“There is a certain shade of red brick–a dark, almost melodious red, somber and riddled with blue–that is my childhood in St. Louis,” wrote Harold Brodkey in State of Grace. Well, there is a certain shade of red brick–somber and melodious–that is my neighborhood in the West Village, and Ferron Brown is the custodian of that color.
Mr. Brown’s material is brownstone, or rather, it is a confection of brownstone mix (like pancake mix) that he applies to the surfaces of old buildings to simulate their original appearance.
Quite a few brownstones in the West Village were built in the 19th century, and every block has its own motley assemblage of the very old, the old, and the not so old. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has exercised a strong hand in the neighborhood, so the one thing you’re not likely to see is something brand new.
What you will see, however, are old buildings that have been restored to look like they did when they were new. This is where Ferron Brown comes in. Every now and then I come home to discover him working on another one of the brownstones on my block. A dark-skinned black man with a square jaw and focused eyes, he’s usually dressed in work clothes spattered with paint or dust. He has strong, powerful hands–the kind you might see on a statue. In fact, he’s a bit of a sculptor himself, always at work with a hammer and a chisel, and a few other elemental tools such as a straight metal rod and trowel.
It’s a peculiar task, this brownstone restoration, because at first glance it looks like he is destroying, not restoring his brownstones. He sets to work on a building’s face with his hammer and chisel, and sometimes a power tool, and gradually chips the whole thing away until it looks like some war ruin where a particularly fierce battle had taken place. After this, he pours a huge quantity of a reddish powder into a metal trough and mixes water and stirs with care. You can tell he is paying particular attention to the color and consistency. I mention this only because when all is said and done, it’s sort of nice to return to your street and find someone so concentrated on stirring.
Once Mr. Brown has stirred his batter to the right consistency, he starts applying. At first, this is a sloppy process, like stucco. He slaps it on the building’s face in broad strokes. Then he gets down to details.
In no time, an amazingly precise series of shapes begins to emerge.
“He’s fantastic. I think he’s the best,” says Bolek Ryzinski, a feisty contractor who’s done a lot of work on the block. Bolek’s work crew consists almost entirely of Polish workers.
Bolek has employed Ferron on numerous jobs and is obviously a big fan. How Bolek, with his Polish accent, communicates with Ferron and his Jamaican accent is a mystery of sorts, but a nice one. “There’s lots of big companies that do this,” Bolek told me from his cell phone. “But they are big companies. This is one-man situation.”
After Mr. Brown and I exchanged friendly nods for a couple of years (he did my house too), I finally pulled him aside and we had a conversation. It was a late afternoon in spring, and the sunlight was shooting straight across the Hudson River and all the way down 11th Street, where it’s sultry orange light illuminated Mr. Brown’s work.
He used to live in Kingston, Jamaica; he came here in 1981. “Back in Kingston I had my own bakery,” he told me. “Brown’s Bakery,” he added with evident pride, and I immediately flashed to his careful stirring of the brownstone mix.
“I started in New York as a laborer,” he said. “I specialized in details, the craft part of brownstones. The first time I ever picked up a trowel one of the other workers could not believe I could master the tool so fast. In fact, in Kingston I was one of the best rollers of bread.”
His first job on his own–restoring a brownstone in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn–came in 1984. “The guy’s name was Willie–I remember his name quite well!” said Mr. Brown. “I somehow managed to do another job at the same time, and ever since then I’ve been booked up. I don’t do any advertising. People advertise me.”
In the late eighties, he began doing quite a few restorations in Park Slope. A couple of years ago he moved into the West Village and now he shuttles between my block and a brownstone on East 83rd.
One only has to look at the work to know why he’s so busy: he’s good! “I won an award,” he told me. The Landmark Preservation committee gave it to him. “Dinkins was the mayor then,” Mr. Brown said and cast his eyes down the block, where several example of his work was shining in the afternoon sun. “His signature appeared on the award. It said: ‘For a job well done in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.'”
He’s doing pretty well in the West Village, too.