Cobble Hill

by Robert Boucheron

     In June 1978, I graduated from the Yale School of Architecture and started my first full-time job in New York as a drafter-designer for the firm of Harold Buttrick, a gentleman architect on the Upper East Side. His office was in the English basement of his townhouse. He designed apartment renovations and new houses for his well-to-do friends and neighbors, with forays into their private schools, charitable projects, and carriage-trade shops. His wife, a granddaughter of the New York architect Stanford White, was also an architect. She raised their five children and drew residential projects of her own upstairs.

     Buttrick was a benevolent despot to his staff of five. They included a secretary named Amy, an office manager named Hal, and two other drafter-designers. We three and Hal occupied the front room, with a door and window on the street. Amy was somewhere in the middle, and a library-conference room was in back, along with a private office for Buttrick. He was often out meeting clients and possible clients, socializing and drumming up business, a chancy pursuit.

     “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip,” he said.

     We drew in mechanical pencil with graphite leads on vellum, a translucent rag paper that came in large sheets or rolls as wide as three feet. For a presentation, we traced in black ink using filament pens which often clogged or made blots. Drawing in ink was a slow and nerve-wracking task. We used a T-square or a parallel rule, which ran on wires attached to the drafting board, a triangle, a compass, and an array of templates. We wore dress shirts and neckties, professional attire which got in the way. Each man devised his own solution to the necktie—flipped over the shoulder, stuffed in the front pocket, clipped to the shirt front, or tucked in military-style. Ink and graphite got on our hands and clothes. Old photographs of drafters show them wearing sleeve protectors, sheaths that covered wrist to elbow.

     From the vellum sheets, we made prints on newsprint coated with photosensitive chemicals. An improvement over the blueprints that showed white lines on a blue field, these blueline or blackline prints were easier to read and better for marking corrections in red. A large office had its own machine to make prints. Buttrick’s firm sent drawings to a printer located near East 42nd Street. As the youngest on staff, I was the office boy who took drawings downtown by subway. In the heat of summer, clutching big rolls of paper that grew limp from humidity, I boarded decrepit subway cars covered with graffiti like psychedelic circus wagons. I returned with fresh prints that reeked of the ammonia used to develop them.

     A young architect serves three or more years of apprenticeship before he or she can take the state examination to qualify for a license. Hal, the office manager, gave me on-the-job training. In his thirties, he was short and stocky, smart and blunt.

     “You ask too many questions,” he said. “Instead of constantly interrupting me, use the library and figure things out.”

     Hal taught me the basics of architectural drafting, how to measure an existing building, how to inspect a construction site, and a little about the methods of getting a project built. Early in his career, he said, he was sent downtown to City Hall to deliver a sealed envelope to the official in charge of granting permits. In the 1970s, he used the high-priced services of an expediter, a person skilled in the New York City Building Code and the personalities who administered it. A quick-sketch artist, Hal drew a caricature of this man, named Nat Silberman, as a buzzing gnat.

     Architectural lettering was a stylized way of writing notes on drawings using straightedge and triangle. You flattened the lead to a chisel point by rubbing it on a scratch pad or sandpaper. You wrote in block capitals in evenly spaced lines. Verticals were vertical, and horizontals had an upward slant. It was considered good form to line up notes on the left in a column, and not to scatter them across the drawing. Arrows from the notes to the things they described could be straight or curved, but like electrical wires in a circuit, the arrows must never cross. There were symbols, abbreviations, and rules. The number “8” for example, was made of two ovals. A string of dimensions had to be straight, and the feet and inches had to be checked several times to be sure they added up. Some drafters used a non-print blue pencil for guidelines. You could draw curves freehand, but a novice was advised to use the giant ellipse template or the French curve. Like a monk in a scriptorium, I labored over my drafting until Hal approved.

     One morning, Buttrick hailed a cab and took me across town to the Dakota, the famous cooperative apartment building on Central Park West at 72nd Street. He left me to measure the kitchen, pantry, and service rooms for a modernization. Preparations were underway for a formal luncheon in the palatial suite on the park. As I sketched and inserted my tape measure through the hubbub, a tiny woman dressed in black darted here and there. She ignored me, and I said nothing. Later I learned that she owned the apartment.

     Other projects on which I helped were the eighteenth floor of the Chrysler Building leased to a law firm, a penthouse atop a grand apartment building on Fifth Avenue, a baboon exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, and a billiard room over a garage on a Long Island estate. All that first year, I felt elated. I was working in the profession I had chosen, on interesting projects, in the city to which I aspired. After seven years of higher education, with their arbitrary demands and expenses, partly met by a series of odd jobs, at last I was earning a salary.

     As for a place to live, I made shift. My first week in New York, I slept on a sofa in the apartment of an acquaintance. The apartment was high in an old building on Riverside Drive, with a sweeping view of the Hudson River. A museum administrator, Lila was married. Her husband was away on business, and she was absent most of the time. Witty and gracious, she owed me nothing. She got nothing in return when I decamped, suitcase in hand.

