When my Mom and I first moved to Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, we hadn’t been in our house a month before someone knocked on our door, welcoming us to the neighborhood, and asking the question, “Would you be interested in showing your house in our annual neighborhood house tour?” The organization sponsoring the tour was called the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant, and they were very persuasive. Our house ended up on the tour in 1983. That was my first experience with house tours.
The Brownstoners were (and still are) a community organization that was established in part to promote all that was beautiful and positive in a community that had been written off in the 1960s as the “biggest ghetto in America.”
Bed Stuy has always had a large percentage of homeowners, and these proud people, who often worked two or three jobs in order to pay the mortgage, were proud of their homes. When society was failing around them, they lived ordinary, hard-working lives, like people do in most neighborhoods.
They went to work every day, sent their kids to school, went to church on Sunday, and shopped in local stores. They swept in front of their homes, planted flowers in the yards, and watched each other’s kids. They kept the neighborhood together.
This fact was generally forgotten in the stories about poverty, drugs and crime, and the ignorance of how people live. Bed Stuy is a huge neighborhood, larger in landmass than the entire city of Troy, with a larger population. Some parts were, and still are, better than others. Much like North Central, or South Troy, a neighborhood is much more than simply the deeds or conditions of those who fall short or turn to crime or drugs. There are always good people doing the best with what they have, and there is always beauty.
The Brownstoners wanted to show that. Their house tours invited people to “Come Home to Bed Stuy.” By going into 8 or 10 different houses across the length and breath of the neighborhood, they wanted people to see the beauty of the streets, the gardens and the homes. Most people were not rich, their homes weren’t full of fancy stuff, but they had beauty, they showed a love of culture and tradition, and they showed off the beautiful period details that were part and parcel of late 19th century residential architecture.
And what beauty that was! I love period details. You can never have too much woodwork, too many fireplace mantels, built-ins, period bathrooms, pantries, kitchens, decorative hardware or fancy plasterwork for me. The 19th century was a time of great craftsmanship. Even the homes of the working man had something. Ornamentation was just a part of their cultural makeup. While most of it was factory produced and picked out by the builder or architect from a catalog, it still used materials and an aesthetic sensibility that we just don’t have anymore.
I’m not the only one who thinks this. House tours brought out the people who loved this stuff from far and wide. Some were just curious as to what Bed Stuy looked like, others were there for the old houses. The house tours had hundreds of people each year. Because the neighborhood was so big, they often had buses to take people from one end of the neighborhood to another.
Many of Brooklyn’s other brownstone neighborhoods had house tours. It became an annual spring and fall tradition to make the rounds, visiting houses in Park Slope, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Lefferts Gardens and more. During late May, early June, and then in October, one could go to a different house tour each weekend.
You often saw the same people. House tours brought out the DIY folk in those days. We would go into a house with beautiful woodwork and period detail and find out that the homeowner had personally spent six months stripping layers of paint from the wood. People would swap stories about the best ways to strip paint.
Should you use chemical stripper? Which one? Rock Miracle or Zip Strip? How about heat guns? Did you hear about that new heat gun that was supposed to be better than the old ones? Did you ever char the wood by accident? How do you fix that? How about using that stuff that you layer on like cake icing, put plastic over it, and peel the whole thing away the next day? Does it really work? Must be messy. I hope you used a respirator.
Did you have green and pink paint layers? We did too! EVERYONE has green and pink paint layers. They must have given that stuff away back in the 50s. Why would someone paint a marble fireplace? Why did they paint woodwork and marble BROWN? Why paint WOOD brown? Wow, you did an amazing job! The woodwork is beautiful. You must be proud. Your home is beautiful. Thank you for letting us see your hard work.
Back then, it wasn’t about Wolf ranges or industrial refrigerators or marble backsplashes. No one was impressed that you used Farrow & Ball paint that cost $100 a gallon or bought Waterworks hardware and Ann Sacks tiles. Your home didn’t have to be as good as a photo spread in House Beautiful. Sure, it was nice to go into houses like that, but back then, they were rare. It was more likely to visit a home that had lovingly been restored by the owners, with the help of a good contractor for the big stuff, with comfortable old furniture, family photos on the mantel, and a plate of cookies on the counter.
