Brooklyn Heights

Re-Purposing historic structures on Sidney Place

Eye On Real Estate: From Old Catholic School Building To Neighboring 1830s Brownstones

August 14, 2013 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Soon, students will read “Catcher in the Rye” where Catholic priests rested their weary heads.

The former rectory of St. Charles Borromeo Church at 21 Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights is in the final weeks of its transformation into a Quaker school for teens with learning disabilities.

As part of the project, the Brooklyn Heights rectory’s second-floor bedroom, whose most recent occupant was the Rev. Edward Doran, is being transformed into a high-school English classroom.

“It’s very exciting,” said Debbie Zlotowitz, head of school at Mary McDowell Friends School, who hopes to have a temporary certificate of occupancy for MMFS’s newest high-school building in time for the opening of the fall session on Sept. 9.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful building that’s going to be a fabulous environment for our students to learn in,” she said.

The school in the final weeks of a $9 million, multi-year project on Sidney Place that includes the construction of Brooklyn Heights’ skinniest building – just seven feet wide. The sliver building will serve as a connector between the former rectory and the church’s former grade school at 23 Sidney Place, which the educators already rebuilt and have been using as a high school since fall 2011.

The construction project is the biggest – but not the only – thing cooking on the two-block-long residential street tucked between Joralemon and State Streets in the landmarked section of the Heights.

St. Charles Borromeo’s pastor – known throughout the neighborhood as Father Ed – is in the final phase of a historic restoration at 31 Sidney Place. He’s turning the former convent into a rectory and parish house for the church. Various homeowners are wrapping up renovations – and Brooklyn Law School is selling its apartment building, 18 Sidney Place.

Mary McDowell administrators have been through numerous construction projects in the past decade and a half. They renovated 20 Bergen St. in Cobble Hill for their Lower School and 133-135 Summit St. in Carroll Gardens for their Middle School, and outfitted the former parish school on Sidney Place for their Upper School. The work has always gotten done in time for fall classes.

Nevertheless, Zlotowitz succumbed to a moment of anxiety during a recent Sidney Place hard-hat tour she and Upper School director Kirk Smothers kindly gave us.

“My stomach is in knots looking at this,” she said, surveying soaring stacks of materials that will be used to construct an elevator in the connector building.

“School is starting in a month,” she said. “I just want it to be done.”

MMFS launched its high school by making room in its middle school building for an inaugural class of ninth graders in fall 2010 while a pro bono team from accounting giant Deloitte helped a school committee search for a permanent site.

They initially pursued a deal to rent two or three floors of a 10-story commercial building in Fort Greene.

“It wasn’t an ideal location for a school,” recalled Alan Alpert, a Deloitte Tax LLP senior partner who’s the clerk of MMFS’s board of trustees. He used $300,000 from his firm’s $50 million pro bono services grant to fund a team from Deloitte’s real estate consulting division. Under his direction, the group evaluated school sites and reviewed architects’ contracts and construction proposals.

Things took a turn for the better when the Diocese of Brooklyn, MMFS’s landlord on Summit Street, told school administrators that St. Charles Borromeo’s buildings – a better fit – were available for rent.

The parochial school, constructed in 1916, had been closed since a February 2007 fire.

“The damage was so severe that it would have been prohibitive to repair up to modern-day building code,” Father Ed told us.

To provide sufficient space for the Quaker high school, St. Charles Borromeo offered to move out of its rectory, which was built in 1928. The rectory is relocating to the church’s former convent, which is on the other side of the former parochial school from the connector building.

The three nuns from the Sisters of St. Joseph who were living there graciously agreed to vacate. In the past, as many as 16 nuns at a time had lived there, Father Ed said.

From the outset, constructing a connector between the former parochial school and rectory seemed like a smart idea to everyone involved in the MMFS Upper School project.

“We knew the buildings belonged together,” Zlotowitz said.

A key feature of the connector is an elevator with nine stops – because the floors on the church’s two  buildings don’t match up. The elevator will facilitate access for students, staff and visitors with limited mobility, in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Times Square firm Marner Architecture initially designed the connector building with a modern, glazed facade.

“There are multiple schools of thought in working with landmarked buildings,” Smothers explained.

One is a deliberate effort to differentiate between historic structures and new additions.

“But the Brooklyn Heights Association said they didn’t want the glass building; we switched it right away,” Zlotowitz said.

The architect changed the design to a four-story, pale-yellow brick facade with windows on the front and back – a close match to the historic buildings on either side.

“There’s no question we wanted to be a good neighbor,” Zlotowitz said. “We wanted to be an asset to the neighborhood.”

School officials had to meet only once with the city Landmarks Preservation Commission to get the design approved.

“The Commission found that the scale and placement of the proposed addition will relate well to the parish house and the school building and will provide for barrier free access to both buildings without compromising their historic character,” says a June 2012 LPC “certificate of appropriateness” permit for 21 Sidney Place.          

The classroom that was Father Ed’s former bedroom is one of four rectory rooms where English will be taught. One was a formal dining room, with handsome wainscoting and French doors opening out onto a courtyard that will have planters and benches. Others have fireplaces.

