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Park Slope's 'Antique' Gas Lamps Not So Historic After All

Gas lamps give an old-world flourish to 14th Street in Park Slope, but they're actually only a few decades old.
Gas lamps give an old-world flourish to 14th Street in Park Slope, but they're actually only a few decades old.
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DNAinfo/Leslie Albrecht

PARK SLOPE — The gas lamps flickering outside some Park Slope brownstones keep a Victorian-era flourish alive in modern Brooklyn — or do they?

Though many assume the antique-looking lamps are a vestige of the 19th Century, when a lamplighter would ignite each lantern at dusk, the flame-powered lights date back only 40 or so years at the most.

The gas lamps' true history came to light recently when a Berkeley Place homeowner wanted permission from Park Slope's Community Board 6 to install a gas lamp outside a nearly 100-year-old brownstone in a historic district. Houses on the landmarked block are coveted for their "old-world charm" and fetch asking prices nearing $2.8 million.

The homeowner assumed the gas lamp was in keeping with the block's historic feel, but the request, which was ultimately approved, didn't go over well with some.

"They're not historic and they're certainly not historically accurate," said John Casson, a member of Park Slope Civic Council's Landmarks Committee, who opposed the request for the new lamp. "A, They're not authentic, B, they don't give much light, and C, they waste energy. They just look silly."

Casson called the lamps a "cheesy Disneyfication."

He noted that most Park Slope brownstones were built around 1883, a period when the streetscape was nearly entirely empty of decoration, he said. Most brownstones were surrounded by nothing but "boring bluestone," he said.

While history buffs may sniff at the gas lamps, real estate agents are happy to tout them as a selling point in real estate ads, luring buyers with descriptions of homes "nestled on a residential park block lined with gas lanterns."

Judith Lief, a Park Slope resident and associate broker at Warren Lewis Sotheby's International, says the gas lamps enhance the appeal of a well-restored brownstone. "It's very charming, and it helps create a mood, especially at night, if you walk down a street and there's a row of brownstones with gas lanterns and they're all flickering on a December evening," Lief said.

The lamps' true provenance shines light on an interesting chapter from the dawn of Park Slope's transformation from crumbling slum to one of the city's most desirable neighborhoods.

The gas lanterns were installed in the 1960s by Brooklyn Union gas company, which purchased several brownstones, renovated them, then sold them to buyers willing to take a gamble on living in what was then an "iffy" neighborhood, Casson said.

Known as "Cinderella projects," the refurbished brownstones were a way for the gas company to hold on to a rapidly dwindling customer base that was fleeing to the suburbs. The renovations, which started with a brownstone on Berkeley Place, allowd the company to showcase gas appliances, including the lamps.

The transformed brownstones paved the way for Park Slope's revival, with help from neighborhood boosters like Everett Ortner, who recently passed away, and his wife, Evelyn.

Because the lamps weren't original to the neighborhood, diehard preservationists would probably consider them "historically inappropriate," said Peter Bray, chair of the Park Slope Civic Council's Historic District Committee.

On the other hand, the gas lamps lamps speak to another period in neighborhood history — one that's worth remembering, Bray said.

"They became a very visible symbol of an owner that was one of these new pioneers moving into the neighborhood and converting a brownstone from a derelict property into a home," said Bray.