ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
INTERVIEWEE: EDWARD ORTNER
PRESENT: EVELYN ORTNER
INTERVIEWER: FLORENCE DANIELS
TOPIC: PARK SLOPE, BROOKLYN
LOCATION: KRESS FOUNDATION, NYC
DATE: 29 DECEMBER 2003
EVERETT: I’m an editor and writer by trade. Besides other publishing houses I worked for Popular Science Magazine for thirty-three years. That’s what I’ve done for most of my professional life, editing and writing, etc. I started as an assistant editor at Popular Science, and retired as the editor of the magazine, after many years.
Evelyn and I bought our house in August of 1963. At that time there was the Park Slope City Council, which I had mentioned before, sponsoring tours with Bob Macklin. In the fall of the year, when we bought our house, we attended a meeting of the Park Slope City Council, a members’ meeting. It was held in a hall somewhere or other — I’ve forgotten — a church. It was a small group of local people. Very few people had moved in yet. I think when I took a picture of the “Pioneers of Park Slope,” maybe a year or so later, we assembled maybe forty or fifty people on one big stoop, and I took one big picture of everybody, the new people who had come to Park Slope — a community with thousands of residents.
But at that meeting they were planning a house tour for the next year, and they were wondering how they could get publicity. Because I know something about these things (you can write press releases and take pictures and all that sort of thing), I volunteered to start doing publicity for the committee, which I did.
So over the years, for a long time, I publicized every house tour that came along. That expanded and expanded and became more of an occupation at the time. This was something that evolved over the years. I would dress up several people in period costumes, like my wife, stand her up in front of one of these brownstones, and send it away — send the picture away. In those days the World Telegram was still printing and the Mirror was still alive. They were receptive to photographs like that, so we got additional publicity that way. That was my thing.
Now among other things, somewhere around that time, maybe 1965 or somewhere or other, a friend of ours, Joe Ferris, called me up — At that time all the houses, as they were being vacated, were being bought up by people who turned them into all sorts of things — SROs (”Standing Room Only,” so called). They’d sell somebody a room and put a new lock in it — single-room occupancy — so it was even worse than turning them into apartments, or more so. Of course, the key to maintaining those neighborhoods — A few years before a lot of people had been buying those houses and had no intention of living in them, but turning them into little modules of one kind of another, and bringing in anybody they could. So the neighborhood had been deteriorating and the quality of the houses had been deteriorating, and they were poorly maintained with almost no money in them. A lot of the best houses were being ruined that way by absentee landlords, who bought them up. That was the time when a friend of mine, Joe Ferris, told me about a magnificent house that was for sale on Sixth Avenue, inhabited by an old doctor, Dr. Doyle, who had a younger wife and she wanted to get out of Park Slope, which was deteriorating. The neighborhood had been deteriorating and she wanted to get out. This was a house that was lined with walnut paneling in the whole place. It was a beautiful jewel of a house, on Sixth Avenue, in Brooklyn. I guess it would have been near Park Place, around that neighborhood on Sixth Avenue. It was for sale for $16,000. That was a very cheap price, even then. Most people who were buying houses — We brought lots of friends of ours to Park Slope to look at our house and they bought houses, and the going price at that time, for a very good brownstone on a very good block, was around $22-25,000. This one was much cheaper. We paid more for our house — $32,000 — because it was more elaborate, and had more original linings or whatever, decorative elements, still there. We paid $32,000.
Anyway, it was for sale. So Joe and I got together. We found a couple more friends who were interested in doing something about this house. “Doing something” meant actually getting somebody to buy it who would respect it and live in it happily. Eventually, we did find a very nice young couple who bought the house. So there were four of us who got involved in this. Anyway, we found someone to buy that house, then we found a few more people, and we thought we would form a little rescue organization, to buy up houses cheaply and then find the right people to buy them. Because most of these houses would come on sale, nobody would come up on the market, nobody would know that they were there — desirable people (our meaning of desirable) — didn’t know about these things, so they were bought by the people who cut them up into apartments — the changing neighborhood.
So we agreed to form an organization to do that. We started an organization to see that the proper people, the people we wanted would buy those houses. That meant a lot of publicity to get this going.
FD: There were only six of you originally?
