The Couple Who Saved Park Slope

“The Couple Who Saved Park Slope “
Published: Sunday, April 25, 2004, New York Times

Correction Appended

EVELYN AND EVERETT ORTNER are the original gentrifiers, a word whose pejorative connotations seem unfair when applied to people who have dedicated the last 40 years to the welfare of Park Slope the way others invest a lifetime in similarly all-consuming causes, like painting or the environment.

Back in 1963, they bought a brownstone on Berkeley Place, a small street radiating out from William Tecumseh Sherman’s gilded saddle in Grand Army Plaza, for $32,500, and then sweet-talked friends and acquaintances into joining them on this new frontier. They beat back federal urban renewal projects that subsidized brownstone demolition in the name of slum clearance. They cajoled banks that had redlined the neighborhood into giving mortgages. They measured their progress one house sale at a time. Every house saved from a speculator or an absentee landlord was a victory.

”When Evelyn and I moved here, this was a place where the rich did not come,” Mr. Ortner said last week over coffee in the meticulously preserved dining room of their four-story house, where the original dark green and bronze Victorian paint and lincrusta wallpaper in the foyer, characterized by a raised pattern of papier-mâché and linseed oil, remain intact. If they had to do it over now, the Ortners could hardly afford the house they had the foresight — or was it the temerity? — to buy in their past.

In 1968, five years after the purchase, something happened that further strengthened the couple’s resolve. The Ortners traveled to France for their 25th wedding anniversary and stumbled on a ruined castle, Chateau Gratot, in Normandy. The day they visited, volunteers from Union Rempart, a French national association of preservation groups, were clambering among the tumbled-down stones, working to put the Humpty Dumpty of a castle together again.

Returning to Brooklyn, they felt a kinship with those French volunteers as they imagined the ghost of Elsie Hincken, an original occupant of their house, admiring herself in the 10-foot high mercury mirror, which remained just as it was in her childhood. Ms. Hincken was born about 1886, Mr. Ortner says, the year the house was built. When she died, she left it to her housekeeper, who in 1960 sold it to a pair of college professors, who flipped it to the Ortners.

The three decades after that anniversary trip to France were a blur of neighborhood activity: calling politicians to stop urban renewal projects, negotiating with Meade Esposito, the Brooklyn Democratic boss, over designating Park Slope as a landmark, and holding a national ”Back to the City” conference at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1974.

But the Ortners never forgot that old chateau. In 1998, they returned to Normandy and were astonished to find that Humpty Dumpty had been put back together and looked as good as new. Now the Ortners had another cause; they set about building their own version of Rempart, the French volunteer group, with the same intensity they had devoted to restoring Park Slope.

In 1999, Mr. Ortner and Dexter Guerrieri, a Manhattan real estate agent, held a meeting at the French Embassy that led to the founding of Preservation Volunteers (, conceived as a cultural exchange program that would put teams of French and American volunteers to work preserving historic monuments here and in France.

For the last two summers, the volunteers have restored a one-room schoolhouse in Gunnison, Colo., Mr. Guerrieri’s hometown, along with a church in Nantucket and two historic sites near Park Slope, Green-Wood Cemetery and Lefferts Homestead. This year, they will be restoring an old mining town in Gothic, Colo., the Morris Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights and the Dyckman colonial farmhouse in Inwood.

For two years running, Preservation Volunteers has been able to recruit all the French volunteers it needs, a total of 15. But although the French projects lined up for American volunteers sound impressive — a church in Provence, five fortresses in the Alps — it has been hard to persuade Americans to go to France. Is this payback for French truculence over the war in Iraq? ”We’re ignoring the present political conditions,” Mr. Ortner said. ”They came to our rescue in 1776, remember?”

Brooklyn is hardly Baghdad. But Antoine Monpert, in charge of international relations for Rempart, admitted in a telephone interview from Paris that the French volunteers had been anxious about the reception they would get in the United States. American volunteers have been hard to come by for the New York and Colorado projects too. Maybe the French have more respect for the past.

The Ortners have sweetened the pot by raising money to sponsor needy volunteers. Still, Mr. Ortner worries. ”I wake up in the middle of the night,” he said, ”thinking, where the heck are we going to get these volunteers?”

Correction: May 2, 2004, Sunday The Coping column last Sunday, about a couple in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who are preservationists, misstated the year they traveled to France to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. It was 1978, not 1968. The column also misstated the location of a statue of William Tecumseh Sherman. It is in Grand Army Plaza in Manhattan, not Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, near their home.