Have Brownstone Brooklyn Home Tours Outgrown Their Purpose?

PLG House Tour 2015. Photo by Bob Marvin

Neighborhood home tours were once a revolutionary tool for Brooklyn brownstoners, used to help entice prospective renovators to rehab old, “obsolete” homes in ‘hoods beyond their prime. But nowadays, few potential homebuyers need convincing of the benefits of brownstone living.

Could these neighborhood home tours soon become a thing of the past?

“The house tour is a victim of the modern world,” said Brooklyn Heights Association Treasurer Daniel Watts at the organization’s annual meeting last week. At one point, the tours were a vital event for the BHA, a way to show the continuing value of older homes in the area.

But citing homeowners’ concerns over privacy in the age of Twitter and Instagram, the tour is being discontinued, according to the Brooklyn Eagle. In an email exchange, BHA General Manager Peter Bray told Brownstoner that it had just become too difficult for the organization to find homeowners willing to open their homes to the public.

Pamphlet from 1969 Boerum Hill House Tour via Brooklyn Historical Society. Photo by Barbara Eldredge

Home tours were once a key tactic in the brownstoners’ battle for neighborhood revitalization.

As historian Suleiman Osman explains in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn:

To counter an official designation of “slum,” 1950s activists offered news reporters and city leaders tours of middle-class rehabilitated homes in condemned areas. By the 1960s, however, home tours transformed into a widespread promotional tool to recruit skittish brownstone renovators to Boerum Hill, Park Slope, and other revitalizing districts. Uncomfortably walking past rooming houses and empty lots, potential home buyers entered rehabilitated one-family homes where enthusiastic brownstoners greeted them and described the benefits of living in the area.

You have to remember that just five or six decades ago, brownstones were considered to be an outdated, obsolete form of housing. Home tours were used to counter that belief by showing beautiful, renovated spaces in neighborhoods then thought to be less desirable.

The Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant organized their first home tour 38 years ago to correct “the bad rap that that Bed Stuy was getting,” according to President Lynette Lewis Rogers.

PLG House Tour 2015. Photo by Bob Marvin

That was then. This is now.

The secret’s out. Nowadays, few homebuyers need to be convinced of the potential of brownstone life — if they can even afford to live in one.

“With the steep rise in property values it has become more difficult for homeowners to open their homes,” Boerum Hill Association President Howard Kolins told Brownstoner. “Security is one factor. Another is that owners are not making the improvements through their own hands, so being ‘house proud’ as folks were in the ’70s takes on a different tone.”

The internet has also afforded a handy alternative to peek inside the homes of others — with sites like Brownstoner, Remodelista, Houzz, and social media platforms like Pinterest and Instagram, seeing different spaces is just a click away.

But nothing can quite compete with seeing a home in person.

PLG House Tour 2015. Photo by Bob Marvin

Their purpose may have evolved, but home tours aren’t dead yet.

In spite of the rise of home interior sites, and the difficulty in recruiting homeowners, the popularity of home tours with visitors remains strong. Though it can be challenging to find willing participants, many neighborhood groups continue to sponsor their area’s annual pilgrimage from one standout residence to the next.

Sure, home tours have evolved. Once a neighborhood recruitment tool, they’re now community showcases and powerful fundraisers. Rogers, of the Brownstoners of Bedford Stuyvesant, told Brownstoner that they’re still going strong.

Privacy concerns? They aren’t insurmountable. “We have never had a problem [with picture taking] in the 38 years of the tour,” Lewis told Brownstoner, adding that they train volunteers to monitor homes on the tour and ensure unapproved photography doesn’t occur.

If home tours can combat the midcentury war against brownstones, they can surely survive the threats of social media. The purpose of such tours may have evolved over the decades, but as long as people are artfully designing their spaces, others will be curious to visit.

Until we achieve Matrix-level virtual reality capabilities, we hope we can depend on at least a handful of neighborhoods to open up homes for inspiration and delight.

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Originally published at www.brownstoner.com on March 3, 2016.