EVERETT: Actually, we started with four, then we got some more. Eventually, we ended up — we gave it a very unimaginative name, Park Slope Betterment Committee — to publicize it. Because I was a publicist and knew what to do, we got a lot of publicity. This started in many, many ways. First of all, I sent out press releases (which nobody ever did before) to all the newspapers, and then we sent out pictures. Then we organized tours, in addition to the annual tour, given by the Park Slope Service Council. We organized our own special tours, and that means every time we found a house that had been bought by somebody or other, in some communities that we wanted to publicize — For example, we would say, “This part of Sixth Avenue –” that needed heavy promotion, we would have a tour of houses in that community — a half-dozen houses. The themes of those changed. The first themes we started with were, believe it or not, “Houses you can buy for $20,000.” What we did was get a list of all the houses that were for sale (and there were a lot of houses for sale. People were getting out). We would have somebody make a list, go to all the real estate people (and there were not many at the time), and make a list of all the houses that were for sale.
FD: Did you charge for these tours?
EVERETT: No, we paid for them ourselves. They were all free. All the expenses we paid for ourselves, too. We’d chip in $10 bucks into a pot. When that got used up, we would put in more money. All the work was done ourselves, and everybody who came to those tours — after a while there were hundreds and hundreds of them — We started with what you could buy for $20,000. People would go to those houses and look at them. A lot of them were not beautiful houses, they were not in good shape. But, nonetheless, others were encouraged to find that somebody had ladders up and paintbrushes out, and was working on them. They would look at the house, and they would understand the value.
So we had a series of tours, starting with what you could buy for $20,000, and as prices went up, what you could buy for $25,000, for $30,000, in all those communities.
FD: What age people were coming in?
EVERETT: All young. All young. All young.
FD: What we would call Yuppies, today?
EVERETT: Well, of a kind, yes, but these were very stable people, looking for homes, houses, not what you might think of as — well, Yuppies, maybe.
Anyway, we found after a while — We kept card files of everybody who came on the tour, so we would always know who he was, and he would get a notice. Now the notice would list on one side all the houses that were for sale at that time. On the other side it would list all the things that were going on in Park Slope. It was a time of ferment in the community, and block parties had been started up on a number of blocks. So we would, in the summertime, list the block parties that were going on, all the other things. If there was a concert or some kind or other in one of the churches, we’d list them — all the neighborhood things.
FD: Was there a community newspaper, like Our Town or something?
EVERETT: No, nothing like that at the time. We did it all ourselves. Then we had this mailing list, that grew and grew and grew. We would have letter — envelope-writing parties, get four or five people sitting around a couple tables, and they’d address 500-600 “letters.” Eva was a big signer, I was known as a licker, licking the envelopes. That went on for a long, long time that we did that. It was a major promotion.
Now what we did was we went after all the young people in Manhattan. The story was for what you would pay for a two-room apartment in Manhattan you could buy a house in Brooklyn. (Which was true) So we got a lot of people who would not normally have thought of buying a house in New York City at all. We got school teachers, artists, young people, professionals — all those people, family people of all kinds, typically –
EVELYN: — and bankers and lawyers.
EVERETT: Young bankers and lawyers. In those days there were a lot of bankers and lawyers who didn’t make the big money they make now. Later on we made a study of the people who bought houses during those years; virtually all of them were college graduates, a very high percentage of them had further degrees, graduate studies or whatever.
FD: When you say “those years,” what years are we talking about?
EVERETT: Probably the five years from 1966-’67 into the early ’70s. We had those tours of all kinds. We were doing heavy, heavy promoting all this time.
FD: Was this still the original group of four?
EVERETT: Well, it changed somewhat. Joe Ferris eventually bowed out. I was the guy who ran the thing for a long time. I ran this organization for a long time. It was very effective, and we did get thousands of people coming in. Now what we would do also in those times, we were very friendly with Father Buck, what was his name? Clifford Buck, who was the priest of the St. John’s Episcopal Church. He was very helpful to us. He let us use the undercroft of the church for our meetings of one kind or another. It was a large area, maybe 50′ X 60′, something of the kind. Very large. We would set up stations in there. Every time we had a tour this was the pattern. You would come on the tour, you would start at a certain place to see the tour. You would go from house to house to house. At the end somewhere there would be a place where you could talk to people. They would serve lemonade and cookies or whatever, so that at the end of the tour you could talk to people there, and have a neighborly feel about it. You felt that there was a community there. Then in the undercroft of St. John’s Church we set up stations. So there would be a station there for lawyers. You could find out what was involved in that. There were bankers talking about mortgages. Somebody talking about schools. This was something I learned in the Army. You become –
FD: One-stop shopping.