     The Buttricks had a schoolteacher friend who left town for vacation in the months of July and August, a single woman who sublet her apartment. Miriam accepted me without question as a subtenant. The apartment was on East 89th Street in a quirky brick pile built as a residential hotel in the 1890s. Walls were massive, windows were hard to open, and bathroom fixtures dated from the period. The apartment was crammed with antique furniture and knick-knacks. I worried aloud that I might break something.

     “There’s nothing valuable,” Miriam said. “There is, however, a box on the mantel that contains love letters my father wrote when he was courting my mother. He was aboard a ship in the South Pacific. You might enjoy reading them.”

     I got through the summer without damage and without reading the letters. Excited to be in the big city and on my own, I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, trooped through museums, jogged around the Central Park Reservoir, and rode the Staten Island Ferry. 

     As September loomed, I looked for an apartment. To afford it, I would share with a friend from Yale, a man who worked for the federal civil service. We found a place on West 21st Street near Ninth Avenue in a renovated tenement. A bedroom window faced a light well. Street windows faced the rear of Public School 11, a dreary prospect. It was also noisy, as children played in the school playground. We were not prepared for the squalor of low-budget city life. We were not well-matched, either. Domestic life became strained, and after a year, he stopped talking. I looked for another berth.

     A new friend lived in Brooklyn. I visited him on Wyckoff Street, walked the neighborhood, and checked ads for apartments for rent. In March 1980, I moved to Strong Place, in the area called Cobble Hill.

     South of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill is much like it, with a stock of brownstone, brick and stucco row houses, “one of the city’s finest collections of nineteenth-century houses,” according to The Encyclopedia of New York City, by Kenneth T. Jackson and Philip Kasinitz. Built up between 1835 and 1860, the twenty-two blocks are low-rise and intimate, with plenty of trees, several old churches and a synagogue, and a few apartment buildings and schools. Long Island College Hospital occupies the northwest corner, and businesses line the boundary streets: Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street, and Hicks Street, which parallels the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The New York City Council created the Cobble Hill Historic District in 1969 and extended it in 1988.

     Turned ninety degrees to the prevailing grid are six blocks formed by streets one block long: Cheever Place, Strong Place, and Tompkins Place. Henry Street and Clinton Street run through. The arrangement discourages traffic, while it encourages safety and privacy. Even more private is Warren Place, a mews-type development off Warren Street. Two rows of diminutive cottages, eleven feet wide, line an alley planted as a common garden. Philanthropist Alfred Treadway White developed Warren Place and the nearby Towers and Home apartment blocks on Hicks Street as affordable housing for the working class in 1876. Romanesque Revival in style, an early example of such housing built for profit, they were restored in 1986. Most of Cobble Hill, however, was built for the middle class: bankers, merchants, and lawyers who commuted by ferry to lower Manhattan. 

     History had come and gone. The Battle of Long Island in the Revolutionary War was fought here, but its earthworks were erased. The western edge, toward the harbor, was fortified in the War of 1812, also invisible. The hill that gave the area its name was cut down long ago. In the early twentieth century the area declined, and immigrants moved in. Cobble Hill took on an Italian flavor. The Catholic church of St. Frances Cabrini stands at one end of Strong Place, where I lived. By the 1950s, new buyers were renovating houses, and a revival was underway. In 1963, a tiny park was carved in the middle, between Congress Street and Veranda Place.

     By chance I stepped into an urban wonderland, a pocket of architectural style. The one thing missing was public transportation. To reach the nearest subway stop, I hiked a mile to the north or east. Remoteness may have been the reason Cobble Hill survived intact. But the daily commute on trains packed full was an ordeal. The transit strike of April 1980 made matters worse for the ten days it lasted. Stranded commuters shared cabs, walked, bicycled, and stayed with friends in Manhattan. I did some of each. The Brooklyn Promenade, the elevated walkway with its spectacular view of New York Harbor and the towers of Manhattan, was a great place to stroll. And I loved the domestic scale of Brooklyn. Could green space and historical charm outweigh inconvenience?

     The house on Strong Place had three stories with one apartment on each floor. Seventeen feet wide, it had a square-shaped stair in the middle, with a skylight. My apartment was on the second floor, with a big bedroom in front, a galley kitchen and a little sitting room in back, and a narrow passage between. On the passage was a bath as compact as an airplane lavatory. Built for a single family, the house had been adapted.

     The new owner lived on the first floor with his wife and two young sons. Dan wanted to restore the house, but for the moment he needed the rental income. He apologized for the archaic cast-iron radiators. He promptly fixed some plaster damage—there was a leak at the front window. He said I could climb the fire escape in back to the flat roof, since I had no balcony. One summer day, I did climb to the roof, though getting past the cornice was tricky. From up there, I looked into fenced back yards, a comparative study in private gardens. I lay on a towel with a book, fell asleep, and woke sunburned.

