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Admit it: we’re voyeurs. We may never afford one, but every time we pass a Brooklyn brownstone we want to explore its interior, observe how its occupants live, and for one afternoon, bask in the garden’s just-blossomed azaleas.

House tours allow those opportunities without doing anything illegal.

"People go to house tours for a variety of reasons," says Bob Marvin, a board member of the Lefferts Manor Association. "To explore a new neighborhood; possibly one they’re thinking of moving to. To get decorating ideas. [Or] because they’re curious about how other people live."

The design-challenged and period-puzzled needn’t be intimidated - informational booklets as well as knowledgeable volunteers (and sometimes the owners themselves) accompany most tours.

"The tour provides not only concepts in interior design, but also history of a particular neighborhood, practical solutions to home repair and maintenance, [as well as] general living space solutions," says Maryann McHugh Feeney, a trustee of the Park Slope Civic Council.
Those still reluctant should note fabulous restaurants, bars and shopping populate the surrounding area, not to mention many tours provide refreshments. So reserve a weekend afternoon, wear comfortable walking shoes and visit one of these upcoming house tours.

Kick off the 2005 season on Sunday, May 1, with the Clinton Hill House Tour, one of Brooklyn’s largest house tours.

"This tour offers the widest range of historic homes," says Jonathan Lovett, president of the Clinton Hill Society, about the tour’s 10 houses. "The architecture and history of the homes on our tour span over two centuries, including an 1800s, wood-framed Greek Revival to the exclusive grand mansions of New York City’s 1900s industrial­ist."

Scandal buffs will appreciate Clinton Hill’s Graham Hall for Old Ladies, at 320 Washington Ave. at Hall Street, built in 1851, which became The Bullshippers Motor Inn during the 1950s and provided (according to the brochure) "a home for less-than-old ladies of the night." (A few amenities included king-sized beds, oversized mirrors and a red-lighted curved driveway.)

Another Clinton Hill tour highlight: a 60-foot-long, wisteria-draped colonnade that welcomes visitors into a neo-Italian, Renaissance-style mansion with an intricately carved, cherry-wood staircase and a French ballroom-inspired, circular "white room." Not to be outdone, a four-story Italianate brownstone, circa 1870, features an original iron fence, a hand-painted wall mural (don’t we all have these in our master bathrooms?), and in the lower hall, a painstaking replication of the wall’s original stenciling.

The self-guided Brooklyn Heights Landmark House and Garden Tour on Saturday, May 7, peeks inside five townhouses - all with gardens or decks - that offer both 19th-century and contemporary architecture. Admission includes tea and pastries.

"I believe ours is the oldest and longest-running Brooklyn house tour," says Judy Stanton, executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association. "Our tea, set under the dogwood trees in the garden of the historic Plymouth Church, with a harpist playing, adds tremendous charm to the tour experience."

Brooklyn Heights, New York City’s first designated historic district, offers a variety of architectural styles including carriage houses and buildings that retain their original details. Only in this borough could we find a mid-1880s stable, later converted to a garage, which now houses a family of four.

In fact, transformation characterizes this tour: a brownstone once used as a church rectory, for instance, and a brick house that belonged to Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill W.’s in-laws. Also observe details like the bamboo-fenced rear garden of an 1842 Greek revival house and the fishpond constructed from an original cistern on the grounds of an 1825 Federal-style house.

The Park Slope House Tour on May 15 showcases six homes in the north Slope.

"Park Slope is the largest area of contiguous, Victorian-era, brownstone or limestone houses in the U.S.," says Feeney. Though today we tourists will likely view renovated buildings, the tour began 46 years ago to allow brownstone owners and potential buyers a glimpse of works in progress. And like many tours, the ticket dollars of the Slope House Tour benefit the community - proceeds fund neighborhood improvement grants.

The tour begins in the Montauk Club, located at Eighth Avenue at Lincoln Place, originally a private political men’s club that today serves as both condominium residence and private club. Whatever our religion, the St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church, at Sixth Avenue and Sterling Place, guarantees to mesmerize with its Gothic Revival, high Victorian style. Known as "the Cathedral of Park Slope," the church features Tiffany and Locke stained glass.

The tour’s homes also dazzle. A must-see: a former boarding house its owners spent nearly 30 years repairing and decorating in Aesthetic Movement decorative elements. Victorian literature fans will note illustrated tiles based on Tennyson’s "Idylls of the King" surrounding the home’s fireplace, although everyone can appreciate the garden’s waterfall, fishpond and statuary.

Aesthetic appreciation aside, house tours encourage us to reflect on the evolution of Brooklyn neighborhoods throughout the decades.

"The first brownstone Brooklyn house tour [in Park Slope] was originally intended to publicize the idea of middle class people actually living in these funny, cheap - don’t laugh - old houses that ’everyone’ was abandoning for the suburbs," says Bob Marvin about the Prospect Lefferts House and Gardens Tour on May 22. "Our tour, the second-longest-running Brooklyn brownstone tour, was started for similar reasons in 1969."