EVERETT: Right. Exactly like that. So we did that for a long time, and that was all very successful. We were selling houses, or, people were buying houses.
EVELYN: We were not selling them.
EVERETT: No. I never bought any house other than my own. A major problem at times was getting mortgages for these houses. A lot of people were turned away because they couldn’t get a mortgage, or they didn’t have enough money or whatever, a lot of desirable people. At that point we made a survey of all the people who had bought houses in our community. As I said, virtually all were college graduates, people in very responsible jobs of one kind or another, young people. We all had trouble getting mortgages. We all had troubles. So we did two things.
First of all, with a survey, we wrote to David Rockefeller, who was then head of Chase Bank. We told him nobody was getting a mortgage from Chase Bank. How come? We got a very nice letter from the vice-president of Chase in charge of mortgages. So we went up there, and we made a presentation, four or five of us. We had all the figures of who these people were and the desirability of those houses, the desirability of bringing people like that into New York City instead of exporting them to the suburbs. We spoke to a man named Sawyer, who was very responsive to what we said.
Anyway, we made a presentation to this man there, and one of the things going for us was the fact that all the people who came to these houses were looking for the old features that these houses had. They were not tired of them. So after we told this to Sawyer, we explained to him the difficulty of getting mortgages, and how the appraisers from the bank would often turn their thumbs-down on the houses. So he called in his chief appraiser. He said, “Now all these people are interested in buying brownstones. What do you think of that?” And the man said, “Oh, they’re great houses. If you just get rid of that old stuff there, you’re all set.” The minute he heard that he understood the problem that the appraisers had with our houses. They regarded this “old stuff” as a minus factor, and we thought this was why these people were coming in to buy these wonderful old houses. As a result of that, very soon after that, the Chase Bank committed itself to $100 million in mortgages to all the neighborhoods in New York City. That opened the gates.
Now another thing we did at the same time, because banks were not cooperating with us and giving us mortgages, we had a big discussion about that we thought, “Well, should we picket them and do all those things?” Instead, we decided to go the other way and make friends. So we had a cocktail party for them, and one of the members of our group was a rich banker who had a beautiful house covered with fancy paintings and all sorts of things, living the way a rich person would live. That’s where we had our party. Now the bankers who came there represented I don’t know how many banks, but it was quite a party. (Bankers go where they get free liquor.) Anyway, the environment impressed them; at the same time, it gave them the message. We gave them exactly the same thing. We had charts up showing how many people worked in this, how many people worked in that, the educational level and the financial level. Obviously, they made more than average people did, with their education or whatever, so that was appreciated. But the best thing about that was that we kept names of people, of the different banks, and thereafter, when somebody had trouble getting a mortgage for his house, he could call me up and I would call up somebody, a banker, and say, “This guy here can’t get a mortgage. He’s been turned down by three banks. Can you do something?” It was very effective. So we eventually solved the mortgage problem.
EVELYN: Tell what happens today, when you meet somebody you don’t know.
EVERETT: Well, that’s another thing. This is all twenty, twenty-five years ago or so. About two weeks ago I was in a little copy shop, getting something copied, and some guy came up. “Aren’t you Mr. Ortner?” I said, “Yes. Do I know you?” He said, “You were the guy who got me a mortgage, twenty-five years ago.” So that was very terrific.
So that’s one of the nice things in the area of promotion. Now we had evolved over a period of time a program for publicizing and reviving a community, and I gave house tours of a particular type. Everybody who came you got on a card somewhere, or you knew something about them. You gave them a chance to educate themselves about the community and about the houses and what they should know — all those things. There was a procedure. We had something like a ten-part procedure. Other communities came to us also, so they could come on one of our tours and they could get an education in how to do this, how we promoted it. We gave them samples of our releases so they could model them after that, and they started doing that in several other communities.
FD: How large a community did you service? What are we talking about — 10,000 homes?
EVERETT: Well, Park Slope had — I’ve forgotten how many houses.
EVELYN: It was about 180,000 people.
