Real Estate

Behind the Trees, a Brooklyn Artists’ Collective

Hidden by overgrown trees and flowering shrubs in need of a haircut, 70 Lefferts Place, in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, can be hard to find amid its neighboring rowhouses of brick and brownstone.

But pass through a rusting iron gate and beneath an unruly canopy of greenery, and you find yourself gawking up at a kind of secret artistic treehouse, a sprawling antebellum Italianate villa painted a jaunty yellow. This is the primary home of the AllInOne Collective, a vibrant community of artists and activists in their late 20s that was founded last year in the teeth of the pandemic.

Miriam Elhajli, a member of the AllInOne Collective, performed at a recent fund-raiser in the backyard of 70 Lefferts Place, the group’s primary home.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

If it’s a weekend, the haunting voice of Miriam Elhajli, a Venezuelan-Moroccan-American member of the collective, may waft forth from an intimate fund-raising performance in the backyard, where housemates’ canvases decorate a vine-covered wall. If it’s a weeknight, silence may cloak the villa, with its residents gathered in the dining room, crafting braided pasta from scratch for a pesto dinner for 15 masterminded by Owen Campbell, a puckish indie-film actor who is one of the collective’s four organizers.

Crowned by a windowed rooftop cupola whose broad eaves are supported bylusciously carved wooden brackets, the Big Yellow House, as its denizens call it, is a two-and-a-half story wood-frame residence built for the merchant and philanthropist James W. Elwell around 1854, when Brooklyn was emerging as the country’s first commuter suburb. Known as “Bouquet” Elwell, the villa’s original owner kept a flower conservatory at the house, from which he picked a bloom for his buttonhole every morning, according to his 1899Brooklyn Daily Eagle obituary. Thus adorned, he commuted to Lower Manhattan via the nearby Fulton Street streetcar line and the Wall Street ferry.

No. 70 Lefferts around 1940, when it housed followers of the charismatic African-American minister Father Divine. The group served cheap meals to the public in the villa’s basement.Credit…NYC Municipal Archives

In 1939, the villa was sold to followers of the influential African-American minister Father Divine, who believed that their leader was the second coming of Christ. No. 70 Lefferts, rechristened as Father Divine’s Peace Mission Movement Extension, was transformed in this period from a single-family home to its first incarnation as a place of cooperative living.

The house remained in the hands of Father Divine’s followers until the 1980s, and in 2006 a developer bought it for $2.4 Million. To forestall the villa’s demolition for the inevitable high-rise condominium, the Lefferts Place Civic Association,the Historic Districts Council and Letitia James, who was then a city councilwoman representing the 35th District (she is now the New York State attorney general), fought a successful, 11th-hour campaign to have the property designated a city landmark.

The Elwell House is a rare surviving Italianate villa in Brooklyn, along with the grander, stylishly asymmetrical Litchfield Villa, just inside Prospect Park near Fifth Street. While the Litchfield house was designed by the celebrated architect Alexander Jackson Davis, 70 Lefferts was probably adapted from an architectural pattern book.

Like the Elwell House, the wood-frame Joseph Steele House at 200 Lafayette Avenue, a short walk from 70 Lefferts, boasts a cupola — this one octagonal — that is redolent of the Italianate villa fashion. All three houses were built before the Civil War.

In 2011, 70 Lefferts endured an unwelcome spotlight as an illegal hostel in which a bunk-bed berth could be had for $25 a night. And in the following two years, the idiosyncratic house changed hands twice more.

Audrey Banks, a co-founder of the collective, standing on the steps of the Big Yellow House with residents, from left, Eamon Levesque, a writer; Sydney Moss, an embroidery artist; and Calvin Ramsay, an R&B singer.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

AllInOne, the artists collective that now rents the entire building, is the brain child of Audrey Banks, a soft-spoken, hard-driving 27-year-old painter and performance artist who has been nurturing creative communities since she herself was still a child.

At 16, while attending Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, Ms. Banks founded the Teen Art Gallery, for which she sifted through thousands of submissions from around the country to curate exhibitions of her peers’ paintings, sculptures and other works in Manhattan gallery spaces.

