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Thread: Brownstone Architecture

  1. #16
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    Oct 2002


    Walkabout: Aesthetically Speaking, Part I

    Eastlake stye brownstone facade. MacDonough St, Bedford Stuyvesant. John Fraser, architect. 1888.

    The Aesthetic Movement was one of the most important social movements of the late 19th century, yet most people are not aware of it at all. As far as our Brooklyn neighborhoods are concerned, we see the influences of the Movement everywhere, both on the exteriors and interiors of our period homes and buildings. The Aesthetic Movement, as discussed today, is mostly seen as a decorative or artistic phase of Victoriana. It was much more than that. Like many of the social and artistic trends of the time, the Movement started in England, and ran roughly from 1870-1900. If the Movement had a theme, it would have to be “Art for Art’s sake”. The British writers and poets of the time asserted that life should be beauty, lived sensuously without regard for societal mores. In the words of the Bradbury wallpaper website, they “celebrated the virtues of a vague, opium-laced artistic nirvana where all women were pale and wan, all men were unbearably poetic and sensitive, and all their surroundings were simply too utterly utter, i.e. beautiful beyond the ponderous weight of description.”

    They started and cultivated the cult of beauty, which entrances our society still. Oscar Wilde was perhaps the most well known of the Aesthetic writers and artists, which also included Evelyn Waugh and A.E. Houseman, and Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Bourne-Jones, as well as James McNeill Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley.

    As stated, one needs to live surrounded by beauty, in beautiful rooms, surrounded by beautiful things, and at this time the decorative arts rose to the forefront of a striving society, and have remained there ever since. The greatest influence of the Movement occurred when Japan opened up to Western trade in the mid 1800's, fueling a mania in both England and the US for Japanese designs, themes, and goods. The delicate and asymmetrical art of Japan was totally new to Western audiences hungry for something different, and the designers of the Aesthetic Movement quickly became fascinated with the shapes and motifs. Leaves and flowers, butterflies, birds, and other natural themes joined with the rectilinear shapes of Japanese furniture and architecture. Charles Eastlake was very influenced by Japanese culture and design, those designs reinterpreted in the American Eastlake furniture and interior woodwork, as well as exterior incised stonework of the Neo-Grec brownstones of Brooklyn.

    On both sides of the Atlantic, Aesthetic Movement designers created products for bourgeoning middle and upper middle class homes. Transfer ware china with floral, animal and Japanese themes, silver-plate and sterling cutlery and hollowware serving pieces with delicate tracery graced the homes of consumers. Wallpaper in “Japanned” patterns was in vogue, bringing colors and patterns not seen before into the home. In furniture, Japanese-style ebonized and lacquered pieces, sometimes gilded, were popular, as was marquetry and painted surfaces. It was an age of amazing surface design.

    The Aesthetic Movement was the precursor of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which, in America, was highly influenced by Japan, especially on the West Coast. But before the simplicity of that movement come the excesses of the former. If art is beauty, then surely more is more, especially in the home. The relative simplicity of the Aesthetic Movement soon ushered in the robber baron style of excessive excess. Many Brooklynites had more money to spend, and built and decorated accordingly. We’ll look at how the Aesthetic Movement has shaped parts of Brooklyn on Thursday. Please check the Flickr page for examples of interior and exterior styles.

  2. #17
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    Oct 2002


    Building of the Day: 94-102 Prospect Park West

    Address: 94-102 Prospect Park West, between 5th and 6th St.
    Name: Apartment buildings
    Neighborhood: Park Slope
    Year Built: 1899
    Architectural Style: Neo-Italian Renaissance
    Architects: Unknown, for developer Charles Hart
    Landmarked: Yes

    Why chosen: When I think of gracious rowhouse apartment living in Park Slope, this group of five buildings always comes to mind. (House numbers 95-97 omitted from the sequence.) I guess it's because I really like all of the details that went into this very handsome group; the undulating bays, the very pleasing way your eye moves across the group as a whole, taking in the detailed ornament, and then rising to the oval windows, and then those beautiful loggias with the ballustraded porches curved by the roofs of the bays and then accented by the columns. The style and date of these buildings would generally lend itself to limestone, not brownstone, but I like how the darker stone really accents all of the carved ornament, and contrasts with plants and trees.

    Whoever designed these was quite good, and he got it just right. These buildings were never single family homes, they were designed to be apartment buildings in a rowhouse style configuration, and even though it would be tough, I'd want a top floor apartment. Besides legs of steel, I'd have an amazing view of the park, and watching nature's path through the seasons from this vista would be heaven. I only wish all of the stoops and original doorways were still intact, like 102's.