EVERETT: A lot of people. Maybe 8-10,000 homes. It’s a large community. Park Slope ranges from Flatbush Avenue on the north to the Prospect Expressway, which is about 17th Street, on the south. And on the east it goes from Prospect Park, west to Fourth Avenue. So that’s an area probably five or six blocks wide by twenty blocks long. Maybe 100 square blocks. Something like that.
EVELYN: It was all like Greenwich Village, at one point.
EVERETT: Anyway, as a result of all this, because we were serving a large community or were interested in doing it, we formed a citywide organization originally called the Brownstone Revival Committee, renamed more recently the Brownstone Revival Coalition. That’s the name of this organization, which still exists and still puts out a newsletter.
What we started doing — First of all, we got an office in Manhattan, because people from Manhattan don’t go to Brooklyn but people from Brooklyn will go to Manhattan, for whatever reason, and the man who helped put us all together was Ken Patton, who was then an economic developer. Originally it was a council or something like that, formed by Mayor Lindsay. He got us an office in his place there, so we could meet there and have an address in Manhattan. Also, he taught me a lesson. He said, “In order to have this organization work permanently, you need to have a paid employee. If you depend entirely on volunteers, they work this week, they don’t; they get old, they get sick; and the continuity, the possibility of continuity is lessened.” He got a grant or he got money from somewhere or other, I guess from the Economic Development Council. Actually, he was chairman of the Economic Development Something-or-Other, but he was also vice-president of the Economic Development Council. So they supported us for a long time, and that way we got a permanent employee so we could put out a newsletter, and also started a series of public meetings. So our first lecture on brownstones was the Brownstone Architecture. It was held at Donnell Library, on 53rd Street.
EVELYN: Opposite the Museum –
EVERETT: Opposite the Museum of Modern Art. The library is still there.
EVELYN: So they did at that time 299 people. The first lecture we gave was given by Clay Lancaster, who was an architectural historian. We were mobbed. They were lining all the rails around there. It was the beginning of the brownstone frenzy, the mania, where people suddenly were looking for brownstones and finding them. A really crazy time.
FD: What year would that be?
EVERETT: This was probably about 1969-1970, somewhere around that time. So that started us off on a series of lectures. For many years we would have two lectures each year at the Donnell Library, and we did it until last year when we did the last of our Donnell Library lectures, because the subject is not as exciting now as it was twenty years ago, when it was a new world.
I think at the time there was a possibility of people with little money or not so much money buying a house. Now these houses go for millions of dollars, and the people who can afford them have them or can buy them. It’s changed. Also, now everybody has the message. Everybody knows these are good. They’re in the newspapers all the time. The New York Times has big articles about them. So it has changed.
So we did that. We also had a wonderful lecture by Henry Russell Hitchcock, one of the great gurus of preservation or whatever. He gave one of our lectures, also, and James Marsden Fitch, also, one of the great gurus of preservation. They were among the early people who lectured at our series, and drew crowds of people. That was another thing we did. And we expanded.
We put out our newsletter here. Within a year or so after we founded the Brownstone Revival Coalition we had almost 2,000 members, from nowhere, from nothing at all. They just came to the lectures and became members, or heard about us being members.
It was $25.00, but you got the publication, you got invited to our lectures, and that sort of thing. Now, of course, we’re down to about 600 members, but the organization still exists. Off and on I edited the newsletter, but for the last ten years, or fifteen years, I guess, I’ve done this alone. This is the last one I’m going to edit. From now on I’m going to have to get somebody else to do these.
This was all part of the promotion. Now around 1971 or ‘72 Brooklyn Union Gas Company got involved with us, and it happened in this way. They were looking for an old house in which they could install modern gas equipment for demonstration purposes, and they bought a house in a community adjoining Park Slope. Actually, it was in Prospect Heights, but not far away. The community rose up in arms against having a demonstration house here. They visualized hundreds of people coming through the community and all this traffic, which they didn’t want, and on and on and on. So they passed resolutions and did all the things to dissuade the Brooklyn Union from doing that. We heard about that, and on our block — We live on Berkeley Place. On Berkeley Place, on the next block, between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, there was a house that had been in litigation for many, many years, and had turned into a wreck. The windows were broken, and pigeons were living there, and the roof leaked — everything bad about a house was bad. So I got a hold of those two people — actually, they were two men, public relations men, from Brooklyn Union, and we proposed that they buy that house and restore it, which they did, over a period of time. I think they bought it for $17,000, as I recall — something like that, in that neighborhood — and it was a very successful project for them, enormously successful. People passed through by the hundreds, a designer house. They furnished it and designed what happened to it. All those things, really a model house, and it had gas equipment there. They had a gaslight burning (they had to give it a few good, old, Victorian charms), that sort of thing.