The small scale of the rooms is just right for English classes, whose size is limited to five to nine students so teachers can give the teens the attention they need. A woodworking shop is being built in the basement; elsewhere, there are offices for administrators, psychologists and speech and language therapists.

A statue of St. Joseph that was in front of 21 Sidney Place has been moved to St. Charles Borromeo’s church garden because “Quakers don’t use religious iconography,” Smothers said. A statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child is headed for the front yard of the new rectory at 31 Sidney Place.

Expanding the Upper School into the old rectory will give MMFS enough room to have a senior class for the first time. (Last year, there were ninth, 10th and 11th grades at 23 Sidney Place.) There will be a total of 112 students in grades nine through 12; in the future, that enrollment will increase to 144 students.

MMFS is more than $2 million of the way through a campaign to raise $3 million to fund the Upper School project. (The other $6 million comes from financing.)

Some “very generous donors” have stepped up because there’s “such a great need” for specialized schooling for students with learning disabilities, Zlotowitz said.

The school is settling in for a long stay. It leased the Sidney Place property for a 15-year term plus five-year lease renewals for up to 35 years. School and church officials have agreed not to disclose how much the rent is – but clearly the money’s a godsend for St. Borromeo.

“We had expenses with heating, electricity and insurance with no hope of income,” said Father Ed. “We surrendered the buildings to an extraordinarily good use, got a stream of income – and stabilized our finances.”

The church, a presence on Sidney Place since 1849, is spending $1.6 million on the convent’s makeover as a parish house and rectory. It will have meeting space to accommodate non-parish organizations like the Sidney Place block association and a long list of parish activities from adult Bible study to Boy Scouts. It will have living space for Father Ed, parochial vicar Father Slawomir Sobiech and up to three additional priests-in-residence.

The work will be paid for primarily with the rent from MMFS.       

The convent is an 1840s-vintage brick rowhouse the church bought in 1940 when the Sisters of St. Joseph arrived to run St. Charles Borromeo’s grade school.

“It was a boarding house when the parish purchased it – the last boarding house on Sidney Place,” Father Ed said during a tour of the renovation, which he expects will be finished by the end of September.“The neighbors were overjoyed; boarding houses had a bad reputation.”

This was a quarter-century before the Heights became the city’s first landmarked neighborhood – so in short order, the parish tore the stoop off the building and constructed steps to the basement, which served as the convent’s reception area. The front door was replaced.

As part of the renovation, designed by Brooklyn Heights architect Gary Maranga, the stoop has been rebuilt – and a reproduction of the old front door crafted, based on an old photo of the building found in city archives.

Father Ed made sure that historic construction materials from the old rectory that weren’t suitable for the school were salvaged for use at the new rectory.

His contractor, Tall Builders, removed 63 oak doors with brass doorknobs from 21 Sidney Place. They don’t meet stringent fire codes for schools, which require doors with “three-hour burn,” but are kosher for use at the rectory.

“We had a choice – we could have thrown the doors in the trash,” said Father Ed, whose new office in the basement of 31 Sidney Place was surprisingly tranquil while construction was ongoing in other parts of the building.   

A staircase that had to be torn out at the old rectory was lit with stained-glass windows, which will be installed at the new rectory. The same goes for antique light fixtures that weren’t suitable for school use.

The church contractor, Jay Tall, set up a woodworking shop in the first-floor chapel of 31 Sidney Place, where construction crews crafted historically appropriate paneling. One worker designed old-fashioned oak radiator covers with brass grills.  

“This is a labor of love,” said Tall. With such devotion, is he perchance a parishioner?

“No,” he said with a laugh. “I’m Jewish.”

Inside the building, an elevator is being added to make the five-floor building accessible to people with limited mobility; outside, an unusually shaped ramp is being set up in front of the house.

The ramp, which leads to the basement door, is a bluestone-paved walkway around three sides of a rectangular front garden in which the statue of the Blessed Mother will be placed. Each segment of the walkway has a gentle downward slope.

Elsewhere on Sidney Place, where many homes date back to the 1830s and 1840s, numerous residences have been renovated in the past half-decade or so. The brownstone at 36 Sidney Place belongs to fraternity Lambda Chi Alpha. Next door, a home shrouded in construction netting catches the eye.

The shroud gives 34 Sidney Place an air of mystery – but “it was a very minor patch job,” said contractor Steve Johnson, who expects to be taking the scaffolding down soon.

At 38 Sidney Place, Erika Nijenhuis and her husband Chris Bastian are just wrapping up a major renovation of their 1870s-vintage single-family home, which had been turned into multiple apartments in the 1930s. It was their fourth fix-up project since they bought the house in 1997.

They got rid of the remnants of kitchens on two floors, revamped two bathrooms and installed central air-conditioning – which sometimes met with unforeseen complications.

“There were a number of surprises when they opened walls and took up floor boards,” Bastian said. “There were gas lines and sewer lines where you wouldn’t expect them.”

During the 14-month renovation, the couple moved to an Upper West Side apartment near Central Park for a change of pace. They returned to the Heights in July.

“Brooklyn Heights has not changed that much in 50 years,” he said. “You can be away from it – and come back and enjoy it all the more.”


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