  3. #18
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    Oct 2002


    Covetable Carriage Houses

    MY POST THE OTHER DAY about a mews alley in Cobble Hill re-opened my eyes to the 19th century carriage houses that still exist in Brooklyn — not in great abundance, which makes those that remain all the more special.

    The yellow one, top, on Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights, probably belonged to some wealthy individual who lived in one of the oversized brownstones on the block.
    There’s a concentration of large carriage houses along Vanderbilt Avenue in Clinton Hill, below, a major thoroughfare now as it was in the 1870s or ’80s, when these were most likely built. I’m guessing the larger ones on Vanderbilt were the equivalent of commercial garages or bus depots.

    Off Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, on Nevins and Bond Streets, there are a few carriage houses of simple design, of a piece with the pre-Civil War brickfront row houses there.

    Here’s one of my longtime favorites, below. It’s on Pacific Street between Court and Clinton Streets in Cobble Hill. There are half a dozen carriage houses/garages on that same block, right off Atlantic Avenue, a busy omnibus route in the 19th century.

  4. #19
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    Building of the Day: 376-432 Vanderbilt Avenue

    Name: Rowhouses
    Address: 376-432 Vanderbilt Avenue
    Cross Streets: Gates and Greene Avenues
    Neighborhood: Fort Greene
    Year Built: between 1872-1879
    Architectural Style: Italianate, and Italianate/Neo-Grec
    Architect and Builder: Thomas B. Jackson
    Landmarked: Yes, part of Fort Greene HD (1978)

    The story: In honor of Charles Lockwood, who passed away this weekend, today’s BOTD is an entire block of brownstones, the kind of buildings that Mr. Lockwood introduced to us all, in his book Bricks and Brownstone: the New York Row House, 1783-1929. These are the kinds of buildings that cause everyone everywhere, to refer to all rowhouses as “brownstones”: the Italianate row house. This particular group is very well preserved, and showcases all the best of what this kind of housing represents. We know who built them, too, which is often pretty rare, especially in the earlier speculative housing of our borough, for which records can be pretty spare, to say the least.

    Architect and builder Thomas B. Jackson designed and built this entire side of the street, with the exception of the corner houses. That is close to 60 houses, all built to house the growing number of comfortable middle class people who were pouring into Fort Greene in the decade after the Civil War. Merchants, skilled craftsmen, like jewelers and watchmakers, book dealers, lawyers, tailors and widows with income, all bought these houses and made this neighborhood home.

    The houses themselves were built in groups, and as you walk down the street, especially if you are on the eastern side, you can see the slight differences in height, ornamentation, and other small details. Some houses are pure Italianate, others a hybrid of Italianate, and the later style Neo-Grec, which was gaining popularity towards the end of the 1870’s.

    As Charles Lockwood tells us in his book, these rowhouses were not built to be seen individually, but as a unified row. The eye is drawn down the block, most ideally at an angle, drawn to the symmetry of tall stoops, doorways, windows frames, and cornices, all the way down the block, as if to a distant horizon. It really is quite beautiful, and Brooklyn’s brownstone blocks are among the finest examples of this kind of architecture to be found in the city. This block of Vanderbilt is among the finest block of Italianates in Brooklyn.

    At a time when rowhouses were seen as nothing more than potential tear-downs, or at best, student or low income housing that was not really desirable to anyone with means; the brownstone movement was building, proving “them” wrong. Charles Lockwood’s book was a validation of that movement, a scholarly tome providing historic backup to what old house lovers had been saying all along. Perhaps we would have gotten there without his expertise, or his writing, and someone else probably would have come along with a similar book sooner or later. But it was his moment, way back in 1972, and his book, that would have a prominent place in many a brownstoner’s bookshelf. Those bookshelves could even be in some of these fine houses on Vanderbilt Avenue, great examples of what you can do with a pile of brick and brownstone. Thank you, Charles Lockwood! GMAP

  5. #20
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    Bidding Farewell to a City’s Precious Stone


    Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
    Mike Meehan, the owner of Portland Brownstone Quarries.

    Brownstones on Berkeley Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

    Brownstones occupy a unique place in the New York City psyche, as one of the city’s most prototypical signposts, like yellow cabs and fast walkers, yet are able to stir aching desire and teeth-baring jealousy. Everybody wants one.

    Thousands of these structures are crammed into the five boroughs, like sideways stacks of very expensive pancakes. As it turns out, most of them are not only cast from the same mold, but were also made from the same stone, a brown sandstone quarried in Portland, Conn.
    After being mined on and off for centuries, the Portland Brownstone Quarries, the very last of a kind, closed down this year, and by the end of this month, the quarry’s final scraps of inventory should be gone.

