limestone were located further from New York than 500 miles, and suggested that the applicants consider using salvaged stone, or stone sourced from New England instead. Devonshire further found limestone to be an inappropriate material for a residential facade in Fort Greene. Commissioner Fred Bland concurred with many of the Historic District Council’s criticisms of the project and determined that it needed to be substantially rethought before being approvable. Bland said that environmental sustainability was a worthy goal, but it had not been handled creatively in this instance, and that that the building’s context in the historic district required “equal obeisance.” Bland opined that the proposal’s massing was acceptable for the site.

Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan said she was concerned about the facade’s proportions, and that the Commission had not been given sufficient information to make determination on the appropriateness of the rooftop furniture. Srinivasan said the applicants’’ focus on sustainability was laudable, but needed to be produced with more creativity. She declined to call a vote, but instead asked the applicants to return to Landmarks at later date with a proposal demonstrating more “depth and finesse.”

LPC: 39 South Elliott Place, Brooklyn (17-5212) (May 24, 2016) (Architect: R.A. Max Studio).

By:  Jesse Denno (Jesse is a full-time staff writer at the Center for NYC Law)

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