I loved house tours so much that I got roped into being the vice-chair of my own neighborhood group, the Crown Heights North Association. We had our first house tour in 2006. We got advice from the Brownstoners of Bed Stuy as to how to run a tour, we had a committee of people who were also house tour devotees, and we went for it. But before the tour date, the chair of the committee dropped out, and I ended up running the tour. I ran the tours for almost ten years afterward, even after I moved from Brooklyn to Troy. I couldn’t escape.
Let me tell you, it’s hard work. The hardest part is getting people to show their homes. As time went by, it got harder and harder. Crown Heights North and Bed Stuy were rapidly gentrifying. Places like Park Slope were out of the reach of most middle class buyers. The price of real estate was soaring, and with it came people who were willing and able to spend more money on rehabs. They were also less and less interested or able to do the work themselves.
House tours became less about “My spouse and I stripped the woodwork for a year,” to “My contractor had guys come in and strip the woodwork.” Conversations with homeowners were less about which vintage outlet or antique salvage store you got your lights from, and more about who your contractor was, how you had to have an architect and an expeditor and an interior designer, and how you paid megabucks for everything. Every house WAS House Beautiful.
We found that people who didn’t have that kind of money didn’t want to share their perfectly good homes. We found that many people were leery of letting strangers in. Not because they thought they would be robbed, because no one was EVER robbed in all the years I ever had anything to do with any tours, but because they didn’t want to be judged. It was harder and harder to get volunteers who would stand in rooms as docents for a day. It was hard to get people to be on the committee. We paid for our beautiful brochures by running ads, and no one wanted to spend the summer going door to door to neighborhood businesses to get ads.
As for me, I really didn’t like running meetings by phone. It was hard to keep track of details long distance. No one wanted to take over from me, so after having 8 years of house tours, we stopped. Many of Brooklyn’s other neighborhoods have stopped, as well, or decided to do alternate years. The days of the great house tours are probably over. At least for a while. Maybe they need some rest. Perhaps ten years from now, someone will take it up again as a great New Idea. You never know.
But regardless, for me, the joy of a good house tour remains. Last week, the Rensselaer County Historical Society sponsored their first house tour. Six houses participated, and it was great. We had examples of several periods of Troy architecture, running the gamut of early 19th century Greek Revival wood-framed to the magnificent Uri Gilbert Mansion to late Victorian Queen Anne townhouses.
It was fun. It was wonderful to meet homeowners, and I also met some really nice fellow tourgoers. We shared the appreciation of beauty and craftsmanship. We looked at the details that made the early 1800s different from the mid-century, and from the late 19th century. We saw craftsmanship progress from the hand made to the machine made, but always with the aesthetic of beauty. We saw how modern technology has made it possible to provide solar power, and how thoughtful design can turn the 19th century into the 21st, without losing the intentions of the original builders, or the details of the past.
As in Bedford Stuyvesant, we saw a pride of place. Not just in the homeowners who opened up their houses, but in many of the tourgoers, many of whom were neighbors and people with similar circumstances. This is Troy. People remembered when no one wanted to live here, when you could buy a mansion for pennies. When the entire downtown was written off. When purchasing one of these homes earned you the derision of some, or concern from family members as to your safety.
I remember people telling me my Brooklyn neighborhood was too dangerous, was I crazy? We got that when we moved to North Central, too. Proud homeowners downtown heard that too, and it wasn’t all that long ago, either. But you know what? We all stayed. We made friends, we fixed up our homes, we poured ourselves into our communities, joining community organizations, the Historic Society, neighborhood houses of worship, whatever. And now, people look on those days, and upon their hard work with a profound sense of home, security and pride. Well done, all. Thank you for sharing.
That’s why I like house tours. They celebrate wonderful homes, but more importantly, they celebrate us as communities.
Long may they continue. In Troy, and everywhere.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.