When they did, there was the money question. What would it cost to redo the front of the house in a way that would pass muster with the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which must sign off on exterior work in historic districts? The Piroses were looking at a tab of about $240,000. “I couldn’t come up with that,” Mr. Piros said.
Mrs. Piros heard about the conservancy’s loan program, applied and was accepted.
Peg Breen, the president of the conservancy, has reason to be proud of the loan program, which started in the 1980s and now has more than $9 million in assets. It has made more than $26 million in loans and $433,000 in grants.
The money has gone toward more than 250 buildings in all five boroughs. “For a while, it was Brooklyn brownstones are us,” she said. “We were in Brooklyn and Harlem before they became Brooklyn and Harlem.”
The current interest rates are in the 3-to-7 percent range, she said, with terms of five to 10 years.
Perhaps she is proudest of the default rate of less than 1 percent. “In all these years,” she said, “we’re out $1,200.”
But the program’s importance transcends the financials. As the landmarks commission has designated more and more buildings, the conservancy program has helped insure the success of the very concept of landmarking, especially in neighborhoods beyond Manhattan, where landlords or co-op boards can grumble about needing the commission’s approval when the time comes to replace bricks or windows. Landlords and co-op boards can spread the cost over many tenants. Homeowners can only assess themselves.
The conservancy provides more than what it calls “technical expertise” — referrals to architects and contractors who have handled similar restoration work. Ms. Breen recalled that when payments on a loan on Staten Island stopped, the conservancy investigated and found that the owner moved to a nursing home. “We sold the house for her,” Ms. Breen said. “We found a buyer who was going to fix it up. Chase isn’t doing that.”
Many of the loans are “small stuff for banks,” she said. “Even if we’re doing a $300,000 loan, and we’re doing a lot of $300,000 loans in Jackson Heights in Queens, my understanding is banks really want to loan in the $500,000 range. Are they going to track down an owner in a nursing home? Are they going to help you find the people who know how to do the work? That’s not what they were set up to do.”
The Piroses’ $240,000 loan was larger than the typical loan for a rowhouse; $80,000 to $150,000 is the usual range.
“When we started, a lot of people couldn’t get conventional financing,” Ms. Breen said. “Now they might, but they don’t get the help. We’ll help you find an architect and we’ll work through the project with you. That makes a big difference. A lot of these places are within historic districts, so there’s Landmarks approval, but there are always issues on a project. Who’s going to help you sort that out so that everything comes out right in the end?”
That sounds like the who-you-gonna-call question in “Ghostbusters.” And, yes, Ms. Breen refers to the conservancy as “the ‘Ghostbusters’ of historic preservation.”
Cynthia Cummings called the conservancy about the rowhouse in a historic district in Bedford-Stuyvesant that her father bought in 1929. He considered selling the house in the 1980s, but Ms. Cummings and her husband, Richard, moved in.
“As with all old houses, it had the integrity,” said Ms. Cummings, the executive director of an early childhood program in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And, as with all old houses, it needed work.
The conservancy arranged a $50,000 loan. Mr. Cummings, a musician, said the purpose was to “fix, tighten and secure the facade.”
And also paint it. “Changing the green, that was major,” Ms. Cummings said, recalling how she sent paint chips to the landmarks commission before painting the house its current brown. There was also a discussion of the color of the mortar when work was being done on the bricks, and the loan covered other items on the Cummings’ to-do list, like sealing the stained-glass windows in the living room. Also on the list was installing half-moon windows on the second floor, an important step in returning the front facade to the way it looked when the house was new. The original half-moon window frames had long since been replaced by conventional rectangular ones.
A mile away in Crown Heights, Mr. Piros found something inside a wall. It was the front page of The New York Sun from Aug. 19, 1874. One of the headlines was “Unraveling a Mystery.”
It sounds like the headline for the story of the house.
“The shortest explanation was this building was built as a faux brownstone,” said Ms. Walsh of the conservancy. “There’s a long history in building technology of substitute materials. You see plaster that looks like stone or wood. This is wood imitating stone.”
If the experts were fooled, Mr. Piros was not. “I kept saying it was not a brownstone,” he recalled the other day. He had seen the inside of a neighbor’s house that had been damaged by fire.
Still, the renovation had to be done — in wood, Spanish cedar for the facade and mahogany for the front stoop, which was so large it had to be lowered into place by a crane.
“It didn’t really matter” that the house was not a brownstone, Mr. Piros said. “If we had the chance to restore a brownstone, that would have been nice, but I’m happy.”