Anyway, it was enormously successful, and Brooklyn Union Gas Company won the national award from the American Gas Association for the best publicity project in the country. So it really paid off for them. That encouraged them to do something else. There was another man, Matt Hendricks. He was forming a little coalition somewhere, in Brooklyn also, which was the Brooklyn Brownstone Conference, and I was heavily involved with that.
FD: What was the purpose of that?
EVERETT: To get people together in common causes. So among the things, he put on little projects of his own, at the Brooklyn Brownstone Conference. We actually had, in 1971, an enormous “Brownstone Ball,” which was held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They had a big space, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music was just coming to light at that time. It was good for them and good for us at the same time.
But we had proposed to the Brooklyn Union Gas Company that we have a brownstone theatre; that we take a space somewhere or other, and put up exhibits for all the other brownstone communities in order to attract people. So the Brooklyn Union Gas Company agreed to try it on an experimental basis, and we took a floor in the hotel on Montague Street. They took a floor in that and arranged a series of exhibits, representatives of some of the communities here. It was enormously successful.
So the next year, Brooklyn Union Gas Company had its headquarters in Brooklyn on Montague Street. It was a block deep, actually. It went onto the next street, which was “Pitland” Street, and the next year they vacated that entire floor, and they built little booths all along, eighty booths. Every community in Brooklyn had a booth there. Then they had booths for all the insurance companies, and banks and police and health departments. Everybody who had anything to say about Brooklyn had a booth there.
FD: What year was that?
EVERETT: Seventy-two. In addition to that, they had a fleet of buses, six buses, going out to different communities. So, for example, if you wanted to see what the Fort Green neighborhood was like, you’d get on the Fort Green bus. You could get on a bus going to Bedford Stuyvesant, a bus going to Park Slope, a bus going to these half-dozen different communities, with a tour leader on each. Or, rather, you would go there and there would be a tour guide waiting for you. You’d get a tour of the neighborhood, come back, and an hour and a half later, when you came back, you could go out on another tour, so you could see a couple different communities.
Those fairs ran for seven years, weekends. They were weekend fairs, they were Saturday and Sunday, and we clocked, one year — I think it may have been the third or fourth year we were doing that — we clocked 25,000 people coming through that fair. That’s how many.
FD: Over the weekend.
EVERETT: Over a weekend. So if you were interested, coming from Manhattan and buying a house — and the houses have been going up in price. We’re talking about $65-75-80,000 or $100,000, going up steadily in price, as they became popular and as people came to know them, as more and more people got friends in those communities.
Now I worked for Popular Science, as I said, for many, many years. When I went to work there not one person (we had a staff of thirty-five people) lived in Brooklyn. I was the only one who lived in Brooklyn. Almost all of them lived outside of Manhattan. I think two or three of them might have lived in the city itself. They were all suburban people.
Now Brooklyn Union, also, did a lot of advertising. They had commercials: “Come to the fair this weekend.” [ ? ] — They also made a movie. It was called Cinderella of Berkeley Place, which was about that house, showing it in its original state, and what it turned out to be. They made another film, also, Brownstones of Brooklyn, and then another one, also — I forget — That was the other one about — Because they were doing so well at this, they were very interested in doing other things. There was one block which had turned into “old mattress block.” I don’t know you’re old enough to recall, those were like — if people had old mattresses, they would take them onto that block. It was a garbage block. So they actually restored a couple of houses over there, then they put in a Brooklyn Union headquarters there, a building, to promote things. And the information headquarters they put on that block, restoring the whole block. It was beautiful, and they made a movie out of that.
So with all that promotion, we had a major commotion in New York and people came and bought houses and bought houses and bought houses.
EVELYN: From all over.
EVERETT: From all over, actually. I remember getting letters from people. They would get a copy of the Brownstone Newsletter or hear my name, and we would get letters from them saying, “We expect to come to New York next year. Why don’t I buy a brownstone.” We had a couple of people in Paris who remain members. So it stirred up a lot of other things.
