Once an $18,000 Home on a Decaying Street, Now a $5 Million Gem

September 16, 2013

Once an $18,000 Home on a Decaying Street, Now a $5 Million Gem



Jennifer Houlton-Vinyl outside the brownstone on West 94th Street that her parents bought in 1960, when the block was seedy.

“Who plants flowers on this crummy street?” protested Carlos, the hero of a young adult novel called “The Street of the Flower Boxes,” which told of the rejuvenation of a trash-strewed, gang-infested block in Manhattan of the 1960s: West 94th Street between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue. Carlos was fiction, but the events in the book were based on the real-life experience of its author, Peggy Mann Houlton, who bought a brownstone on that street in 1960 with her husband, William Houlton. The couple paid $18,000 for their home and then spent decades meticulously restoring and nurturing the brownstone and the neighborhood. Until one day the house began returning the favor.For nearly 15 years, it has been a luxury rental property, bringing the Houltons’ grown daughters about $14,000 a month in recent years. And now it is a house for sale, with exceptional original detail, a manicured garden and an asking price of nearly $5 million.

Clearly, the street is not so crummy anymore.

“If a passer-by looks closely at the front window of the Houltons’ brownstone at 46 West 94th Street, he can see three bullet holes,” a 1972 article in The New York Times said.

“Two of the bullet holes were there when we bought the house,” Ms. Houlton recounted in the article. “One happened after we moved in, during a riot in the street.”

Their elder daughter, Jenny, was an infant at the time, the article said, and her mother hid her in a closet to protect her from stray bullets.

Nonetheless, the couple stayed, and the house became the inspiration for something of an urban revival movement. In 1966, Ms. Houlton, whose work appeared under her maiden name, Peggy Mann, published “The Street of the Flower Boxes,” based on her and her husband’s experience encouraging children on their block to assemble, decorate and sell flower boxes to their neighbors, providing a modest yet extraordinarily effective lift to the neighborhood — perhaps shockingly so, to today’s cynical eyes. The book was turned into a television movie of the same name, which won a Peabody Award.

The idea was then picked up by Keep America Beautiful, the organization that created the famous crying Indian ad, and turned into a national neighborhood beautification movement and competition. (A 1976 article in The New Yorker about the flower box project described West 94th Street as a place that “didn’t look so swell when flower boxes first appeared there, a few years ago, but is now the sort of block that makes New York City’s detractors sound stupid.”)

In 1990, Ms. Houlton died, having written more than 35 books in her 65 years. A few years later, Mr. Houlton had a stroke that left him in need of constant assistance.

“We didn’t have money for 24-hour care,” said Jennifer Houlton-Vinyl, once the infant daughter in the closet, now with two children of her own. “But what we did have was the house.”

For a few years, the family offered free room and board to a small cast of young men in exchange for shifts taking care of their father, an arrangement that lasted until shortly before Mr. Houlton died.

Then, about 15 years ago, the daughters took out a mortgage and remodeled the house. They put in a new kitchen and added a deck to the back garden. They updated the bathrooms and finally replaced the window pocked with bullet holes, which Betsy Houlton Robinson explained cheerfully had been kept “for posterity.” They created a high-end brownstone rental.

“We’re attached to the house, and it was some way to make money,” Ms. Houlton-Vinyl said of their decision to become a landlord to the wealthy. “I mean, she’s a blacksmith,” she said of her sister, Betsy, who lives in Normandy, “and I’m a writer. So …”

Among their tenants have been bankers and diplomats, and the challenges at that level have been unusual — the diplomats, for example, had trouble figuring out where they would host their large formal dinner parties.

All new residents can also decorate as they choose. The aesthetic of the current tenants could perhaps be best described as “lavish vampire,” with an enthusiasm for dark walls, heavy drapes and, in an upstairs den, what appears to be a monstrous elephant skull. They have even forsaken flower boxes for two conical trees at the top of the stoop.

The bones of the house, however, are untouched, and since the house has been sold only three times since it was completed in 1896, a rare trove of original detail is still intact.

“Because they’re paying so much money, it’s a pretty high maintenance job,” Ms. Houlton-Vinyl said. Her husband, Kosmo Vinyl — who, incidentally, was once a manager for a punk rock band, the Clash — acts as the brownstone’s superintendent and has to be available to the tenants more or less around the clock. (In addition to writing, Ms. Houlton-Vinyl works as a receptionist at a law firm, largely so her family can have health insurance, she said.)

After nearly 15 years of being more or less on call for their tenants, Ms. Houlton-Vinyl said, she and her husband are ready for a bit more freedom. So the house is for sale, listed with Jane Beal and Rose Ann Nielsen of the Corcoran Group. According to the real estate Web site Streeteasy, its price tag of $4.995 million is just shy of the median sale price for recently sold town houses in the area. The sisters hope the home will have many suitors.

“I had a friend compare it to a relationship,” Ms. Houlton Robinson said of the decision to sell the house. “It is sad, but maybe now the lovely lady will have the chance to be in another loving, long-term commitment.”


About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: