127 & 136 W 123 Are Adding Floors

A year or so the Mount Morris Park Community Improvement Association began work to try to get the blocks between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell landmarked. Currently they’re recognized by the National Register of Historic Places, but not by NYC’s Landmark Preservation Committee.

mount morris historic district map with extension shown

The gray area is the part that’s landmarked, the blue area is on the National Register, but not landmarked – that’s the part MMPCIA has been working to get landmarked.

Well, on our block it’s a bit too late… Two buildings on the block are adding stories – something they wouldn’t be allowed to do if they were landmarked. The two buildings are 127 West 123 and 136 West 123. I’m fine with 127 adding a floor, but I’m really disappointed to see 136 add a floor…

127 West 123rd Street

127 West 123rd Street is one of two old townhouses that are sandwiched between the two halves of the Windows on 123 condos. Windows on 123 maxes out the possible building height and sorta dwarfs the townhouses. So from my perspective it’s not horrible that floors are added to the townhouses… Here’s a photo right after they started adding the floor…

127 west 123rd street

I wish they had set the extra floor back a little, but given what it’s up against, it’s not horrible… Here it is again as a 3D drawing…

127 w 123 3D drawingActually, I’m a little surprised 75′ is the max height on a 60′ wide street – but that is what it is…

136 West 123rd Street

In contrast to 127, 136 West 123rd Street is one of 16 continuous brownstones that have not been altered. Adding a floor to it is a much bigger deal since it breaks something that still has the potential to be pristine…

Brownstones on West 123rd Street between Lenox and Adam Clayton Powell

I’m really disappointed that the view you see above is going to be marred by an extra story on top of one of those buildings. Not only are they going up a floor, but they’re pushing the back wall back to the maximum 65 feet with the minimum 30 foot rear yard…

136 west 123 street 3D drawingIf we had been landmarked LPC could have mandated that the additional floor be set back far enough that it not be visible from the street. At least there’s some set back (6′ 6″), but a 10 or 15 foot setback would have been so much nicer.

As sort of a side note, 136 W 123 was for many years the neighborhood hangout – mostly older (Belizian?) guys with who were pretty big into music. (We even bought a couple CDs off one of the guys – and they weren’t bad). There used to be a social club in the ground floor which had it’s ups and downs. The guy who lives behind them on 122nd Street still has a bullet hole in his window thanks to that club. When the club closed they just moved their socializing onto the stoop. They’re generally good guys, but their hanging out got pretty loud. Just the other day one of the neighbors I “met” due to the RCN incident told me she got only 4 hours of sleep a night during the summer because they were so loud. So 136 being renovated will really change the block since it was one of the remaining centers of the old culture on the block.

Back when MMPCIA started their push to get the blocks between Lenox and ACP landmarked, I wasn’t so keen on the idea. I still don’t think landmarking is warranted for the north side of our street which already feels like it has three zilliion styles of architecture. But as I thought about it, the unbroken row of 16 brownstones on the south side of the street was worth protecting – but once 136 gets rehabbed, that purity will be gone. We can never go back to what it used to look like.

The architect seems like he’s got it in him to do a decent job. I just hope his client is spending the money to execute a good design. If we’re going to have a visible addition marring the view – please, just let it be fairly well designed.


I went to see the Windows on 123 lofts yesterday and looking down I could see that there were already additional floors added to some of the brownstones on the south side of the street. Here you can see that 132 West 123 has an extra floor added already…

132 West 123 additional floor added

That’s a rather large amount of “stuff” that was added and it’s fairly close to the edge – yet it’s not readily visible from the street, so I’m hopeful that the additional roof on 136 won’t be visible either. [136 is the one two doors down with the blue tarp.]

152 West 123 also has an extra floor, but it’s stepped back further and features a bigger/nicer roof deck off what I assume is the master bedroom…

123rd street roofs

I just find it really odd that they had the money to add an extra floor, but not enough to restore their cornice.

