Baltimore vs. Brooklyn



This is my op-ed piece that appeared in the Baltimore Sun on September 20. It compares the unexpected success of Brooklyn vs. the failure of Baltimore.


While working on the rehabilitation of historic buildings in Baltimore City, I’m always dogged by a sense of futility – especially when I compare Brooklyn, New York with Baltimore.

Over thirty years ago when I went to college there, Brooklyn was a total basket case – much worse statistically than Baltimore in crime, urban decay, and poverty. It seemed absolutely hopeless that the borough would ever rebound. It was so dangerous that at my architecture school, no one stayed late to work on their projects.

After graduation, I moved out as soon as I could. Still in the habit of reading New York newspapers, I knew that Brooklyn was still mired in crime and decay and reeling from white flight. It seemed that it would always be that way. Then in the late 1990s, an odd thing started to happen. Young white professionals moved into minority neighborhoods that no one would ever have dreamed would become gentrified. There had been pockets of pioneer gentrification or where whites stayed put – like Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights. But the first war zone to change was Williamsburg, a run down industrial area across from Manhattan. Then came an even worse neighborhood, Red Hook, a deserted waterfront section. Bushwick, maybe the worst of the worst, saw a dramatic resurgence.

Now the unimaginable has happened. Brooklyn is considered the coolest place on earth.  Trendy restaurants, cheese shops, fashion boutiques, gourmet ice cream shops, internet cafes, and clubs have sprung up like weeds in once abandoned storefronts. The whole image of Brooklyn has changed from a funny accent in the movies to people naming their kids Brooklyn. The borough supposedly has the most creative people per square mile in the country. A friend explained to me that a Brooklyn neighborhood is considered gentrified when you see a white woman walking alone at night. Brooklyn is fast approaching its 1950 peak population of 2.7 million. It even has its own NBA team now in an architecturally spectacular arena that draws circuses and big-name concerts.

This image of the new Brooklyn is slightly skewed. A quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. There are still very dangerous places that one avoids at day or night but they seem to be slowly vanishing.  But it’s the perception of Brooklyn as a good place to live that’s most important – something that Baltimore doesn’t have.

So I ask myself if Brooklyn can turn around why can’t Baltimore which has lost 30,000 more people since the 2000 census. Baltimore boosters will complain that this isn’t a fair apples to apples comparison. The high real estate prices drove people to Brooklyn but they could have left the city altogether. But it isn’t all about young white people moving there. Brooklyn has something that Baltimore lacks altogether – diversity. Ethnic groups that take hold of a decrepit neighborhood and turn it around. The Chinese in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, Russians in Brighton Beach, Hispanics in South Brooklyn and East Williamsburg, West Indians and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights.

Baltimore has no significant immigrant population at all. It’s basically an all black city with a few whites concentrated in a few areas. Half of America’s one hundred largest cities have relied on Hispanics and Asians for their growth especially Atlanta, Phoenix, and Charlotte.  The city’s one bright spot is that its Hispanic population grew 245% to 27,000 concentrated along lower Broadway. That’s an encouraging trend but still only 4% of the total. It has to attract way more. William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute called Hispanics “the magic bullet for a lot of cities.”

You can’t blame the difference on jobs. Like Baltimore, Brooklyn’s job base changed from manufacturing to service based. There are no more industries in Brooklyn. Brooklynites commute to jobs in Manhattan and Long Island like Baltimoreans do to jobs in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.

Another explanation for Brooklyn’s success is former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani’s hard -nosed campaign against crime in 1990s that reduced violent crime in the borough significantly. Baltimore never had the political nerve to be so harsh on crime.

Baltimore’s historic architectural fabric rivals Brooklyn’s. But the once bustling Howard Street is now a ghost town. Reservoir Hill, the city’s best concentration of historic properties, stays run down.

Of course, Baltimore isn’t alone in its troubles. There’s St. Louis, Cleveland, and God help it – Detroit. Maybe I shouldn’t think about Brooklyn. I should just go back to help rehabbing buildings one at a time and try to bring back this city.

Charles Belfoure is an architect and co-author of The Baltimore Rowhouse. His novel, The Paris Architect is coming out in October.





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The Pratt Family Architect


My alma mater, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY, has an architecturally distinctive campus. Architectural Digest named it one of the ten best campuses in the country. It’s in a city setting but has a real college-like feel with green spaces and trees. That’s due to the influence of the master builder, Robert Moses, who in the 1950s closed off some streets to create a super block. Many people (self-righteous urbanists) malign Moses but he did some great things and the Pratt campus was one of them. College campuses are usually a barometer of architectural styles and Pratt’s is no exception. Begun in 1887, it has many nice examples of late 19th century styles beginning with its main building by Lamb & Rich which undergoing a fire renovation. But  I believe it’s the library by William B. Tubby that’s the best. Tubby was the go-to man for the Pratt family for architecture, 36 jobs according to Suzanne Spellen of in an excellent New York Times article.