After graduation from Carnegie Mellon University and stints in Boston and London (where she lived in a closet under the staircase of a warehouse that had been converted into a shared artists’ space), she returned to New York City to discover that the sense of creative community she had known as a teenager was far harder to come by, due primarily to cripplingly high real estate prices.

“We’re spread out in Astoria, Bushwick, Williamsburg — and now we’re priced out of Williamsburg,” Ms. Banks said. “So the city has lost the kinds of artistic communities it had in the 1900s” in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, SoHo, TriBeCa and the East Village, where Ms. Banks grew up.

The way she saw it, this dispersal of artists harmed not only the individual creators but the culture of the city at large.

During the last century “there were physical pockets of artists, creatives, activists — and poets too, beatniks who were rebellious in an artistic way — all living in the same place,” Ms. Banks said. “So they had a claim to a certain part of the city, almost as if they put a flag down and said, ‘Artists have this place and we matter.’ And because they had a physical presence in a neighborhood, they invariably had more influence on the rest of the city.”

To restore this perceived loss of community, Ms. Banks envisioned a network of large buildings around town, each one gathering like-minded artists and social activists under one roof to share resources and spark creativity. But in the absence of deep pockets, she was uncertain how to proceed.

Then, early last year, while she was working part-time at the Subway realty company in Bushwick, her boss fielded a serendipitous call from Joseph Banda, a co-owner of 70 Lefferts, which had been vacant for a couple of years.

“We’d had a lot of offers to sell and to renovate,” said Mr. Banda, whose Brooklyn-based real estate company, Ranco Capital, bought the villa for $850,000 with a partner in 2013. “But the house had so much history and so much uniqueness that I didn’t want to be the one to fix something that might not be broken.”

So Mr. Banda asked Ms. Banks’s boss if he knew of anyone who might want to “put a group under one umbrella and have one common goal” for 70 Lefferts, which over the decades had been chopped into an oddball warren of rooms and had a quirky double kitchen with two large fridges and a finicky six-burner stove.

“I just said, ‘Hell, yes!,’” Ms. Banks recalled.

The interiors of 70 Lefferts are largely decorated with items scavenged from the street or spotted on Craigslist. The steps of the worn spiral staircase sing when residents walk up it.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

The 22-room villa’s elaborate scale, ramshackle elegance and eccentricity of layout won her over the moment she saw it.

“I was completely floored and in shock,” she said. “It was almost better than I had imagined: a more open, multifamily, interconnected three-story house.” The top floor, a “crazy maze of tiny, low-ceilinged attic rooms” that had probably once been servants’ quarters, proved ideal spaces for artists’ studios. Down below, the living room retained its opulently filigreed crown moldings, two of the six bathrooms had stained-glass windows, and five rooms were ornamented by ornate fireplaces.

Ms. Banks drew up a business plan with Mr. Campbell, the indie actor, and even after Covid hit, Mr. Banda decided to take a chance on a hodgepodge of young artists, some with inconsistent income.

“She’s a big dreamer, but very grounded,” Mr. Banda said of Ms. Banks, who has a reassuring stillness about her, even as she is in constant motion. “She drew up the steps to get to the dream, so I felt very comfortable after meeting her.”

Sharing a block with rowhouses and other low-rise residential buildings, 70 Lefferts is a kind of secret artistic treehouse, hidden by overgrown greenery.Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

The first resident moved in while Covid raged in early July 2020, and the rambling old house was fully rented by Sept. 1 last year — solely through word of mouth.

The dogged idealism of AllInOne’s organizers recalls the pioneering efforts of George Maciunas, considered by many the father of Manhattan’s SoHo arts district. In 1967, confronting artists’ eternal struggle to find affordable live-work space, Mr. Maciunas founded Fluxhouse Cooperative II in a dilapidated loft building at 80 Wooster Street, the first successful artists cooperative in SoHo. He went on to establish several other flourishing co-ops in the neighborhood, with artists scraping together funds to purchase cheap old commercial buildings in a scruffy area then known as Hell’s Hundred Acres.

AllInOne, by contrast, is a renter, operating in a far more gentrified city and dependent for its survival on a willing landlord.

The collective pays $16,000 a month in rent through a limited liability company, eking out a slender profit by subletting to 15 tenants, who have signed subleases as groups. Rents for the 10 bedrooms range from $680 to $1,250; studios fetch from $360 to $1,360.