Some highlights of the tour’s 10 homes include a restored, 1909 two-story limestone townhouse with finished English basement and outdoor living space; a three-story, neoclassical 1899 townhouse filled with original artwork, vintage collectibles and a sunny perennial garden; and an early 1900s two-family limestone residence built on one of only five legal private streets in New York City. Flower lovers note - the 50-year-old azalea garden should be in full bloom near the tour’s turn-of-the-20th-century Queen Anne-style frame house. Refreshments and live music round out the tour.

Escape the creeping summer heat on Sunday, June 12, at the Victorian Flatbush House Tour.

"This tour provides participants with significant insights into the neighborhood’s past, history and heritage, as encapsulated in these beautiful Victorian homes," says Susan Siegel, Flatbush Development Corporation’s executive director. According to the 2004 U.S. Census Bureau, Victorian Flatbush - comprised of 12 neighborhoods - forms the country’s most diverse zip code.

This year’s tour visits around a dozen century-old homes with charming details like wrap-around porches, grassy lawns and gardens. Victorian Flatbush looks familiar for a reason - the countless movies, television shows, and commercials filmed here. And original homeowners included the Vanderbilt, Carnegie and Gillette families.

To encourage return neighborhood visits and celebrate the neighborhood’s artistic and historic diversity, this year’s tour features a Victorian Flatbush Arts Festival. An arts and crafts fair with local artists will line part of the tour’s route, followed by cultural activities like a comedy show, local authors’ book readings and musical performances.

Can’t make any of these tours? Brooklyn offers two more, a tour of the Brownstone Brooklyn Garden District on June 5 that peeks into dozens of private and community gardens in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights and the Bedford-Stuyvesant House Tour, the only exclusively African-American home tour that spans 12 blocks that include 19th-century homes, churches and restaurants. (The Bed-Stuy tour is the last of the season, on Oct. 15.)


Tour tips

A few things to keep in mind about these tours: obviously we’re guests in someone’s home, so respect privacy and don’t touch objects or pry behind off-limits areas. Except for what’s provided, enjoy food and drink at local eateries (not on the tour) and keep those cameras at home. Some tours permit older children, and most take place regardless of inclement weather. For those on a budget, tickets usually cost less when purchased before tour day.

House tours allow us to simultaneously discover and give back to a new community, gather some decorating ideas, and for some, spend an afternoon vicariously living in a fabulous home rather than the walk-in closet we call an apartment. A tour may even become a life-changing experience.

"In my own case, if my wife and I hadn’t gone on a Prospect Lefferts Gardens House tour in 1974, we probably would never have moved here," says Marvin. "We closed on our house six months after that tour."



Tour guide

Bedford-Stuyvesant House Tour is Oct. 15. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 day of tour, which includes a seminar on how to buy a brownstone. For more information, including hours and where to buy tickets, visit the Web site at www.brooklynx.org/tourism/day/neighborhood/bedstuy.asp or call (718) 574-1979.

Brooklyn Heights Association Landmark House and Garden Tour is May 7 from 1 pm to 5 pm. Tickets are $30 (tax deductible). Advance tickets can be purchased by phone with a credit card during business hours at (718) 858-9193, or visit www.brooklynheightsassociation.org. Tickets are also sold on tour day at 12:30 pm at the Brooklyn Historical Society (128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street).

Brownstone Brooklyn Garden District Tour is June 5 from 11 am to 5 pm. Tickets are $10 in advance, $15 day of tour. Purchase by mail or at local businesses. Listen to recorded message for specific details at (718) 707-1277.

Clinton Hill House Tour is May 1 from noon to 5 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 day of tour. Maps and tickets available at 320 Washington Ave. at Hall Street, or visit the Web site at www.clintonhillsociety.org. The self-guided tour averages two to three hours. For more information, call (718) 789-5492.

44th Annual Park Slope House Tour is May 15 from noon to 5 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 day of tour. Advanced tickets available at Park Slope-area businesses such as Astoria Federal Savings (110 Seventh Ave. at President Street), Dixon’s Bicycle Shop (792 Union St. at Sixth Avenue), and Dizzy’s Diner (Eighth Avenue at Ninth Street). Montauk Club (Eighth Avenue at Lincoln Place) will sell day-of-tour tickets. Visit www.parkslopeciviccouncil.org for more information or call (718) 832-8227.

Prospect Lefferts Gardens House & Garden Tour is May 22 from noon to 5 pm. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 day of tour. For more information, call (718) 284-6210 or visit the Web site at www.zapix.com/leffertsmanor/annualtour.shtml.

Victorian Flatbush House Tour is June 12. Tickets are $16 in advance, $20 day of tour. An optional shuttle bus takes visitors from house to house, and a guide accompanies the tour. Contact the Flatbush Development Corporation at (718) 859-3800 for tour hours and to purchase tickets.

For more information, visit www.brooklynx.org/tourism/day/touring/housetours.asp.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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