As a result of that, we expanded still further. It occurred to us that because we had a program in New York that was so successful in stimulating buying in an old neighborhood and bringing that old neighborhood alive again, we thought we would go national. I was talking about our party for the fairs, for the brownstone fairs of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, which were so enormously successful. They ended after seven years, for reasons that had nothing to do with the success of the fairs — because they were always very successful — but the man who promoted it, a man named Fred Rider, from the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, he retired and he was succeeded by a guy who was not interested in that kind of revival. So Brooklyn Union ceased sponsoring the fairs, though they continued for a period, having some small interest in it, and then that, too, died. So Brooklyn Union ceased to be a part of our partnership.
Now a couple things I was going to mention along the way. One of the things that contributed to the destruction of the brownstones in all the cities, but very heavily in Brooklyn, was the demolition program subsidized by the United States Government, as part of a model cities program under President Johnson.
Now, typically in New York City and probably other places, if you had a house that was in bad condition and you tore it down, you then created a lot, and that lot became a receptacle for garbage and old carriages, mattresses, people and whatever, and that would start destroying the block. Even if you had a good house next to it, you would want to get out. So you would sell your house to some guy who would run the house the way he had run a preceding house, and it would eventually get destroyed. The house would be sold for nothing. People abandoned them, and the city took over. The city didn’t take care of them, and all those things would happen.
So there was a Department of Demolition. The thing was to keep that first house from being demolished, to save a block. Now we had a friend, Sam Azadian, head of the Department of Demolition. This was one of the things created by Mr. Lindsay, who created little departments where all his friends got jobs (this was true). Sam Azadian was head of that department, and we knew him well. Anyway, I got him to give us a list of all the houses to be demolished, where they were. By this time we’re talking about the middle ’70s or whatever it was, maybe earlier than that. Probably. We would look at the list, for communities that we knew or streets that we knew that were still pretty good. So we would call up somebody. If we had somebody over there that we knew well, we’d call them up and say, “Hey, this house is being threatened. See what you can do.” Usually, it was useless, because not only was it considered a good thing to tear down those old houses, but it gave employment to a lot of people who had no skills otherwise.
FD: These were brownstones?
EVERETT: Yes, beautiful houses. At one time beautiful houses. So these brownstones were being torn down for the most part, in these old communities, and people did not consider it a waste. “Oh, we’re just getting rid of these, and we’ll replace them with better housing.” Now the possibility of replacing them with better housing, if you think in terms of living space — bigger rooms, high ceilings, some civilized things about it — they adapted themselves to modern apartments. Nevertheless, they were going very fast. So we would try to get the word to somebody in those communities who could save them. There was a small group in Bedford Stuyvesant springing up, to try to do something, and in other communities we had friends. We tried that.
Now a couple of times, when a house in our own community in Park Slope — which was at that time doing fairly well — but, nonetheless, there was a house on –
EVELYN: Park Place?
EVERETT: No. I forget where it was — that we tried to save. They built a new house in its place. It comes right off Flatbush Avenue. Anyway, it was a house that was in fairly good condition, actually, and was scheduled for demolition. So we went to the contractor and we gave him a $100 bucks just to hold off for a day, while we had a lawyer friend go into court and try to save it. The guy who owned it lived someplace else and had long ago lost interest in it, and on and on and on. We tried to save it. We lost a couple other houses like that.
Now the city got $5,000 as a subsidy for demolishing a house, which was the cost of it. So the city paid for the demolition. For about $1,000 we could have saved the house. We could have put stone blocks, or concrete blocks, in the windows, blocked up the whole thing so nobody could get in, and it would have stood there, waiting for a better time. Better than that, though, it would have saved it from being an empty lot, which would collect garbage and destroy — There was no interest in doing that at all. No interest. Thousands and thousands of very good houses were destroyed that were later replaced by public housing, and you do know the fate of public housing, or much of it anyway.
So that was one of the programs we had that did not work. But it was also part of the feeling at the time that if you just got rid of those old houses, you would do better. There was a feeling also that kids who wandered into old houses would automatically be committed to crime. If only we could put in nice, new, modern houses, then they would live worthy lives instead of being criminals. That was one of the things we did.
