Press | February 20, 2014

Building of the Day: 1609-1627 St. Marks Avenue in Ocean Hill


By Montrose Morris


Brooklyn, one building at a time.


Name: Row houses
Address: 1609-1627 St. Marks Avenue
Cross Streets: Thomas S. Boyland Street and Rockaway Avenue
Neighborhood: Ocean Hill
Year Built: 2003-2005
Architectural Style: Modern row house
Architect: Magnusson Architects and Planning (MAP)
Other buildings by architect: Similar houses on Boyland Street and Bergen Street. Also Rheingold Gardens in Bushwick, Atlantic Terrace in Fort Greene, and many other projects in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island
Landmarked: No


The story: Affordable housing is a mantra in this city, as the sales and rental prices of houses and apartments continue to rise, and people try to figure out how they can afford to stay here. Meanwhile, as the prices and demand for houses in some neighborhoods skyrocket, other lower income neighborhoods have seen entire blocks of buildings disappear into rubble and empty lots. As developers and advocates for affordable housing plan new buildings for these lots, the necessary balance between cost and aesthetics has often been backburnered or ignored. Consequently, we’ve gotten a class of buildings that are often called “Fedders houses.” These are infill houses in our neighborhoods that, to cut to the chase, have been just plain ugly. Many people say that you can’t have good design in affordable housing, it’s not a priority and it’s not cost effective. But there are too many examples that just cry “Not true.” Take this project, for example.


Today’s Buildings of the Day are a part of a development in Ocean Hill called the Vernon Cherry Homes. They are named in honor of Vernon Cherry, a Brooklyn firefighter who died at the Trade Center on 9-11. The houses were developed by Loewen Development, for a joint partnership between the Department of Housing Preservation and Development and the New York City Housing Partnership. The architects on the project were Magnusson Architects and Planning. Magnus Magnusson, the head of the company, was the chief architect. The Vernon Cherry Houses are scattered in a five block radius around Bergen and Thomas Boyland Streets, Eastern Parkway, St. Marks and Saratoga Avenues.


A miracle! Someone took the time to look around at the row house neighborhood that this is, and design homes that are contextual, affordable and good looking. Magnus Magnusson did a great job here. The groups of houses reference the highly successful row houses of old. There are four buildings in the project that sit on street corners. Magnusson designed sloped roofs on these buildings, coming to a peak four feet higher than the roof line. They serve as anchors to the groups. Many of the original row houses in this part of Ocean Hill have rounded bays, so the architect incorporated the bays into the design, not only giving the houses a bit of extra square footage, but significantly adding to the curb appeal of the houses, individually, and as groups. The setback is close to the street, like the original row houses in the neighborhood, and parking was put in the back.


The houses are three families, with the owner’s unit taking up the first, and half of the second floor above. There are two tenant’s apartments; a one bedroom on the remainder of the second floor, and a floor through apartment on the top floor. The owner also has a rear garden and an unfinished basement. The houses are made of an attractive and period dark red brick, with cast stone trim. All of the houses are capped off by a period style fiberglass cornice. Making sure the cornice was a necessary component of each house made the difference between a nice enough design, and a superior example of 21st century affordable row house design in a predominantly 19th century neighborhood.


The MAP group has a long history of work in affordable housing. They were the architects of the Rheingold Gardens houses in Bushwick, located on the site of the old Rheingold Brewery. They also recently finished the Gold LEET-certified Atlantic Terrace, a mixed use, mixed income co-operative, and located in Fort Greene, on South Oxford Street. The firm also has many projects in the Bronx, Harlem and Staten Island to their credit, mostly apartment buildings.


There are 71 homes in the Vernon Cherry Houses. They were sold by lottery, for people whose incomes were between $40,000 and $50,000 at the time. The combined family income could not be more than $75,000. They had over 500 applications, and the homes eventually went to teachers, firefighters, corrections officers and other middle-class folk who could not afford to buy many other places in Brooklyn anymore. The Magnusson group is proud of these houses, and said in a press release that “designing for modest budgets doesn’t mean skimping. These houses will still be here in 100 years and kids are going to grow up here.”


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