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Architectural Wealth, Built for the Poor

By Christopher Gray

Built in 1879 as a group of model tenements, the Tower Buildings, at Hicks and Baltic Streets in Cobble Hill, were rescued in the 1970s by Frank Farella, a local developer who for years kept the Brooklyn complex as a low-rent paradise. Now Mr. Farella has taken on a partner, the Hudson Companies, and their collaboration may bring substantial changes.

The developer of the Tower Buildings was Alfred Tredway White, who was born into wealth and who was asked by his Unitarian pastor to investigate the housing of the poor.

Moved by the awful conditions in working-class tenements, in 1877 he finished a nine-building complex, somewhat dour and barrackslike, called the Home Buildings. Two years later, just across the street, Mr. White built a more architecturally pleasing group of nine, fleshing out his ideas for model housing. This second, more imposing group became known as the Tower Buildings because of two picturesque ornamental peaks on either end.

To reduce interior corridors and fire hazards in the Tower project, Mr. White and his architect, William Field & Son, used a system of open stairways.

Compared with the typical sanitary accommodations, Mr. White’s were luxurious: a toilet in each apartment, instead of a bank of outhouses outside. There was also a chute on each floor, in which tenants were supposed to place garbage first burnt in the kitchen stove — although in 1887 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that watermelon rinds were unburnable and had to be put out separately. Mr. White provided hoisting tackle, as the coal box in each living room could hold a quarter ton.

The 76 three- and four-room apartments in the Tower Buildings each rented for $1.50 to $2 a week, and the 1880 census lists tenant occupations like coppersmith, typesetter and tailoress.

There were usually four or five people to an apartment: Edward Monroe, 52, a laborer, lived in one with his three siblings, including George, 47, whose occupation was listed as “paralyzed — never earned a cent.”

Mr. White brought a missionary zeal to housing reform. Selling liquor was prohibited, and in 1876 The New York Times, describing the projects at the outset, said that success would be guaranteed by “a strict moral and police supervision under a faithful janitor.”

Mr. White and Mr. Field made a particular feature of the open iron galleries across the front, which are pierced with decorative designs. Although the rear is plain, it surrounds a broad courtyard.

Mr. White said the Tower enterprise returned 6 percent on his investment, and in 1880 The New York Times reported the Tower Buildings had demonstrated to commercial builders that model tenements could be made to pay. But the real estate industry resisted such reasoning — indeed many disputed its accuracy — and kept to established models.

Little change came to the Tower Buildings until the 1940s, when the White family sold the project, and the 1950s, when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut a swath to the west.

In the 1970s. Mr. Farella was a real estate broker. “My fuel oil man told me they were for sale,” he said of the Tower and Home complexes, adding, “In 1975 no one wanted these buildings, with 11 burnt-out apartments.” In addition, one-third of the apartments were vacant. Mr. Farella paid about $450,000 for both projects, and the architects Maitland, Strauss & Behr began a gut renovation, which was not finished until 1986.

Mr. Farella has now taken a private developer, the Hudson Companies, as a partner. David Kramer, a principal, says rents are still low, citing a one-bedroom apartment with “killer views” of New York Harbor and the financial district that costs $1,335 per month. He says the owners are considering a co-op conversion for both complexes.

Unlike much of Cobble Hill, the Tower Buildings are not spiffed up. The exterior staircases give them a charming, but still Dickensian air, and there are broken panes of glass. The exterior brick has been long painted a flat red; you can see the original warm orangey-red, rich in natural variation, on the rear walls. The plantings are a bit ragged; the trash bins, though neat, are kept in the courtyard; and lines of bikes are chained to the railings.

Still, the garden is a welcome relief from the hurricane of the B.Q.E. on the other side, and it is outsize by normal courtyard standards. Anyone can walk in or out the unlocked gates on either side. This gives the complex a comfortable, old-time air. The Tower Buildings are simple, decent places to live, just as Mr. White intended 129 years ago.


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