So those were all the things that came along the way, in a long career of preserving brownstones and bringing people. Of course, now we’ve brought in more people than we need in the neighborhoods, and when you walk through Park Slope and all the adjoining communities, it’s lovely — civilized people. When Evelyn and I bought our house in 1963, our big commercial street, with all the stores, probably a third of them were vacant; maybe a quarter of them were vacant, empty.
EVELYN: And no babies.
EVERETT: No children. No children. No children, anywhere. People with children were moving out. They didn’t stay there, because the schools were impossible. We brought in friends from outside, nice liberal people we met in Manhattan. We went to a party, they’d come visit us, want to buy a house. But if you had children, school-age children, in Park Slope the schools were intolerable. We had some friends who put their kids in school for a year, then took them out and sent them to a private school. Now if you could not afford a private school, you couldn’t live in the neighborhood. So all the nice people, who would have been middle-class people, who would have been wonderful citizens of New York, we exported to other communities — exported to wherever they went; to wherever the schools were better.
Now because we of the Brownstone Revival Coalition thought that we had a good program that worked in New York City — or, it was at the right time, anyway, for doing these things, when there was a shortage. Prices were very high in Manhattan, and there were a lot of young people going there, looking for housing, and the brownstone movement took off, because it showed them the possibility. So we thought we had a good program and we wanted to go national with it. So we decided to have a national conference. We went to the Waldorf Astoria and we sent out (we now had funds for this) something like 11,000 invitations to our party, to our conference in New York, which was called “Back to the City.” Back to the city, bring people back to the city, on the basis of the old housing that most of the cities had. All the cities in New York, or most of them, eventually ended up with rich patrons in the city itself. So those old houses, often people left behind. People either moved as the neighborhoods changed, as the innate kind of city it was changed. The old houses were abandoned. We sent out 11,00 invitations, and as a result we had 250 people from all over the country coming to our conference at the Waldorf Astoria.
EVELYN: This was ‘83.
EVERETT: This was ‘82. We got all those wonderful people. We established a pattern for these things that we used throughout the conferences, year after year. Friday night everybody would come in and we would have a wonderful conference, we would have a wonderful cocktail party, and that was the year we had it at the Century Club. You know the Century Club, right? We had a wonderful party, with our friend Brendan Gill, at the time. Everybody loved it. Then Saturday we had an all-day conference, discussed with lectures. We had the president of the National Trust, Mr. Jimmy Biddle. He came from Washington. We actually had a friend who was working for the National Trust at the time, who wrote his speeches, so they all sounded pretty good, and said pretty much what we wanted them to say. Now the National Trust had never discovered cities before. It was made up of little old ladies who were preserving Jefferson’s home, or this one’s home, or whatever. But to tackle preservation in the city’s old communities was a new thing. We got our friend, who had actually been a former board member of the Brownstone Revival Coalition, gone to Washington and worked elsewhere — he was now working for Jimmy Biddle, announcing that the National Trust would now get more involved in city things. They took some slides so Jimmy Biddle could put on a little show, showing nice things in the city, to worry about. So that helped the National Trust to kick off, also, in new directions. These were rich ladies who had nothing to do but worry about the houses of famous citizens, or whatever.
EVELYN: Jim Fitch used to say they were “blue-haired ladies in tennis shoes”.
EVERETT: So they kicked off a new program for us. We thought it was going to be a one-time conference. But the people who came there found it so worthwhile that they wanted to have a conference in their own cities each time. So we had a group of people who were very hot in St. Paul, Minnesota. They were dying to show us.
They didn’t go to a restaurant, not in the hotel itself, but at a house that had been revived, in a reliable community. So that was a very important thing. That established a pattern. Thereafter, we had thirteen different conferences in thirteen different cities, starting in St. Paul. Then we went on to Hartford, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., San Antonio, Texas, Milwaukee — They were all very successful. That also sort of dwindled toward the end, as the idea of preservation in the city got around and people knew about it. Also, it was a problem itself. In order to have an organization that does those things, you have to have a permanent staff to do it, and I’m not very good at raising money.
So it worked out very well. We did it with the staff of our Brownstone Revival Coalition doing the letters and doing all that stuff. But after thirteen years — also, I keep getting older all the time — so that sort of dwindled. But it was an enormously –
EVELYN: That’s not true. He gets younger.
EVERETT: It was enormously successful, for those years.
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