[In the picture above you can see our bulkhead in the distance. It looks pretty small compared to everything else…]

So seeing that there are already several with extra roofs added, I’m far less worried about roofs being added – though I’m hoping none get added on 122 that would block our view 🙂

Sylvan Terrace – Uptown’s Affordable Townhouses

Yesterday I went through one of the Sylvan Terrace townhouses with a client. They’re some of the smallest, and hence most affordable, townhouses you’ll find – and they’re really charming…

Sylvan TerraceSylvan Terrace is comprised of 20 wood frame houses built in 1882. Today they’re all Landmarked and in good to great condition. The narrow cobblestone street makes you feel like you’re on the movie set for a period movie.

Honestly I don’t know quite how they came to be. They’re said to be carriage houses for the Jumel Mansion (which is at the end of the street), but that doesn’t quite make sense. The Jumel Mansion is Manhattan’s oldest building – built in 1765 – before the War For American Independence. Why would someone build carriage houses 116 years later at a time when the street grid was being established? (Sylvan Terrace is a bit off the grid.)

Whatever the history, they’re completely charming, but they are tiny… Most of the ones on the north side of the street are 1,500 sq. ft (20′ x 25′ x 3 stories), while most of the ones on the south side are 1425 sq. ft. (19.5′ x 25′ x 3 stories) including the walls and stairs. Useable square footage is smaller yet – I’d guess it’s about 1,200 sq. ft.

Essentially you have one large room on each of the two lower floors and two adequate size bedrooms on the top floor (though I saw one that carved a 3rd small, double decked, kids playroom out of the top floor). Ceilings are quite high – especially on the top floor in the front.

While they’re small, they have sales prices that match their small size. Here’s a rundown of what places on Sylvan Terrace have sold for…

#14 – 9/25/2003 – $700K

#16 – 10/24/2003 – $321,600

#19 – 3/30/2004 – $590K

#12 – 12/31/2004 – $610K

#13 – 4/7/2005 – $482K

#15 – 10/5/2005 – $725K

#13 – 10/5/2006 – $1.05M

#15 – 2/23/2007 – unknown price

#14 – 12/17/2007 – $970K

#16 – 12/27/2007 – $990K

#5 – 3/11/2008 – estate – transferred within family

#18 – 4/3/2008 – $437K

The take-away is that the max price for one of these places at the height of the market was $1.05M and there have been no sales since the crash.

I’m not allowed to discuss other agents’ active listings, but I can talk about inactive listings 🙂  #2 – a larger, apparently nicely renovated end unit with more windows and better light – went on the market in November 2009 for $1.1M. It was finally taken off the market a few months ago. It’s final asking price was $800K. So it’s fair to say that the current market value of a nicely renovated Sylvan Terrace townhouse is below $800K.

sylvan terrace north side

The other item which should be mentioned is that, unlike most of the townhouses I discuss here, these houses are mortgageable with conventional mortgages. Most are legal 1 families, a few are legal 2 families.

When you think about the price you’d pay for a 1,200 sq. ft. 2 bedroom condo or coop, Sylvan Terrace could be a good deal – and you get a proper house in a charming little neighborhood with a small back yard (for barbecuing, etc.), and from what I hear the neighbors are nice and fairly close-knit. There’s also a subway stop 1 block away (the C train).

Feel free to contact me if you think Sylvan Terrace might be right for you…

105 West 122nd Highest Sale Since Crash – $2.85M, $670/sq. ft.

Well, the high end of the Harlem townhouse market is certainly doing well – especially in Mount Morris Park. First 30 West 120 sold for $2.5M ($568/sq. ft.), now 105 West 122 just sold in less than 3 months for $2.85M – a whopping $670/sq. ft. Those sales aren’t outliers – The Wall Street Journal is even writing articles about the rise in prices in Harlem.

Admittedly there’s a lot to like about 105 West 122nd Street… It was recently converted to single family and prices for single family townhouses are typically higher than multi-family. Single family homes are luxuries and people pay good money for luxuries. The place is also a generous 19 feet wide with about 4,256 sq. ft. (including exterior walls) – 1,064 sq. ft. per floor, which is big.