     The landlord was friendly, but we saw little of each other. The neighbors threw an annual block party in the fall. Caught by surprise, I wandered through, sampled the spicy ethnic food, and said hello. Long-time residents were wary. I did not connect, and I was unsure where I belonged. What I am sure of is that odd apartment of less than five hundred square feet was the first place I could call my own. Up to the age of twenty-seven, I shared a bedroom with a brother, a dorm room with a student, or an apartment with roommates. There were episodes of house-sitting and solitude, but this was my first crack at making a home. 

     I shopped for furniture in Brooklyn antique shops. I measured the apartment, drew the floor plan, and sketched possible arrangements. I still have the drawing in pencil on yellow trace paper. I also have a map of “Cobble Hill and Vicinity” that I drew in pencil. I gave photocopies of it to Manhattan friends I invited to visit. One of these, scornful of the “bridge and tunnel crowd,” said I had become “geographically undesirable.”

     The antique mirror, chest of drawers, brass bed, cast-iron lamp, and colored prints I bought were of no great value. My one find was a Morris chair, an early type of armchair recliner invented by the English artist William Morris. Stripped of green paint, my Morris chair turned out to be made of mahogany, with front feet carved as lion’s paws. I discarded the worn cushions and had new ones made, covered with a Liberty of London fabric. I bought the chair for thirty five dollars and kept it for many years, through many moves. It showed up in an antique shop last year priced at three hundred fifty dollars.

     In the bedroom, I laid a flush hollow-core door across a low bookcase and a filing cabinet to create a desk and drafting board. Young architects yearn for independent projects, and they often moonlight for extra money. During my stay in Brooklyn, my parents left upstate New York for rural Virginia. They bought land and asked me to draw a new house. This I did, with visits to them and the wooded site. They built the house in 1981, and they lived there until my father died in 1994. I drew other projects, and I wrote poems and stories on my college typewriter.

     Nightlife in Manhattan was a problem. Taxis were extravagant. The New York City Subway ran all night, but with long waits and anxious rides. Then there was that long walk home from the station. Once after midnight, full of nervous energy, I walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge. Halfway I saw what a risk I had taken, but by then there was no turning back. No one else was abroad. It was winter, the sky was clear, and the steel suspension cables shimmered. The fresh air cleared my head. Warmed by exercise, I took off my jacket and slung it over my shoulder. I reached home safe and ready for bed.

     About a year after I started work, Harold Buttrick moved his office to a rental space in Midtown, and a nephew of his wife joined the firm. Six years older than I, a Harvard graduate, Samuel White had greasy hair and a slight lisp. He affected striped shirts and Italian shoes. My mentor Hal, who had hoped to become a junior partner, perceived his doom. He left the firm to pursue independent practice. I was laid off briefly, then wrote in a letter:

I went back to work Monday at Harry’s request, though I saw no sign of work overload. That day after work, Harry and Sam and I went out for a drink at Crawdaddy, a swank restaurant. To me it was a puzzling conversation. On the one hand, they were both critical of me for not speaking up more, Harry because he misses the benefit of my opinion, and Sam because he senses controlled resentment. On the other hand, Harry dropped a hint that some sort of promotion may be coming my way: when a project small enough to cut my teeth on comes along, it will be mine to follow through construction. I suspect Sam called the meeting, as he was negative and threatening.

     Soon after this, Buttrick invited us again for a drink after work, this time at the Harvard Club on West 44th Street. In brown leather armchairs in the vast parlor meant to resemble a baronial hall, he again praised my work. Sam, as if to make casual conversation, quizzed me on my plans for the future. He then suggested I might be happier employed somewhere else. That night I made a panicky phone call to Hal. 

     “You have to face reality,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

     I searched for a new job, found one, and gave two weeks’ notice. Buttrick was sorry to see me go and asked for a delay. Again, there was no turning back.

     At the firm of Edward Larrabee Barnes, a prominent American architect, I joined a team to develop the design of the new Dallas Museum of Art. The environment was high-style, and the staff of fifty architects was a little United Nations. They came from Turkey, Finland, Pakistan, England, Venezuela, and especially China, thanks to John Lee, the second-in-command, who came from Shanghai. A Chinese classmate from Yale worked for Barnes, and she welcomed me.

     Weary from the job hunt and the longer commute, with no family or other tie to Brooklyn, and with a higher salary to pay living expenses, I looked for an apartment in Manhattan. I went to crowded showings, filled out rental applications, put down deposits, and crossed my fingers. At last I nabbed a rent-stabilized studio. I returned to Chelsea, to better subway access and a fifth-floor view.

     I joked about my year and a half of exile. Now I remember Cobble Hill and sigh. I hope that Dan restored his house, and that he and his family lived there happily ever after.



About the Author: Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, NY. He has worked as an architect in New York City and Charlottesville, VA. His short stories and essays appear in Bangalore Review, Fiction International, Litro, London Journal of Fiction, New Haven Review, Oxford Magazine, Short Fiction.