On a leafy, one-block-long Brooklyn Heights street lined with well-preserved Greek Revival townhouses, a rare bit of mid-century modern history has gone up for sale. Close to — though still set back from — the oft-crowded Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 48 Willow Place is one of three mid-century townhouses designed by local architects Joseph and Mary Merz.
In the early 1960s, the couple purchased three vacant non-contiguous lots at auction for $11,000, a particularly low price since Robert Moses was considering adding a Brooklyn Queens Expressway exit ramp right next door on State Street (the ramp ended up a block away on Atlantic Avenue). The Merzs then began planning how to design the three homes with a distinctly modern aesthetic, but one that wouldn’t clash with the group of four 1840s townhouses fronted by chunky white columns across the street. Eventually they landed on using redwood and custom-designed concrete blocks marked to resemble eight-inch squares. From the street, the cement facade is as imposing as the columns nearby, but the Merzs’ use of plain cement cornice echoes the neoclassical neighbors.
The resulting townhouses earned a spot in Architectural Record’s list of record houses of 1969, where the design was described as “sophisticated,” “uncluttered,” and “orderly.” The Merzs themselves moved into No. 48, a 5,000-square-foot home on a corner lot wrapping around State Street (No. 40 is even larger at 6,581 square feet and last sold in 2013 for $7.6 million; No. 44 is much smaller and has been divided into two duplexes). The project contributed to the creation of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District (the city’s first designated historic district) in 1965 and also led to many commissions for the couple, including a redesign of the headquarters for the Dreyfus Fund in the GM Building.
Over the years, the Merz residence has stayed in the family, and the interior features remain untouched (all the furniture currently shown is staged). The abundant, large windows are still framed in redwood, while custom yellow-hued maple millwork showcases built-in bookshelves and cupboards in the 34-foot-wide living room and kitchen. Common spaces feature Scottish terracotta stone flooring that, per listing agent Deb Rieders, shows almost no sign of wear after decades. And the kitchen retains paneled appliances and open shelving (unusual elements in the 1960s) on a single back wall to maintain an open floor plan.
Upstairs, there are currently six bedrooms and four baths, but the building design allows for flexible layout configurations. Unlike in most brownstones, the only structural walls in this townhouse are the four exterior ones; the rest are fixed but “floating,” meaning that you could create any number of larger or smaller rooms by adding interior walls. There’s also a windowed basement that had served as the headquarters of Merz Architecture, with two baths, three office rooms, and plenty of storage.
For all of the mid-century appeal inside, the house’s outdoor spaces are also quite special. The Merzs believed in incorporating nature into design, and their home includes a Japanese garden with a stone path leading to a wooden deck with a pergola (and a carport underneath), which all take up the full width of the lot. And the couple worked on outdoor spaces outside of their own home, as well — according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s obituary for Joseph, the Merzs planted several hundred neighborhood trees, renovated a community center on Willow Place, designed a playground and garden at Columbia and State streets, and were named joint curators of Prospect Park in 1975.