The Russos reminisce about their West Midwood house
Eye on Real Estate: Childhood home of oceanographer Henry Stommel was built in 1905
Ron and Diane Russo believed in Victorian Flatbush in the bad old days when residents fled the place in droves.
The couple paid $100,000 for a big old house on a street where nobody wanted to live.
“People who were leaving the neighborhood told us, ‘Do you know what you’re doing? You will never see that money again,’” Ron Russo recalled the other day.
The home they bought in 1981 was eye-catching 1410 Glenwood Road, which was built in 1905. It’s a six-bedroom shingle house with two parlors, a porch, a driveway and a garage.
These days, houses in its immediate vicinity are selling for $1.55 million and the whole world’s in love with Victorian Flatbush. The children of those folks who left the neighborhood are moving back.
But, Russo points out, the naysayers of the early 1980s could easily have been right.
“We could have turned into Detroit,” he said.
The home where they raised their son and now play host to grand-kids is located in West Midwood — one of six unlandmarked Victorian Flatbush micro-neighborhoods whose residents are renewing their call for historic-district designation.
‘Protect the history that’s here’
“A lot of people care about the historic homes in the neighborhood. But there are some places where terrible things have happened,” Russo said.
“This community is a gem. We need to landmark it. Otherwise, it might well suffer further deterioration,” he said.
Several years ago, concerned residents joined forces with Flatbush Development Corp. In December 2012, they submitted a request for historic-district designation to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Russo served as West Midwood’s rep in the six neighborhoods’ push to win designation as a single historic district.
The other neighborhoods in the proposed historic district are Beverley Square East, Beverley Square West, Caton Park, Ditmas Park West and South Midwood.
We should pause for a moment because we haven’t properly introduced the Russos. He grew up in Bensonhurst. She grew up in Midwood.
He’s a lawyer and former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York whose work included a stint as Chief of the Official Corruption/Special Prosecution Section.
After that, he served as the First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation.
Now he’s Of Counsel at the Manhattan law firm of Schlam, Stone & Dolan LLP, focusing on white-collar criminal defense, criminal defense and governmental investigations.
Diane Russo is a retired New York City schoolteacher. She serves as the Treasurer of the Flatbush Development Corp. and sits on its Board of Directors.
She supports historic-district designation for the unlandmarked micro-neighborhoods, which are arrayed across the map of Victorian Flatbush like the pieces of a patchwork quilt.
“We want to protect the history that’s here and preserve the community for generations to come,” she said.
A puppet theater in the attic
We also need to introduce Henry Stommel. He lived at 1410 Glenwood Road from 1925, when he was 5 years old, until 1935, when his family sold the house.
Stommel, who lived from 1920 to 1992, was one of the most influential oceanographers of his time. He worked at or was affiliated with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Cape Cod, Massachusetts for a half-century.
He’s known in the world of science as the man who figured out that the rotation and curvature of the earth play crucial roles in producing the Gulf Stream.
He also determined that they’re largely responsible for other strong currents that exist on the western side of ocean basins all over the world.
Russo found out quite by accident that Stommel had lived in their home.
One day in 1992, he noticed a man standing outside taking photos of the house.
Russo decided to speak to him.
The photographer said his dying friend had asked for a picture of his childhood home. Russo invited the photographer in and showed him around the house. In the third-floor master bedroom, which had been an attic back in the 1920s, the visitor pointed to a spot where he and his friend had set up a puppet theater.
The visitor said his friend had a distinguished career. “He invented the Gulf Stream,” was how the friend put it.
Russo thought the friend was probably exaggerating. Then a month later, Stommel died. Russo read his obituary and realized it was a fitting description of the oceanographer’s accomplishments.
‘I couldn’t believe it was Brooklyn’
The Russos first fell in love with Victorian Flatbush when they attended a neighborhood house tour in 1979. They were bowled over by the beauty of the houses and their suburban setting.
“I couldn’t believe it was Brooklyn,” Ron Russo recalled.
But when they looked into moving to the neighborhood, the houses for sale were all priced at $40,000. It seemed like an oddly small sum for such big houses with porches and lawns and garages. It made them worry that the houses might lose their value.
“We thought next year, the price could be $30,000,” he recalled.
They lived in Bay Ridge for a short while and looked at houses in several Brooklyn Brownstone Belt neighborhoods, which were a little rough around the edges at that time. They decided not to move to the area after a real estate state agent took them to see a house and there was somebody passed out on its stoop.
“We didn’t want to be pioneers,” Russo said.
Stained-glass windows and a sense of history
They did their research on Victorian Flatbush, which included a chat with PS 217’s principal and a visit to NYPD’s 70th Precinct.
In 1981, they bought the Glenwood Road house.
Its exterior color scheme was black shingles with white trim, which Diane Russo later changed to its present pastel green with maroon and dark green accents on windowsills and porch columns.
The house was in good structural condition. Inside, they stripped the paint from wood columns, turned the gas fireplace into a wood-burning one and installed a historically appropriate mantelpiece.
There was shag carpet in the parlors, which they removed to reveal beautifully patterned wood floors.
There were stained glass windows that had survived the long years and are still intact today.
In recent years, 1410 Glenwood Road has been included in Victorian Flatbush house tours.
One year, 400 people showed up at their house in a single day.
Three and a half decades have passed since the Russos moved into their big old house. Their love for it hasn’t dimmed one iota.
“Every day I appreciate what I have,” Ron Russo said.
“I never get tired of this house. I never take it for granted.”
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