The interior renovation appears to have been pretty much perfect. This bathroom is beautiful…

great bathroom in Harlem townhouse - 105 West 122nd StreetThe kitchen looks like it might be European modular ($$) of some sort…

beautiful kitchen in Harlem townhouse - 105 West 122nd StreetAnd you can see there’s a wonderful blend of traditional elements and contemporary living – which is what buyer’s want…

living room of 105 West 122 in Harlempoorly rehabbed newel post at 105 west 122That said, at $2.85M and $670/sq. ft I expect perfection and there are things about the exterior that I personally find a little disappointing… Case and point is the newel post you see in the picture to the right – they didn’t restore the original ornamentation. The sister townhouses on either side have their detail intact – there were examples of what it should have looked like, but the previous owners didn’t take the time to do the work. Not a big deal, but at this particular price point I’d expect it to be done (30 West 120th’s façade work was impeccable). Also the façade is painted – which is something you do when you’re cutting corners to stay on budget (like we are with our place).

Then there are the windows – they’re just inexpensive aluminum windows (see picture below). They’re in good condition, but at this price point I expect better quality.

aluminum windows at 105 west 122

All in all it’s a great place with an excellent renovation (at least inside). It shows that if you spend time to do a good renovation it will come back to you when you go to sell. I get the sense that some people think we’re being a bit fussy about some of the details in our renovation, but a slightly higher budget and attention to detail really do pay off in the long run.

With the high end going up, the question is what will happen to the low end? Restrictive lending is holding down the prices at the low end for now… It’s a great time for all and mostly cash buyers to be buying and renovating…

A Townhouse In Sugar Hill For Under $1M? Yup.

If you’d like a townhouse but worried you can’t afford one – there are places out there that you just might be able to afford. While Washington Heights townhouses are generally less expensive – affordable townhouses are available in Harlem as well.

470 W 148 - front façadeCase and point is 470 West 148th Street – which is just outside the Sugar Hill historic district. It sold recently for $915,000 after being on and off the market for a quite a while. In fact it was on the market for around a million when we were looking in 2009. It was one of our fallback places in case we couldn’t find something we could afford.

So what do you get for $915,000? More than you’d think…

On the plus side you get a great single family home with 3,000 sq. ft. (12.5′ x 60′ x 4 stories) that’s in generally good condition. There is some original details left and a very peaceful back yard.

The biggest problem is that it’s not the entire building you see in the picture above. It’s just the left half of the building – that means the townhouse is only 12 1/2 feet wide. On the plus side it is 60 feet long and doesn’t feel as narrow inside as you might think, but there’s no denying it’s small. While it’s technically about 3,000 sq. ft. – that includes walls. Usable square feet are closer to 2,550 (11′ x 58′ x 4 stories).

Another issue is that while everything seemed like it was in decent shape, the renovation was minimal – sort of “rental grade” in terms of quality. Doors were a bit flimsy, the sheetrock was uneven, etc. But that’s something that can be fixed without too much trouble.

Other than width, the issue that really bothered Dan was the “fashion boutique” next door. Because the two townhouses look like one building, it’s more of an issue than it would be in a wider building. Here you can see what the entrance looked like and how prominent the signage was for the store next door…

470 West 148 - entrance

In the following pictures you can see that there is some original details left, but generally the level of renovation was just “OK”…

470 W 148 - bathroom

470 W 148 - ground floor office

470 w 148 - kitchen

470 West 148 - bedroom

In that last picture you see that the narrowness of the house is a bit of an issue. There’s not a whole lot of room between a queen sized bed and the fireplace. But compared to new build condos with their tiny bedrooms it’s not all that bad – just not as good as other townhouses in Harlem.

470 West 148 - original fireplaceThere are some nice original details left – like the fireplaces. They do add some nice character to the house.

Back when we were looking the comps were lower and if my memory serves me, I only felt it was worth something like $650 to $700K (to us) – which was well below the $1M asking.

Comps are higher now and all in all the sales price was probably about right. $915,000 comes out to $305 per square foot. Comps with better renovations are getting $400 to $450 per square foot (or more). And honestly the renovations in some of those comps aren’t really all that much better than what you have here. But there is the issue of the width and the signage on the sister townhouse. All in all I think it’s a great little house at the price of a so-so condo or coop.

And don’t forget – this place is completely mortgageable with a conventional mortgage. There are no renovation loan hassles (or renovation hassles). So it was a good deal.