He did many meat and potatoes row houses for them in Brooklyn but his masterpiece is a house at 241 Clinton Ave. for  Charles M. Pratt, a son of the founder. It’s interesting that the son also had a masterpiece of a house in California designed by the legendary firm of Greene & Greene, pioneers in non-revivalistic design in the early 20th century. The Pratt family owned a ton of land in Glen Cove, Long Island overlooking the Sound. There they built many mansions some of which have been recycled into new uses like the Webb Naval Institute and Russian Consulate retreat. When Brooklyn was in a bad way, they considered moving the school out there. Tubby design some of their houses. The wife of Christopher Gray who writes the Streetscapes column for the Times is a Pratt descendant and has researched them. It’d be interesting if she published her research. They were an important part of the famous Long Island Gold Coast mansions. There are some nice modernist examples especially Higgins Hall that included work by Steven Holl.

There’s one humorous observation about the Pratt campus. At the corner of Hall Street and Dekalb Avenue, there’s a  3-story blank brick building from 1961. It’s credited to McKim Mead & White. It shows how modernism reduced one of the greatest architectural firms in history to mediocrity.

Posted in architect, architecture, Brooklyn architecture, Christopher Gray, Greene & Greene, historic preservation, Modernist architecture, New York historic preservation, Pratt Institute, Streetscapes - NY Times, William B. Tubby | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Henry Hope Reed: The Last Classicist









It escaped my attention that Henry Hope Reed died a couple of months ago.

At 97, he was still extolling the virtues of classicism over modernism. I met Reed when I joined Classical America in the late 1980s. This was the height of the Post-Modern period when history and past architectural styles found a rediscovered voice in architecture. It seemed that modernism was unassailable and that it would endure forever like a dictator in an African nation. But since the Second World War, the public got sick of modernism and realized that past historical styles offered something that modernism could not. Thus began the historic preservation movement and the re-emergence of past styles to the chagrin of modernist architects. Reed knew that almost nothing that the modernists could design could surpass classicism. He hated modernism to his dying day. At first, I thought he was a crank but over the years have come to agree with him that classicism beats modernism hands down. Modernist architects say classicism is  irrelevant today but proportion, scale, detail, workmanship, and richness of materials is still relevant and that’s what classicism has over modernism. Hunt’s Metropolitan Museum trumps Meier’s High Museum any day. No architect is trained in classicism today in architecture schools, to learn the basics of the language. The last champion of classicism is gone.

Posted in architect, architectural design, architecture, Classicism, Henry Hope Reed, historic preservation, Modernist architecture, New York historic preservation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

No to the Denise Scott-Brown Feminist Fist Pump



After a hiatus, the blog is back in action beginning with a very satisfying piece of news. The Pritzker Prize Committee has decided not to retroactively award Denise Scott-Brown a co-share of the Pritzker Prize which was awarded to her husband, Robert Venturi, in 1991.

There are very few people who can  change the course and direction of an art form. Venturi did that by challenging post-World War II modernist architectural dogma, showing its many faults. He was the lone voice who stood up to the modernists and its purist exclusivism. His work, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was a landmark work calling for the use of history as one source in solving a design problem. That was heresy to the modernists. Today, it’s accepted. The fuss started when two women architecture students from Harvard issued a petition calling for Scott-Brown to receive a share of the Pritzker Award, the architectural equivalent to the Nobel Prize. Architecture is an especially elitist field where anything Ivy League trumps anyone else. If the two women had been from the University of Oklahoma, no one would have paid attention to them. Because it was seen as politically incorrect to ignore their feminist fist pump, a few thousand signed the petition. But the  committee would not revisit the decision. Venturi had been formulating his theories before he met Scott-Brown. He was working on the design of his seminal mother’s house before then.

This action opened the old chestnut about women in architecture – where are they? The feminists refuse to acknowledge that a woman’s deepest desire is to have and raise children. Women architects who are equally talented and intelligent as their male colleagues eventually stop working and have kids. It’s their decision, not a male sexist conspiracy. Just like female attorneys, accountants, and doctors. My doctor quit to raise her kids. In 10 years, the two Harvard students will be at home filling My Little Pony lunch boxes and changing Pampers.