Serious but not self-serious, the collective’s members are an eclectic bunch.A jewelry designer makes pieces in the sun-dazzled cupola. Residents on the lower floors include digital artists, a housing justice advocate, a painter who is also a fashion model, an artist-dominatrix and an investigative data journalist. A video and photography production studio and a classroom can be booked by the public.

Basement studios are the domain of a designer, a poet and two architects, who hang their laundry from red-painted ceiling pipes. (A handwritten sign on the washing machine reads: “Whoever keeps putting wet fresh laundry on the table … Please stop!! It’s … hella rude.”)

Also planned for the basement — where Father Divine’s acolytes served cheap meals to the public in the 1940s — is a generous gallery space for use by outside groups as well as the collective’s members.

Common spaces have largely been furnished with secondhand chairs, couches and chandeliers scavenged on the street or spotted on Craigslist. Layouts were curated by Sydney Moss, a shy Broadway seamstress turned Pratt Institute interior design student.

The enclosed front porch, with paired round-headed windows characteristic of antebellum Italianate villas, was styled by Sydney Moss, an interior design student at the nearby Pratt Institute.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

One of the most popular hangout spaces is the glorious front porch, with its paired round-headed windows, a characteristic of the Italianate villa style that is carried through on the projecting front bay above. The porch was probably added in the late 19th century, according to the landmarks commission, and enclosed around the time the home was bought by Father Divine’s followers.

“The house is so quirky, like the house in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’” Ms. Moss said. “That house feels infinite, and it changes with every generation of the family to suit their needs, but there’s also things about the house they have no control over — it has a mind of its own.”

So, too does the Big Yellow House, some of whose floors are as sharply pitched as the deck of a storm-tossed ship. At some point in the past, a wedge was cut away from the bottom of the door of Ms. Moss’s tiny attic-level studio so that the door could open without hitting the slanted hallway floor. Ms. Moss has had to fill the gap with cardboard to keep cats from sneaking in.

“They’re cute,” she said, “but sometimes I’m working with fabric that’s $100 a yard.”

When new members join AllInOne, they are required to contribute to a database of skills, resources or professional connections they are willing to share with the group. The trove of shared resources includes a 3-D printer, gardening tools and camera and lighting equipment, as well as relationships with lawyers, accountants and social-impact initiatives.

Cross-pollination across disciplines is at the heart of the collective’s mission.

“Proximity equals more projects equals more influence equals more impact that spills out into the neighborhood and the city at large,” Ms. Banks said.

One vivid example was the debut music video for “Breathe,” a song by Chobutta, a.k.a. Calvin Ramsay, an R&B musician and model who lives on the attic level and who outfitted the first-floor production studio from scratch with other AllInOne members.

Staged mostly inside the villa and on its roof, the video was produced by Tristan Reginato and Brodii Etienne and shot by Hil Steadman. Performers included housemates Tiger Mackie and Ella Laviolette.

“It was quite a life-changing experience of working with pretty much the entire house,” said Mr. Ramsay, 29. “Even people not in the video were behind the scenes gaffing or cooking food for us.”

Mr. Ramsay said that the collective was a “safe haven” for him after growing up gay in Queens, where he often had to work things out for himself.

“I was broke, had no savings, had college debt and no support from my family, and literally moving into this house changed everything,” he said.

Learning from the organizers about grant writing, business practices and outreach programs, he added, and “knowing that each person in this space had their own role, and learning expertise from all these people, really pushed me to move out of my comfort zone.”

A recent fund-raiser in the Big Yellow House’s backyard showcased artwork by the collective’s members.Credit…Mary Inhea Kang for The New York Times

In addition to fostering its members’ creative output, AllInOne hosts lectures and gatherings of community groups like Bergen Green Space. And the collective has organized an affiliated rowhouse in Fort Greene, also owned by Mr. Banda, with a third deal in the works in Ditmas Park.

“I don’t want to be saying I’m this guy who’s out there to change Brooklyn — I’m not an angel,” Mr. Banda said. But he acknowledged the infectiousness of the young artists’ excitement.

“There was a certain energy that went into that house when it was built,” he said, “and that energy comes back after so many years to serve the community in a new way. To me, it’s loving.”

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