I fell in love with my home on the walk there, along blue slate sidewalks lined by old-timey gas lamps in the heart of Brooklyn's picturesque Park Slope Historic District. Then, there it was: an ivy-covered Tudor, built in 1883. Although the building had since been turned into co-op apartments—one of which my husband and I would soon inhabit—it had been designated a landmark building, granted legal protection from alteration or destruction due to its significant historic status.
My husband and I had both grown up in suburban subdivisions in the West: brand-new, uninspired tri-levels replicating themselves as far as the eye could see, devoid of character or tradition. I slammed those doors behind me and ran off to New York City, vowing to spend the rest of my life in a charming old home with character. A prewar building, as the listing info said. Which war? Didn't know, didn't care.
At first, we were in love with our landmark status. Sure, we could feel icy drafts as they whistled noisily through our casement windows—windows that opened out like shutters and had original glass panes. And OK, most of those glass panes were cracked. But if you looked closely, you could see tiny gas bubbles in them. How cool is that?
And yes, that ivy was slowly but surely tearing the brick mortar apart. But it was so pretty, and ever since reading Ludwig Bemelmans' children's book "Madeline," I’d wanted to live in an old house that was covered in vines.
I mean, who doesn’t?
For a time, we were willing to overlook the small inconveniences as we wallowed in all that historical charm. But then the inconveniences grew larger—and all too soon, we came to realize that living in a landmark building comes with a whole bunch of headaches. Here are the reasons why I came to hate inhabiting a slice of history.
1. Repairs are a total pain
After a few years, it became painfully clear to all the co-op members that we needed to make repairs to the exterior of the building. The wood and plaster needed to be refreshed, the bricks repointed (repairing the mortar between them), and those cracked glass panes (sigh) replaced. But when your building has landmark status, the city's landmarks commission requires that you maintain its antique look by using the exact same kind of glass—and of course, it was ridiculously expensive. Yikes!
In this case, we were eventually let off the hook and allowed to use more commonplace glass that wouldn't drain our co-op's coffers. Still, if the commission hadn't let this slide, we would have been in trouble.
Plus, we couldn’t hire just any contractors and let them fix stuff. We had to find one that specialized in historically accurate restoration. Guess what? Those guys charge more. Not only that, every single improvement had to be approved by the landmarks commission, from paint color to plaster materials, before work is begun. With 29 historic districts just in the borough of Brooklyn, the contractors are well aware of these issues. In fact, the first question Brooklyn contractors ask when you contact them is, “Is it a landmark building?” They'll ask you to get the commission's guidelines before they’ll even think about giving you an estimate.
2. Landmark buildings come with a host of hidden expenses
Have I mentioned home insurance yet? In 2014, fire and liability insurance for our area ran around $181 per square foot. For a landmark building, though, it was $250 per square foot. In all, that meant that I paid about $10,000 for three years to our insurer. And that was just the beginning of the many expenses of living in a historic home. History! It costs money. Who knew?
3. You have to compromise on modern conveniences
And then there was the air-conditioning. Central air was not an option for us. We would have had to build in vents, which would mean going behind the walls—and you did not want to see what was behind those walls. It was like peering into another dimension, with ancient electrical wiring wrapped in disintegrating cloth. You risked falling into a space-time wormhole.
So that left window units for AC. But we couldn’t do that, either, since our only windows faced the front of the building. And those historically correct casement windows? They sure weren't wide enough for a window AC to fit through. The iron bar where each swinging panel met could not be cut out of the way, or we’d be in violation. So we got a portable AC—the size and shape of R2-D2 but without the personality, which we'd have to haul up from the basement every summer. It was such an ordeal, we always waited until the third heat wave before we caved and lugged it up those three long flights of stairs.
Is a landmark building worth it?
So. Was it all worth it, living in a landmark building? When it came time to sell that apartment, did I see an appreciable payoff? It’s hard to say. Honestly, I think I would have gotten the same price, regardless of landmark status, just by virtue of the look of the place. Aesthetics have more value than a historic designation, but then we owed the integrity of our aesthetics to complying with the demands of the landmark commission. Homes listed on the national landmark registry do sell for 5.6% more, but they sell 3.4% more slowly.
Ask a real estate agent about the value of landmark status, and most will call it a blessing and a curse. You could take the view of Julie Gans of TripleMint, who points out: "Knowing that the exterior or the building, potential views, and other neighborhood features such as sidewalks can't be changed without approval from the landmarks commission can give buyers confidence that the real estate will retain its value."
Still, after a decade and a half of living here, the charm of landmark status had worn off. I developed an appreciation for new construction. I began eyeing brand-new buildings whose interiors promised cold, angular white boxes with zero history and therefore zero baggage. Central air. Floor-to-ceiling windows. No lengthy approvals process if we want to update something. And oh, that new-construction smell … or lack of smell.
I live in such a building now. And I'll take it over a crumbling, high-maintenance antique with character any day.