The moral of the story is that if you’ve got limited funds there are a few townhouses out there that you can buy. You just may need to get a “starter” townhouse that’s narrow…

Postscript: There’s a funny story with this house… When Dan and I first saw the place we were killing time looking at open houses while our our agents were doing an open house for our coop. We had our dogs with us since they couldn’t be home while our agents were showing our apartment. So we’d go in one at a time while the other stayed with the dogs. Dan went in first and then I got a call – he and the agent had managed to get themselves locked in the back yard! Luckily they left the front door open, so I took the dogs in and opened the back door and “rescued” them. But the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks ago I was going through another house with a client during an open house and I saw the agent from 470 West 147 with one of her clients. And guess what happened? I got locked in the back yard with my client. Luckily the listing agent heard our knocks and got us out of the back yard quickly. Not sure what it is about the listing agent for 470 W 148 – but I now know to avoid back yards when she’s around. 🙂

We Found The House Our Doors Came From

We purchased some parlor entrance doors from Demolition Depot recently. I wanted to document them a bit more to justify their appropriateness to the National Park Service. I started by looking at the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s “Rowhouse Manual” which starts off talking about the different styles of townhouses. I learned that our townhouse is “Neo-Grec”…

Neo-Grec Style…while many others in Harlem are Renaissance Revival…

Renaissance Revival Style

Our place was built in 1884 – so right at the end of Neo-Grec and just after the start of Renaissance Revival.

Things started falling into place when they showed the pictures of Neo-Grec and Renaissance Revival doors…

Neo-Grec vs Renaissance Revival DoorsNotice how structured the Neo-Grec doors are and also notice how the Renaissance Revival doors have what I’ll call “storm doors”. If you go into enough Harlem townhouses you’ll notice some have two sets of doors on the exterior – one set that opens out, and another an inch or so inside that open inwards. Then after those two there is another interior set.

Tying things together even further… I was researching a property near 127th & 8th for a client (a troubled SRO). The property was built in 1880/1881 (there are two “new building” actions listed for the property on DOB’s website). And when I zoomed in on a picture I took I realized the doors were almost identical to the doors we bought at Demolition Depot. There are 4 houses in a row that all have very similar doors, plus two other in the set of townhouses that have had their doors removed.

127th Street DoorsCompare that to the doors we’re restoring…

Old townhouse door we'll be restoring

The only difference is the top – the bottoms are identical. Thing is our house doesn’t have arched doors – they’re completely square – so the builder/architect/supplier tweaked the design in the 3-4 years between the buildings on 127th and when they built the townhouses on 123rd.

Then Dan peeked through the window on one of the townhouses and voilà, there were doors completely identical to ours. So the doors we’re restoring/using were the interior entrance doors for one of these townhouses (or the interior doors for one of the townhouses in our set of 7 on 123rd – but our block has had a much harder history and doesn’t have many original details left). One of the houses on 127th had had it’s doors replaced – so we think our doors may have come from 272 West 127th Street.

Plus our contractor keeps telling us the doors fit so well into the old door frame that it’s like they were taken out of our building. Now we know that’s pretty close to the truth – seems they were taken out of a slightly older sister building just a few blocks away – probably built by the same architect and/or builder.

Taking things further… There’s an uncanny resemblance between the stoops on 127th and the stoops on 123rd. Here’s a picture of what our stoop looked like in 1940…

Our Stoop 1940And here’s the stoop of one of the houses on 127th…

127th Street Newel PostsThe balusters are slightly different, the railings are the same. The newel posts on 127th have more ornamentation, but they’re same general shape. The one to the right is the more complete newel post. It seems the post on the one to the left lost it’s finial (top) so they took the bottom of the finial and turned it upside down. Ours had finials but lost them before 1940. In the tax photo of the house next door we can see the house two doors down from us still had its newel post finials in 1940 and they’re much like the ones that still exist on 127th Street…

newel post inials 164 W 123rd StreetSo there you have it… We see that apparently the same builder and/or architect built a set of six houses on 127th Street near 8th Avenue (FDB) in 1880/1881 and then tweaked the plans and built the set of seven slightly narrower and taller ones on 123rd near 7th Avenue (ACP) three to four years later in 1884. And as fate would have it we seem to have gotten one of the doors from the earlier set of houses to use as the front door for our house.