It’s one of New York’s redeeming qualities that it never runs out of sights to offer even a regular wanderer of its neighborhoods. In addition to planned street-scapes and open spaces, endless random combinations of elements accidentally yield distinctive places. ArchiTakes launches its “New York Places” category with one of these, in Brooklyn.
The block of Greenpoint’s Guernsey Street between Meserole and Norman Avenues is, through some accident of soil and light, towered over by forest-scaled locust trees. Their shade makes entering the block feel like stepping indoors from outdoor light. The palpable ceiling they create takes the metaphor of street as outdoor room a step further, while the repetitive tenements on either side make credible room walls. The west side of the street in particular, with simple, flat brick building faces, creates a quiet backdrop for the subtle magic of the light, which gives the block something of the unreal, indoor and expectant quality of a stage set. More effectively than any porch, arcade or terrace, this block blurs the sensations of indoor/private and outdoor/public, creating a pleasant disorientation.
Aerial bridges create a similar indoor-outdoor confusion in this Siena street, as do its nearby outdoor tabernacles and steep streets that break into stairs. The public realm takes on an unaccustomed intimacy and its stage-like quality is heightened.
A block north, Guernsey Street loses its dense tree canopy and enters the Greenpoint Historic District. Beyond Calyer Street it makes a left turn, becoming Oak Street. On the outside corner of this turn, the street wall breaks to reveal the fantastically overgrown yard of a quintessential haunted house. It’s as if the block’s row houses were built around the street frontage of an old estate until it was nearly encircled. The freestanding building and its grounds are almost completely folded into the core of an L-shaped block, like a subconscious suppressed behind the sober row houses of the rational street grid.
Where the yard extends to the street, it is fenced, with a gate and path leading to the front steps of what appears to be an Italianate mansion that would look down the length of Guernsey Street but for the forest primeval that’s grown up around it.
Designed by prominent Brooklyn architect Theobald Engelhardt and built in 1886-7, 137 Oak Street was commissioned by the Guernsey family as the Greenpoint Home for the Aged, and – the kind of building that spawns stories – is reputed to have taken turns as a brothel and home for unwed mothers. Currently an SRO, it was recently sold. While physically protected by landmark designation, its future use will certainly take a more upscale direction. The advocacy group, Neighbors Allied for Good Growth, says “Many of the residents of Oak Street (a pretty close knit block, even for Greenpoint) are protective of the older men who live in the building.” Earlier this summer, a shirtless resident hanging clothes to dry in the yard said there were only eight of twenty former tenants left in the building. The picture of a vanishing genuine neighborhood with quirks and mysteries was completed by two boys playing catch in the street, outside what could be a group home for Boo Radleys.