    Preservationists are bemoaning the end of an era, or at least of the chance for a perfect match for the city’s ubiquitous stone. And as Portland’s diamond-studded saws have slowed to their final rest, some stone fabricators have begun to — lovingly, respectfully — hoard the stuff.

    “We’re all scrambling to grab that stone,” said George Heckel of Pasvalco, stone fabricators in New Jersey. “If you’re thinking about achieving the look and feel of a New York City brownstone, you’re not going to get that anymore.”

    Not everyone, however, is sad to say goodbye to this particular building block. That’s because the stone, the object of so many New Yorkers’ obsessions, is considered to be rather mediocre.
    “I remember some quote saying it was the worst stone ever quarried,” said Timothy Lynch, the executive director of the Buildings Department’s forensic unit. “It’s like New York City is covered in cold chocolate.”
    That old-time brownstone hater was likely to be Edith Wharton, who called it the “most hideous” stone ever quarried.

    Today, architectural conservators and historians say that most of the city’s “brownstone” facades have been replaced with brown cement-based masonry.

    Brownstone began appearing in New York City buildings in a significant way during the first half of the 19th century, and it quickly became the stone of choice for row house developers.

    (Brownstones are actually brick houses built with a stone facing.) Stone from Portland’s quarries came out of the ground near the Connecticut River, so it was easy to get it to New York City — as well as to other cities up and down the East Coast — and was relatively soft, which made it easy to carve.

    Unfortunately that softness, along with corner-cutting by developers and the extremes of New York City’s weather, made the stone liable to crumble, crack and flake.

    “By the late 19th century, people were already complaining about this,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University.

    The stone fell out of fashion, and by the 1940s, the Portland quarries, flooded by the Connecticut River in a major storm, were shuttered. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Mike Meehan, a geologist with a background in coal exploration, reopened the ground at the edge of the quarry, slicing chunks of brownstone off a wall about 20 feet high and 650 feet long.

    But most of the area is still filled with water, and Mr. Meehan’s closest neighbor is a recreational water park, where zip lines crisscross an old brownstone quarry.

    “We’re up here breaking stones and there are people over there yelling, ‘Yay!’ ” Mr. Meehan said. “It’s a pleasant diversion at lunchtime.”

    Brownstone, which is really just a brown sandstone, is still quarried in a few spots around the world — including Britain, China and Utah — but stone fabricators and materials experts say that there is really nothing quite like the stone that comes from Portland. Much of Mr. Meehan’s stone has been used in historic buildings and restoration projects, including Cooper Union, as well as lavish private homes.

    “I’m telling you, he was our hero,” said Michael Devonshire, an architectural conservator and materials expert at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, a New York architecture firm that specializes in preservation.

    No matter where it’s from, however, brownstone is no longer cheap. Jim Durham, the president of Quarra Stone Company in Madison, Wis., recently bought a dozen truckloads of stone from Mr. Meehan, the last of his large blocks. Mr. Durham estimated Portland Stone to be two or three times the price of Indiana limestone, the “vanilla ice cream” of stone, he said. So cast stone (generally cement based) or stucco substitutions (cement again) are common alternatives.

    After nearly 20 years at the quarry, Mr. Meehan said his company had extracted what it could from the quarry without making significant investments to get more. The land, which he leases, has been put up for sale. At 63, he said, he is ready to move on.

    But there is one more person who plans to hoard some of Mr. Meehan’s remaining little slabs: Mr. Meehan.

    “I’m going to keep working the stuff for my retirement,” he said. “Bird baths, benches, things like that.”

    Mr. Meehan has no intention of selling what he makes, he said. He just wants to carve away with his circular saw for fun. If his neighbors get upset about the noise, he added: “I’ll make each one of them a bird bath. And then how could they complain?”

  6. #21
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    The Brownstone Revisionists


    Rafael Vinoly Architects; Marilynn K.Yee/The New York Times
    Left, a rendering shows East 64th Street with No. 162 razed and replaced by a fritted glass structure
    with a bowed facade by Rafael Viñoly. Right, No. 162 as it looks today.

    Left to right: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times; Rendering by Baxt Ingui Architects and Perspective Arts
    Among the suggestions for modernizing a town house at 338 West 15th Street is to extend the back of the building,
    left, as shown in the architect's rendering, right, which also adds a glass-walled penthouse.

    WHEN Charles Lockwood’s now-classic book “Bricks and Brownstones” was published in the early ‘70s, there was only one thing to do with an old New York town house — restore it to within an inch of its pristine 19th-century glory. The brownstone revival movement had started a few years earlier, and in Manhattan and growing swaths of Brooklyn, the talk on the street was of marble stoops, brass doorknobs, wide-plank pine floors and original wainscoting — the fancier the better.

