Few structures are more synonymous with Brooklyn than the borough’s classic brownstones: the archetypal, high-stooped townhouses that have lined the streets of neighborhoods like Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, and Bedford-Stuyvesant for generations. To chart the history of these buildings — the families who inhabited them and the communities they’ve come to shape — is to chart the history and culture of the borough itself.
Brian Hartig, a trained journalist and self-professed history buff, has set out to do exactly that with Brownstone Detectives, a thriving research service that helps Brooklyn residents uncover the forgotten legacies of their adopted homes.
“In these times, where there is so much of the impermanent and the halfway, people place a premium on anything authentic in their lives,” Hartig, 50, tells the Voice. “The history of these old homes is really the definition of that authenticity.”
Hartig started the business last year after purchasing a brownstone of his own on Macon Street in Bed-Stuy. Curious about who had owned the building before him, he and a friend made their way to the Department of Finance in search of deeds and clues.
“We were looking through these big dusty old ancient tomes, flipping through the pages and looking at the old scripts that they used,” says Hartig, who was born in New Jersey and currently works a day job at the city’s Department of Homeless Services. “At one point, after we had been doing this for about half an hour, she looked up at me and she said, ‘Wow, we’re brownstone detectives!’ I didn’t say anything at the time, but I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s a great name. Maybe we’ll use it someday.’ ”
Now, several months and several hundred hours of research later, Hartig has finished compiling a 176-page book on the history of his home. Using resources available at the D.O.F., the Brooklyn Historical Society, and the Brooklyn Public Library — as well as local newspaper archives and Ancestry.com — he was able to track down the descendants of the building’s original owners.
One former resident, a woman who was born in the brownstone in 1936 and hadn’t set foot in the building in over 62 years, returned to Macon Street to give Hartig a tour of the property through her eyes. She walked Hartig through her old bedroom and showed him how she used to dance in front of her mirror as a little girl.
The power of the experience strengthened Hartig’s bond with his new home, and the idea is to use his book as an example of what the Brownstone Detectives are capable of providing for prospective clients.
“People are just so interested in history,” Hartig explains. “Part of the reason that they want to buy an old house is because it’s not just a frame building that was just built yesterday and doesn’t have a history. They want to find a house that has the details.”
The details are indeed what Hartig and the Brownstone Detectives have come to specialize in over the past year, and the service isn’t always cheap. While not every customer can afford a hardbound album of their building’s history (the books start at 25 pages and a whopping $2,900), Hartig also offers a “House History Report” for a base price of $650 and a chain-of-title search for $175. Real estate companies have also enlisted his services, hoping the narratives he uncovers will help give their brokers a slight edge in the market.
But regardless of the packaging, the process almost always yields fascinating results.
“We’ve uncovered stories of baseball Hall of Famers, murderers, Civil War heroes, unexplained fires, explosions, deceit, corruption, unrequited love, and much, much more,” the business boasts on its website. “We’ll track down every available fact, story, person, photograph, and official document until — with all the evidence laid out before us — we’ve solved [the] mystery.”
Though he currently employs a graphic designer and an artist who produces sketches of the properties, Hartig conducts the vast majority of the research himself. The business has grown rapidly, however, and Hartig will soon leave his day job, hire a larger staff, and begin to focus on expanding Brownstone Detectives to the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and beyond.
After years of searching, Hartig feels he has finally found his calling.
“I finally found the one thing that keeps me up until three in the morning and has me looking at my watch saying, ‘Oh my God, I have to get some sleep,’ ” he explains. “It’s just so enjoyable. It’s something that’s so much fun to do.”