Once an $18,000 home on a seedy street, now a $5 million gem

Once an $18,000 home on a seedy street, now a $5 million gem

The interior of a brownstone on West 94th Street, on sale for $5 million, that was bought in 1960 for $18,000
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

New York:  "Who plants flowers on this crummy street?" protested Carlos, the hero of a young adult novel called "The Street of the Flower Boxes," which told of the rejuvenation of a trash-strewed, gang-infested block in Manhattan of the 1960s: West 94th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue.

Carlos was fiction, but the events in the book were based on the real-life experience of its author, Peggy Mann Houlton, who bought a brownstone on that street in 1960 with her husband, William Houlton. The couple paid $18,000 for their home and then spent decades meticulously restoring and nurturing the brownstone and the neighbourhood.

Until one day the house began returning the favour.

For nearly 15 years, it has been a high-end rental property, bringing the Houltons' grown daughters about $14,000 a month in recent years. And now it is a house for sale, with exceptional original detail, a manicured garden and an asking price of nearly $5 million.

Clearly, the street is not so crummy anymore.

"If a passer-by looks closely at the front window of the Houltons' brownstone at 46 West 94th Street, he can see three bullet holes," a 1972 article in The New York Times said.

"Two of the bullet holes were there when we bought the house," Peggy Houlton recounted in the article. "One happened after we moved in, during a riot in the street."

Their elder daughter, Jenny, was an infant at the time, the article said, and her mother hid her in a closet to protect her from stray bullets.

Nonetheless, the couple stayed, and the house became the inspiration for something of an urban revival movement. In 1966, Houlton, whose work appeared under her maiden name, Peggy Mann, published "The Street of the Flower Boxes," based on her and her husband's experience encouraging children on their block to assemble, decorate and sell flower boxes to their neighbours, providing a modest yet extraordinarily effective lift to the neighbourhood - perhaps shockingly so, to today's cynical eyes. The book was turned into a television movie of the same name, which won a Peabody Award.

The idea was then picked up by Keep America Beautiful, the organization that created the famous crying Indian ad, and turned into a national neighbourhood beautification movement and competition. (A 1976 article in The New Yorker about the flower box project described West 94th Street as a place that "didn't look so swell when flower boxes first appeared there, a few years ago, but is now the sort of block that makes New York City's detractors sound stupid.")

In 1990, Houlton died, having written more than 35 books in her 65 years. A few years later, William Houlton had a stroke that left him in need of constant assistance.

"We didn't have money for 24-hour care," said Jennifer Houlton-Vinyl, once the infant daughter in the closet, now with two children of her own. "But what we did have was the house."

For a few years, the family offered free room and board to a small cast of young men in exchange for shifts taking care of their father, an arrangement that lasted until shortly before William Houlton died.

Then, about 15 years ago, the daughters took out a mortgage and remodeled the house. They put in a new kitchen and added a deck to the back garden. They updated the bathrooms and finally replaced the window pocked with bullet holes, which Betsy Houlton Robinson explained cheerfully had been kept "for posterity." They created a high-end brownstone rental.

"We're attached to the house, and it was some way to make money," Houlton-Vinyl said of their decision to become a landlord to the wealthy. "I mean, she's a blacksmith," she said of her sister, Betsy, who lives in Normandy, "and I'm a writer. So ..."

Among their tenants have been bankers and diplomats, and the challenges at that level have been unusual - the diplomats, for example, had trouble figuring out where they would host their large formal dinner parties.

After nearly 15 years of being more or less on call for their tenants, Houlton-Vinyl said, she and her husband are ready for a bit more freedom. So the house is for sale, listed with Jane Beal and Rose Ann Nielsen of the Corcoran Group. According to the real estate website Streeteasy, its price tag of $4.995 million is just shy of the median sale price for recently sold town houses in the area. The sisters hope the home will have many suitors.

"I had a friend compare it to a relationship," Houlton Robinson said of the decision to sell the house. "It is sad, but maybe now the lovely lady will have the chance to be in another loving, long-term commitment."

© 2013, The New York Times News Service
Story First Published: September 17, 2013 07:36 IST

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