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Laurie Lambrecht for The New York Times
FROM ICE HOUSE TO NICE HOUSE Susan Boyle and Benton Brown in their 3,000-square-foot apartment near the elevated Franklin Avenue Shuttle.

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Habitats: A "Green" Renovation
Susan Boyle and Benton Brown reside on the top floor of a former icehouse in Brooklyn that they renovated into a "green" apartment building.


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Laurie Lambrecht for The New York Times

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It Grows in Brooklyn: It’s Not a Tree, but It’s Green


Published: August 22, 2004

FOR nearly a year, they owned a full city block in Brooklyn: 135,000 square feet in seven buildings on three tax lots from Franklin Avenue to the elevated Franklin Avenue Shuttle, and from Dean to Bergen Streets. It's an awkwardly beautiful landscape of steel and brick, concrete and cobblestone; a one-story garage is topped by a large, lovely rusted hopper, and other buildings line up at different heights, like jagged teeth in a hobo's mouth. Even the el is poetic, a rough river melody rolling through masonry pastures.


Still, Susan Boyle and Benton Brown did not aspire to such vast holdings. Ms. Boyle, who is 31 and has a degree in environmental studies and economics, and Mr. Brown, also 31 and a sculptor with degrees in fine arts and political science, had an idea about renovating an abandoned building into a live-work space, using green technologies and their own sweat equity. A small building, that is, with maybe a little extra space for one tenant. Their renovation has wound up being considerably larger, though not 135,000 square feet.

Mr. Brown had already domesticated a loft near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and as the son of an architect was pretty sanguine about construction. Ms. Boyle was working for Transportation Alternatives, a citizens' group working for better public transit, and was eager to investigate green building practices and sustainable energy sources.

But after a year of chasing properties throughout Brooklyn — one step behind the developers, or a bid too low in the case of a carriage house they loved and lost — they found themselves facing an elegant, though pigeon-infested, former ice house that, at 14,000 square feet, was somewhat bigger than their idea of home sweet home. And, as comely as it was, its owner, the principal of a moving and storage company, would not detach it in sale from the melange of 19th- and 20th-century structures that crowded about it and stretched away from the el.

The owner was a nice guy, though, and a trusting one. He allowed them to list for sale all the properties except their ice house and its companion, a 46,000-square-foot brick building on Bergen Street, as they went into contract in 2001. Within 11 months, the other properties were sold to Artopolis, a nonprofit arts organization, and the Community Preservation Corporation, a private mortgage lender of low- to middle-income housing, for nearly the same amount — about $2.3 million — as they had paid for the full city block. (Artopolis will develop its new property into 67 artists' co-ops, which will list for about $25 a square foot when they are finished next year, said David Judelson, a director of Artopolis.)

This new compound makes a happy addition to Crow Hill, in the northern end of Crown Heights. For seven years, the area has been shaking off decades of neglect, said Sarah Taylor, president of the Crow Hill Association, which has lobbied successfully for new sewers, water lines and roads, new storefronts, trees and, soon, decorative, old-style street lamps. "It's gorgeous, what they've done," she said of Mr. Brown and Ms. Boyle and their renovation.

Their first working winter — 2002-2003 — in the new space was brutal: drifts of snow sifted through a massive tarp draped hopefully over the hole where the roof used to be — and where an aerie-like addition would soon sprout. The crew burned scrap wood in metal buckets, heating a brick every hour or so and passing it around. Ms. Boyle bought them all blue insulated Dickies overalls, so they worked like giant Smurfs amid the drifts. They'd hired three friends and three of their moving company's employees and formed a contracting company, Big Sue (bigsuellc@earthlink .net), named for Ms. Boyle. Mr. Brown is from Nashville, and in the habit of attaching a "Big" modifier to things he's fond of, Ms. Boyle said. (The preamble to that winter was eventful, too: they were married on Sept. 15, 2001, amid civic turmoil, and while wrangling permits, variances and cash.)

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