Every Address Tells A Story

This grand old Brooklyn apartment building survived a fire—can it become a low-income co-op?

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The over a century-old Vendome Apartments building embodies the scrappiness of an old-school New Yorker: The six-story, 25-unit Romanesque Revival property sits at the corner of Gates and Grand Avenues in Clinton Hill, and since it was built in 1887, it's gone through more than one near-death experience. 

The property was designed by Halstead Fowler, an architect who, with his partner William Hough, also created a number of churches and hospitals in Brooklyn. Brownstoner writes that that the Vendome was originally marketed to the upper-middle-class, and included a billiards room, a smoking room, telegraph service, and a caterer.

At the time, Clinton Hill was a suburban, middle-class enclave, comprised mostly of single-family row houses, according to a Landmarks Preservation Commission's report on the neighborhood. Over the ensuing decades, the area became a draw for the wealthy, too, with new mansions and apartment buildings in a variety of styles springing up. 

However, by the 1920s, Clinton Hill's star had faded in the eyes of well-heeled New Yorkers: The LPC explains that after 1898, when the city of Brooklyn was combined with the other four boroughs to form "Greater New York," some of the wealthiest locals began to see Brooklyn as secondary to Manhattan and relocated there. 

Some of Clinton Hill's grand homes were demolished to make way for high-rises to house the middle class. Others became the property of Pratt Institute, and still others were subdivided into apartments. Then, in the wake of World War II, the once upper-crust neighborhood fell into decline. (In Patti Smith's memoir, "Just Kids," for instance, she recalls the Clinton Hill apartment she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967 as "aggressively seedy"—and renting for only $80 a month.)

The Vendome was emblematic of New York City's changing fortunes in the latter half of the 20th century. By the 1970s, the city seized it because the owner failed to pay taxes, and it stood vacant for nearly a decade. In 1980, a fire broke out in the empty property, and in 1987, the city Department of Housing Preservation and Development attempted to demolish the building to make way for a new condo development. Neighborhood residents responded with a campaign to preserve and restore the building. At the time, the New York Times quoted HPD officials predicting that the neighbors had little chance of succeeding.

But when all was said and done, the little guy triumphed, due in large part to the Vendome being just within the boundaries of the Clinton Hill Historic District. A swath of the neighborhood was designated historic in 1981, for its range of architectural styles and the many historic mansions and brownstones it did retain over decades of ups and downs. The LPC report on the neighborhood's historic district designation notes the Vendome's "brick soldier course lintels and decorative terra-cotta panels and trim... A richly detailed foliate cornice and steep mansard roof crown the building. The roof, the most striking feature of the building, is pierced by a variety of gabled and hipped roof dormers." 

The building could have been razed despite its landmark status, though, as it was the city—not subject to the same restrictions as private developers—that wanted to replace it with condos. Instead, thanks to the efforts of locals and preservationists, Vendome was rehabilitated with city and state funds. The city then opened its doors to low-income tenants, who were given the option to rent for 15 years and then purchase their units at below-market prices. 

It's an inspiring story to any New Yorker feeling the crush of the affordable housing shortage—but of course, nothing is ever that easy in New York real estate. When the 15-year mark was reached in 2008, the world was in the midst of the financial crisis, and the tenants who'd been promised the opportunity to purchase their apartments found that the building had gone into foreclosure. Moreover, the building was plagued with problems like leaks and mold, Brownstoner reported

In 2011, a real estate investor purchased the building. In 2015, tenants sued to hold the city and landlord to the promise of converting the apartments to low-income co-ops. A judge ruled against the Vendome's landlord in 2016, but it wasn't all roses overnight. The following month, the Vendome was named one of the "20 worst buildings in Brooklyn" by Public Advocate Letitia James. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development didn't immediately respond to a request for information on the status of the co-op conversion.

After 130 years of changing fortunes, the building is still holding on, but like many a battle-tested New Yorker, it has scars to show for its troubles.

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