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An Architecture Novel


My novel, The Paris Architect will be out in October but it is available for pre-order at a 35% discount from the bookseller links on the website –

It is a World War II thriller about an architect who designs hiding places for Jews escaping the Germans in occupied Paris during World War II.

As an architect, I’ve always thought my professional background would be an original basis for an entertaining novel.  The concept of a main character using his architectural and engineering knowledge to outwit a villain, solve a crime, or do brave or evil things intrigued me.

For The Paris Architect, I transposed a real life historical event to a different time. During the reign of Elizabeth I, Catholicism was repressed, and the saying of mass was outlawed. But priests throughout England refused to obey and continued to worship in secret in manor houses. As a precaution, carpenters designed and constructed “priest holes” for them to hide in if the house was discovered. (If caught, the priests as well as the people who hid them would be tortured and executed.) When the Queen’s soldiers raided a suspected house, they would look for days and never find the priests who were hiding under their noses. Using Occupied Paris during World War II as my setting, I turned the Elizabethan age carpenter into a gentile architect who designs temporary hiding places for Jews escaping the Nazis. The novel explores the enormous bravery it took to help Jews and the fact that not all gentiles turned their backs on them. Like my protagonist, the people who took this incredible risk discovered a sense of personal courage and integrity they never thought they had. The novel is also about a modernist architect and what he’ll do in order to get a commission that can show his design talent.

You can go to website to read a sample chapter and view a promotional video. Every month I’ll be publishing a reminder about the novel. The publisher is Sourcebooks Landmark.

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The Rare Modernist Subdivision


021The modernist architect Walter Pierce recently died at age 93. He was famous for designing one of the very first suburban housing developments that contained not neocolonial style houses but modernist houses. Peacock Farm as it’s called was built from 1952 to 1959 and is located in Lexington, Massachusetts. The houses are asymmetrical, glass-walled, low-sloped kind of split-level designs, daring for the time.  It wasn’t the first modern subdivision nor the last. Six Moon Hill, built in the late 1950s, was designed by the king of all American modernist firms, the Architects Collaborative led by the modernist pioneer, Water Gropius. Those houses were the classic modernist design with glass walls and the defining modernist element, the flat roof. Six Moon Hill was recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a good thing because it shows the recognition that modernist design is an important layer of American architectural history. But these developments are freaks of nature. There are as rare as sightings of the passenger pigeon. Since the post-modernist movement of the early 1980s, housing developments have held fast to vernacular forms with neocolonial details, steep gable roofs, porches, divided light sash windows, and Palladian windows – all elements that would have made Gropius and the modernists throw up. The public absolutely hates modernist design when it comes to residential development. “Chicken coops” is the image that comes to mind when they describe modernist houses. If the public wanted them, the developers would be building them left and right because they build what the public wants.

Aisquith is a modernist architect who faces hostility about his design.


Posted in architect, architectural design, architecture, historic preservation, Modernist architecture, modernist subdivisions, Peacock Hill, Preservation of modern architecture, Six Moon Hill, Walter Gropius, Walter Pierce | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Modernists Lose the Battle of Gettysburg

cycloramaOn Saturday March 9, the modernists lost a beloved building by the modern master, Richard Neutra when his Cyclorama building was torn down on the Gettysburg battlefield. It was a typical battle of architecture: modernists versus the public who despise modernism. It was built in 1963 to house the 27 ‘ high, 277′ long 1883 painting depicting Pickett’s Charge which has been relocated to a new visitor’s center a mile away.  It took a fourteen year legal fight for the National Park Service to get rid of the building but in the end they won. The controversy brings up the axiom that what architects love, the public hates. And the public really hated this building. Besides calling it ugly ( as all modernist buildings are called), it rankled Civil War buffs because it stood on Cemetery Ridge exactly where the Union line was located that withstood Pickett’s Charge. Fifty years ago it seems, the Park Service had no problem spoiling (or defiling, I believe) a historic site by a putting a building on it, but thankfully that philosophy has changed. It was a bad choice to obliterate an important site of American history with a building whether it was modernist or not. If Pickett’s Charge had succeeded and the Confederacy had won the pivotal battle and gone on to Harrisburg and Philadelphia or south to Baltimore, American history would be quite different today. With the building gone, the battlefield site will be restored for the 150th anniversary of the battle this summer. Neutra was great and it was a pretty good building but it was in the wrong place.


Posted in Battle of Gettysburg, Civil War, Demolition of historic buildings, historic preservation, Modernist architecture, National Park Service, Preservation of modern architecture, Richard Neutra | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment