Friends of Everett H. Ortner, Park Slope Preservationist, Remember His Legacy

Everett Ortner, who many considered to be the pioneer of Park Slope, died on Tuesday, May 22. He was 92.

Everett H. Ortner, a writer, editor, photographer and preservationist of Park Slope, died in New York Methodist Hospital on Tuesday, May 22 due to complications after a bad fall, according to close friends.

As many people know, Park Slope was not always revered as the number one neighborhood in New York City to live. It was at one time riddled with crime and Fifth Avenue was not a destination for dinner, but rather a spot where drug dealers worked from payphones.

But there is one man who can be thanked for the neighborhood’s turn around from disinvestment and degradation: Everett H. Ortner, who lived on Berkeley Place since 1963 until his death this past week. He was 92.

Ortner was a writer and editor on building technology, urban revival and preservation. He worked at Popular Science magazine for 33 years. He started in 1953 as the assistant copy chief and retired in 1985 as its editor-in-chief.

But his passion was Park Slope's brownstones, architecture and the neighborhood's preservation. Starting in 1965, he was a pivotal leader in the brownstone-revival movement of Park Slope. He was the co-founder of the Brownstone Revival Committee of New York (now known as the Brownstone Revival Coalition) and in 1968 became its first president.

The BRC is a citywide organization that strives to preserve old New York City neighborhoods. The organization's newsletter, "The Brownstoner" for which Ortner wrote and edited, publishes articles on preservation and architecture. 

Ortner was also the vice president of the Brooklyn Historical Society, vice president of the Park Slope Civic Council, board member and president of the Montauk Club on Eighth Avenue, among other organizations. 

But before Park Slope was the destination for people and families to buy brownstones, there was Ortner. 

Jim Marshall, who was friends with Ortner for 40 years, said that without Ortner and his wife, Park Slope would not be how it is today:

"He and Evelyn were very instrumental for the emergence of Park Slope as a desirable neighborhood,” Marshall said.

According to Marshall, Ortner helped get parts of Park Slope become historically landmarked. Marshall said that Ortner would take pictures of brownstones, collect data on them and then send the package to New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Before he did that, Park Slope was not designated as a historic neighborhood, which .

Another issue was that the banks redlined the neighborhood, and they would not give mortgages. So, Ortner and his wife would hold receptions, guide tours and bring bankers and prospective buyers into brownstones to convince them it was a “reasonable neighborhood.”

“The redlining stopped, and it’s all due to Everett and Evelyn,” Marshall said.

But, the neighborhood pioneer also touched individual lives by convincing them to move here.

“He literally changed my life and my family’s life by persuading us to buy a brownstone in Brooklyn," Marshall said, explaining that he was living in Manhattan and moved across the East River in 1968. "Much to our surprise and dismay we found ourselves buying a 100-year-old home on St Johns Place in Park Slope. We were faced with a great deal of renovations and living in a neighborhood that was shaky at the time. But it turned out to be the best thing we ever did.” 

Joe Sweeny, who has been living two doors down from Everett for 45 years, said Everett loved his home on Berkeley Place, which he bought for $32,000 in 1963.

“He was so thrilled with his brownstone, he loved it, cherished it,” Sweeny said. “He would always say, ‘It is the prettiest brownstone in Park Slope.’”

Sweeny explained that Ortner and his wife started the Cinderella Projects in the 1970s, working with Brooklyn Union Gas Company (which is now National Grid), which promoted Brooklyn’s historic communities and renovated brownstones. Cinderella also helped install gas lanterns throughout the Slope.

Although Ortner loved Park Slope, Sweeny said there was one thing he may have loved more.

“Above all, he was a super patriotic American,” Sweeny said, explaining that he fought in WWII as a lieutenant. “He was proud of his forced march across Poland as a prisoner of war. Don’t say anything anti-American in front of him. He’d say, ‘Let me tell you a few things.’”

Sweeny said that Ortner watched many of his “war buddies” die during the march and then was in a prison in Germany for seven months.

“He could only say the best of things about America,” Sweeny said. “He was more American than Sam Goldwyn.”

Ortner was proud of helping people move to Park Slope and into a home that was right for them.

“He would always say, ‘I made you a millionaire,’” Sweeny said, explaining that he helped people find brownstones, which were going for $25,000 in the late 60s. Now, the prices for the same brownstones are over $1 million.

Clem Labine, 73, has lived in a brownstone Ortner helped him find since 1968 on Berkeley Place. Labine met Ortner on Dec. 31, 1966 at a New Year’s Eve party.  

He was living in Queens and told Ortner he was looking to buy a house in the suburbs.

“‘Have you thought about a brownstone in Brooklyn?’” Labine remembers Ortner asking.

“‘No I have not, what a silly idea,’” Labine said to Ortner in 1966.

But at the end of the night, Ortner convinced him to take a look at what was available. 

“Not only did I buy a house, but he changed the entire direction of my life,” he said, explaining that he left his job at McGraw-Hill as an engineer to focus on historical preservation because of Ortner’s influence.

“He literally changed my life,” Labine said.

Labine described Ortner as a “passionate, relentless salesperson for urban revival” and one of the few people who did not personally benefit.

Labine said that during Park Slope’s downward spiral of disinvestment, Ortner and a few other colleagues started the Park Slope Betterment Committee (which is now the Park Slope Civic Council) to start house tours to get young homebuyers to purchase brownstones in the neighborhood.

After Park Slope became the neighborhood it is today, Labine said he would joke around with Everett: “‘You exceeded your wildest dreams and made Park Slope the home of the $5 ice cream cone,’” Labine remembered saying to Ortner.

When asked what Ortner’s legacy is if he had to pick only one thing, Labine did not hesitate:

“The Park Slope streets that we walked down today is his legacy,” Labine said. 

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Jenny May 26, 2012 at 06:30 PM
What a lovely piece. Great tribute to him and a very interesting look at the neighborhood.
Marius Meland May 27, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Wonderful story and a great tribute. Thank you.
Petit May 27, 2012 at 08:48 PM
I met Everett and Evelyn back in 1973 when I was a young teaching assistant in West Virginia (Morgantown) I loved both of them so much and I am very sad to have lost such precious friends. I never failed to visit them in Brooklyn every time I went to New York. Jean-Michel (& Françoise) Petit Normandy France
Rebecca May 28, 2012 at 01:38 PM
Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Ortner for paving the way to this beloved neighborhood I've been fortunate to call home for this past 20 years.
Ken May 30, 2012 at 12:40 AM
A great piece to two wonderful people. The Ortners also had tours of GreenWood Cemetary on Sundays at about 1:00. I learned so much from them.


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