Superlatives come easy in the case of the midcentury modern home at 48 Willow Place. It is one of the only single-family structures from the era in Brooklyn, and its only peers are virtual siblings—two other units down the block by the same architects. You will not find anything like it anywhere nearby.
The family home of architects Joseph and Mary Merz—a striking six-bedroom, seven-bathroom structure—is on sale for the first time since its construction in the late ’60s, after Joseph’s death this past March at 92 ( his wife Mary died in 2011).
The Merz house stands out amidst its historic surroundings, a cement block home with more than a nodding resemblance to Louis Kahn’s Esherick House. It’s a modern home defined by a keyhole window overlooking a street that dates back to the age of barrel keys and candlesticks, with its neighbors including colonnaded Greek Revival row houses, brick carriage houses, and a few Gothic revival homes (and the two other Merz units, defined by different simple fenestration).
The interior is far from austere: It’s an actively cozy and charming space oriented toward a Japanese-style garden in the rear by means of large windows. The interior might initially seem revolutionary, featuring an open kitchen done in Aalto-esque woods from an age before kitchens were ever opened. This wasn’t quite the case—but the result, the product of a renovation done by the Merzes in the early 1990s, is still very impressive. This renovation actually rewound the look of the house to a somewhat earlier age of midcentury, swapping out bare walls and aggressively mod furniture for elaborate and impressive maple built-in shelving and seating.
The Merzes are a great story in themselves—they were Brooklyn Heights community fixtures and a great design duo. Joseph worked in Antonin Raymond’s office before being accepted to the Harvard School of Design to study with his idol Walter Gropius. World War II service intervened, and he subsequently ended up enrolled at Pratt, where he met his wife Mary in a class taught by Philip Johnson. Joseph worked for Josep Sert and Morris Lapidus, and then joined Mary at Edward Larrabee Barnes’s office. In 1957 they started their own firm, Merz Architects.
The Merzes were living in a small unit on Grace Court in the wake of a Robert Moses effort to demolish Willowtown (the south end of Brooklyn Heights) and replace it with luxury housing towers. The area remained in limbo however, redlined and facing the threat of expansion of the BQE Atlantic Avenue exit (which the Merzes helped to stop). Truman Capote described Atlantic Avenue along its south end, where "seedy hangouts, beer-sour bars, and bitter candy stores mingle among the eroding houses." Katie Merz, daughter of Joseph and Mary, echoed the man in white in conversation: "This was in the ’60s; the place was a total dive then. It was normal to me!"
The Merzes purchased four vacant lots along Willow Place for eleven thousand dollars in 1963. They designed homes on the other lots to pay for their own, including one for designer Ronald Clyne (most famous for his many Folkways Records album covers) at 44 Willow Place, and another for Nixon lawyer and arts enthusiast Leonard Garment at 40 Willow Place (which was an Architectural Record House of the Year in 1969). Katie moved in at age five, and she and her three siblings lived in a work in progress. "They couldn’t really afford to put stuff in, so at the beginning we had plywood as a front door." The spot where the dishwasher eventually stood was empty.
The initial interior design was considerably more sparse. "What you see now is really nothing like when we grew up," Katie attests. It was "an open plan white rectangle" with "some crazy furniture" designed by Mary, with orange felt and white formica elements that have since disappeared. Original redwood window frames persist on the home’s exterior, as do Scottish terra-cotta floor tiles, which are in astonishingly good shape.
The home stood out to passers-by. Kate says "people would ring our doorbell in the ’60s and ’70s and ask what it was: a jail? a library? the court house?" She noted that her father "hated the term brutalism," so do not describe it as such.
The Merzes had their architectural office on the top floor, where they continued a stream of work for a variety of clients, designing multiple homes, including one for Lindsay-administration Parks Commissioner August Heckscher, dormitories at SUNY Potsdam, assorted work for the Department of the Interior, and Dreyfus Fund offices at the General Motors Building. They also renovated the neighborhood’s Alfred T. White Community Center and designed Adam Yauch Park nearby.
Katie recounted that her parents were constantly tinkering on designs in the house, as architects tend to do with their most obliging clients—themselves. She says "there were always projects at home" before the larger revamp around 1990. This renovation was eased by the flexibility of the space from the start. The walls are load bearing, and all interior walls floating, providing an easy means to reconfigure (which potential buyers might well want to do on the top floor).
The renovation seemed to be a reshuffling of influences both between and amongst her parents—a chance to try out some new ideas. "My dad liked Kahn, my mom liked Aalto. My father loved Gropius, my mother was more into Frank Lloyd Wright." Mary was pleased to put a bit more wood in the home. "She couldn't wait to take all the white away and make it less Gropius!"
Furniture had been mainly her mother’s work in both iterations, and the renovation produced wonderfully intricate built-in maple pieces. A complex kitchen shelving wall is decorated with ceramic masks from Mexico. Splendid bookcases fill the alternate side of the living room.
Katie cites her parents’ enthusiasm for Saarinen and Girard’s work at the Miller House, and you can see a shade of that here. A library nestled into a nook (the former cloistered kitchen) is a captivating detail, with another built-in maple bookcase/shelf/desk offering clear echoes of Wright and Aalto (indirect lighting in all sorts of spots suggests the latter).
The basement is a fine escape, including two exceptionally private bedrooms fronting grate-covered garden spaces beneath the level of the main garden, one of which features sculptural planters. Katie notes that that was where her parents slept after the renovation: "That was their little terrarium bedroom." There’s a carport nicely concealed under another portion of the garden. A decorative arrangement under the stairwell features translucent panels—glass surrounding colored Japanese paper—admitting additional light to the basement.
The arrangement of the house is exceptionally unusual by Brooklyn standards. "It’s kind of like a brownstone, but turned on its side—so instead of being long and deep it’s wide and shallow," says the listing agent, Deborah Rieders.
It doesn’t stop there: The staircase is unusual in that it runs parallel to the street near the front of the home, with those windows providing ample views of the historic cityscape. If you hate modernism, this might be the safest spot for you in Brooklyn, because you’ll only see a 19th century streetscape from inside. There are other subtle touches—Rieders points out that the top floor is about a foot taller than the lower floors.
The house is a study in how to gracefully manage light and privacy in a modern home, which we know isn’t always the case. Katie explains that growing up the house, she didn’t entirely grasp its arrangement; everyone tends to take their childhood homes for granted.
Even as a child of modernists, she had doubts about the appeal of some of its window-heavy tendencies. "I didn’t understand the large windows in modern buildings—you’d need blinds all the time," she says. "But my parents explained that the biggest windows in the front are into public space. The back is where the windows to private space are."
She continues, "Living in that house, I realized I was living in their problem solving—in their minds." You now have a rare chance to do the same.
48 Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights is currently listed for $6,950,000 by Deborah L. Rieders of Corcoran Group.
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