In Brooklyn Heights,
a Mid-Century Iconoclast

This Willow Place townhouse is one of three modern gems in the neighborhood designed by a renowned husband-wife pair.

In 1963, Joseph and Mary Merz bought at auction three non-contiguous vacant lots, on Willow Place in Brooklyn Heights, for $11,000. That was a low price even then, and not without reason: the powerful urban planner Robert Moses was weighing whether to add a Brooklyn-Queens Expressway exit ramp right next door on State Street. (It of course ended up on nearby Atlantic Avenue.)

The Merzes kept the corner lot at No. 48 for themselves, and designed houses for the other two lots at No. 40 and No. 44, the latter of which is for sale, that would help pay for their own home. No. 40 Willow Place went to Nixon lawyer and arts enthusiast Leonard Garment, and No. 44 was designed in 1965 for the graphic artist Ronald Clyne, who created more than 500 Folkways Records album covers, and his wife, Hortense. Today, the three Willow Place houses are the only modern landmark-approved townhouses in the storied neighborhood known for its historic brownstones.

Arguably the best of the three modern Merz townhouses, 44 Willow Place runs heavy on charm. After a to-the-studs reno that united two former duplexes, the trophy home has been completely reimagined as a stylish, utterly modern single-family townhouse. It offers 3,036 square feet of interior space, three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a really cool powder room with a Pietra Vivia marble vanity, a brand-new kitchen, a private garage (oh, the status in this neighborhood), and a treasured backyard oasis.

New features include a gym, maple and marble floors, a new roof, recessed lighting, an all-electric zoned HVAC system, a Sonos sound system, and a wall of custom shelving in the light and bright living room.

Merz homes are known for distinctive façade elements — this one features a sea of concrete blocks with slim vertical windows and dawn redwood highlights. The high style starts right at the front door of the parlor level, with Ann Sacks marble flooring leading into the open-plan kitchen and dining room. The sleek new kitchen offers custom ash cabinetry, a 42-inch AGA stove (another notch on the status belt), and polished Pietra Vivia marble counters. The west-facing dining room has doors that open to a deck and stairs down to the garden. The main living room, which is up a flight of stairs, also overlooks the garden. This level also holds a full-width front room with a pair of built-in desks on either side of a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Willow Place.

Up we go to the top level, which features a full-floor primary bedroom suite with dual walk-in closets and a new marble bathroom with Workstead lighting, a Pietra Vivia double vanity, and an oversized walk-in shower. The lower garden level holds two additional bedrooms, a gym, a new full bathroom, and a utility room with lots of storage space.

Willow Place is extremely convenient, with easy access to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the major subways at Borough Hall, the Brooklyn Bridge Park waterfront, and the shopping and dining of Atlantic Avenue.

Mary Merz passed in 2011 at the age of 85, and Joe at 92 in 2020. Along with the three midcentury treasures on Willow Place, their legacy can be found all over Brooklyn Heights. According to Joe’s obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the Merzes planted several hundred neighborhood trees, renovated the neighborhood’s Alfred T. White Community Center, designed a playground and garden at Columbia and State streets, and were named joint curators of Prospect Park in 1975.

Along with many private homes, they also designed dormitories at SUNY Potsdam, assorted works for the Department of Interior, and Dreyfus Fund offices in the General Motors Building.

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