Conformity’s grandfather

November 23, 2012 | Brooklyn, Brownstones, Commission, Historic districts, New York City, Taste police

By:David A. Smith


Difference? What difference?


No one would ever convict human beings of consistency; we change our minds all the time, usually because the passage of time has allowed us to realize our initial perspective was nonsense, or sometimes solely because we shifted our values or our perceptions, especially when we objected initially only because something was unfamiliar – and as shown by a crisp little New York Post (October 29, 2012) article, what once was an ugly duckling is now possibly to be protected as an ungainly swan:


233 Garfield Place, which was just recently purchased for over $2,000,000.00. Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY.


Would you believe the new owners of this all-pink Brooklyn brownstone have to ask the city for permission to change it back to brown?


What was prohibited to do is now prohibited to reverse.


Follow all signs


A Park Slope couple just forked over $2.075 million for the Pepto-Bismol-tinted, four-story home at 233 Garfield Place, which neighbors and preservationists have long decried as an awful eyesore in the landmark district.


Pepto …


… abysmal?


Conformity can be curiously defined.  For San Francisco’s pink ladies, probably the most-photographed homes in America, it means the same structures with individual color schemes.


These colors conform in their variety – say what?


In Park Slope, it means the same color with individual facades.


But for new owners Joseph and Jeanne Accetta, making their not-so-hot pink home fit in is not as simple as slapping on a fresh coat of paint.


In America – the land of the free ice-tea refill and the Clean Rest Rooms as gas stations – it is that simple, but the more urban an environment, and the more affluent that urban environment, the more likely its neighbors are to decide that they occupy and claim moral ownership over its public space and its image, and are in fact an open-air living club with the ability to dictate exterior image.  Most of residential New York, in fact, is that America, certainly Queens and Staten Island (the island that Mayor Bloomberg frequently overlooks). 


No conformity police here: Queens, New York


Fifty years ago, in fact, Park Slope was Queens in brownstone:


The previous owner, Bernard Henry, a retired 95-year-old tailor, had previously claimed that he accidentally painted the home that distinctive shade of pink only after buying the wrong color paint. He lived there for five decades.


I call bogosity; or rather, that Mr. Henry originally liked the pink color and grew tired of having to defend his taste, so he hid behind the ‘historic’ designation and invented a self-exculpatory circuit breaker.


A man and his pink: Bernie Henry, aged 92, in front of his house


The house has been pink since the 1960s and the gaudy look was grandfathered in years before the block was designated part of the special district, which requires approval for any changes to facades.


Eventually his neighbors wearied of the topic and tolerated the color, until he died (I presume) and the house sold, whereupon all that pent-up neighborly conformance pressure found its outlet.


The couple bought the home last month and first have to get city approval to wipe the bubble gum-hue paint off and “re-brownstone” the facade, which is considered a landmark as part of the Park Slope Historic District.


A gracious and stately street presence: Park Slope


Much though I like historic districts, they are a tool for repressing property rights – and, come to think of it, one whose arrival demarcates a shift in the evolution of an urban environment, from public space as refuse to public space as amenity.


The more primitive, old, or poor a city, the more its public space is treated as waste area.  (In the developing world today, public areas are almost entirely functional and largely unmaintained.)


Water well in downtown Jodhpur, India


Roman sidewalks were raised a few feet to enable pedestrians to avoid the rivers of effluent that ran to the cloaca. 


Envision the mud: street in Pompeii


English Tudor homes were built over the street to make easier the dumping of night soil and slops into muddy. 


York’s shambles, 100 years ago, little changed from the sixteenth century


Gentlemen’s and ladies’ clothing was designed to absorb the filth and be left at the door, via cloaks, gaiters, and spats, and the tradition of a gentleman walking outside a lady came from his seeking to protect her from the cries of gardy-loo (garde a l’eau, beware of the ‘water’).


Look out be-l’eau!


Except for estates or royal preserves, parks were non-existent, and when they first entered the urban environment they were specifically reserved only for neighbors.


Private park, Glasgow

The notice explains that the owners had been willing to leave it open, but the park had been invaded by the Occupy demonstrators, and they had had to lock it up.


Even today, many London park squares belong only to their neighbors and are protected with fences and locked gates.  Parks became general, as far as I can tell, only in the mid-eighteenth century or later, as part of urban beautification projects by cities moving upscale as they became richer: London’s Hyde Park (made public in 1851 with the Great Exhibition), Paris’s Bois de Boulogne (public park 1852), New York’s Central Park (begun 1857). 


Hyde park in 1833, with the King’s Private Road


Mandating exterior appearance conformity is the endgame of this trend of the public’s right to visual beauty overtaking the private right of property; now the ‘park’ is not simply that which is publicly owned, but anything that is publicly visible.  So we must hide the satellite dishes, not add that rooftop pigeon loft, preserve our antiquated window frames, and … not paint our houses a color the neighbors don’t like.


Many of [Mr. Henry’s] former neighbors said the house was anything but pretty in pink.


“I would chip in half the cost to repaint it brown,” said one homeowner across the street. “They call it a brownstone, not a pink stone. I can’t wait for the new buyers to undo this travesty.”


“This is such a beautiful block, so I think it’s great the pink will finally be gone,” another neighbor said. “We consider ourselves preservationist.”


Ah, but preservationist of what?  The pink had been there for fifty years, and remarkably – or perhaps not remarkably – it was one of the most photographed homes in Park Slope.


Pink house, green dress


A Landmarks Preservation Commission spokeswoman said she couldn’t specifically discuss the merits of the application to “re-brownstone” the home, but added the commission routinely backs projects to restore landmarked homes to their original look.


It’s all a little tenuous, though, for ‘original’ may be hard to divine.  On that theory, the Watts Towers would have had to come down because they weren’t original.


The endlessly-expanded product of an obsessed man


Simon (Sam) Rodia, self-inspired builder


An endless work of development built with found materials


When individuality expresses itself in private property, should the verdict be decided by the taste police?


“We’d like to change the color, but it’s too early to comment because we don’t have the approvals yet,” said Jeanne Accetta.

“It’s a beautiful neighborhood with great schools, so we are excited,” she said.

The buyers filed paperwork last week with the Landmarks Preservation Commission seeking approval for the changes.

Grows on you, doesn’t it?

The neighbors, I think, found the property offensive not just for its color – I confess, the more I clicked on pink house pictures, the more I found its flamboyance cheerful – but rather for its Warhol-esque spoof of everything pretentious.  Brownstones are such a part of the comfortable fabric of rising-urbanite New York residential neighborhoods their very name – a concatenation of a color and a material – has become synonymous with location, lifestyle, and even one’s personal character. 

Through a fender, pinkly

Wordlessly the pink house mocked its neighbors, and for those neighbors, that would never do.  So the individualism that made 233 Garfield Place the most-photographed house in Park Slope succumbed to conformity.  The commission approved, and the pink is coming off.

Alas, poor pink, I knew it Horatio



Comment from Rosemary
Date: November 26, 2012, 5:13 pm

I am not sure how and when I came upon your blog I think it was about four days ago, but I am transfixed by your writing style. You are the pink house in my brown blog world. Thank you.

Comment from David Smith
Date: November 27, 2012, 3:23 pm

That’s a compliment I shall cherish.