    Impeccably restored town houses still set the tone today for most brownstone neighborhoods. But it’s increasingly common to find vintage town houses sheathed in glass, aluminum and other relentlessly contemporary materials. Especially in Brooklyn, rear facades are being opened up — “blown out” is the term architects use — to provide large doses of light and air. Many of these reworkings take the form of sweeping glass rear walls, designed to transform spaces that for all their charm are typically small and dark. Some changes boggle the imagination: Preservationists still talk about owners who sought to install a lobster tank atop a newly acquired town house.

    Although the neighbors aren’t always thrilled about such developments, they don’t automatically storm the barricades in protest. Some even engage in cordial conversations with their neighbors and the architects, the goal being to end up with a design that makes everyone happy.

    This is what happened on East 64th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, a stretch of town houses edged by trees and graceful bishop’s-crook lampposts. Though not protected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the block has its share of bay windows, decorative pediments and Juliet balconies. The ornate homes will soon be joined by a second Modernist facade.

    No. 164, a five-story building owned by Anthony Faillace, the founder of a hedge fund, sits behind a boxy natural granite facade punctured by oversize maroon steel-framed windows, designed by Michael Rubin Architects. Next door at No. 162, a 19th-century town house will be razed and replaced by a six-story structure featuring a bowed facade of fritted blueish-gray glass. The architect is Rafael Viñoly, whose high-profile creations pepper the globe. The owner, Eduardo Eurnekian, a prominent Argentine businessman, plans to use the building for offices and residential space.

    In Mr. Viñoly’s opinion, the new building will be a good neighbor, even if it initially turns some heads. “The facade being replaced is undistinguished,” he said. “And imitating an architectural vocabulary simply because it’s there isn’t an appropriate response nowadays.”

    And Kenneth Laub, a commercial real estate broker who created and for many years led the block association, couldn’t be more pleased.

    “Both Mr. Eurnekian and Mr. Viñoly consulted with us about the design,” said Mr. Laub, whose 8,000-square-foot town house across the street, complete with atrium, portable frescoes and eight working marble fireplaces, is on the market with Halstead for nearly $28 million. “Originally Rafael proposed a facade with dark brown metal louvers, which to be honest we weren’t crazy about. But we talked, and I suggested some ideas, and he was very cooperative. What they ended up with is much softer and nicer.”

    Mr. Laub realizes that the story could have ended quite differently. “But both men say they love what this street has become and they want to get along with their neighbors,” he said. “Name a street as beautiful as this. And if Viñoly’s building is impressive and brings greater credence to the street, we’re happy.”

    Ask architects and urban historians why infatuation with the look of the traditional 19th-century town house, a beloved feature of so many New York neighborhoods, seems to be waning in some quarters, and the answers are many and varied.

    To start with, the city’s vintage town houses aren’t getting any younger.

    “When the brownstone revival movement started, the effort was to restore buildings,” said Brendan Coburn, a Brooklyn architect who so radically transformed his Carroll Gardens row house that everything behind the red-brick facade is brand-new. “But in the past 40 years these houses have aged a lot. Many have fallen apart. They need major electrical and mechanical work.” If the innards of a building are being redone and a facade is crumbling, he said, an owner might choose to redo the entire look.

    Also at work are shifting aesthetics that include a greater respect for Modernism. “Tastes change, and part of that change is generational,” said David Hecht, a Brooklyn architect who retrofitted his town house in Clinton Hill. “Contemporary sensibility is more casual, more informal, more flowing. And because town houses are inherently flexible, they can accommodate these changes. It’s part of the continuum of the history, not a departure but the next turn of the wheel.”

    Many town-house owners have already updated their interiors; to rethink the facades may simply be the inevitable next step.

    Yet another issue has to do with the fact that New Yorkers now worry less about losing precious period buildings because so many town houses are protected by their inclusion in historic districts.
    “When landmarking first began nearly 50 years ago, New York was a very different city,” said Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and independent curator. “There was a widespread fear that everything would be lost. But today many important buildings and neighborhoods are landmarked. So we have more freedom to discover such elements as contrast and surprise. And we’re realizing that Modernism isn’t necessarily a bad neighbor. In fact, it can be a good neighbor.

    “There’s a difference between protecting a neighborhood and stifling it,” Mr. Mellins said. “The city doesn’t need to be a Merchant-Ivory stage set to preserve its past.”

    As a growing number of people choose to stay in the city and to move to row-house neighborhoods, a wider variety of taste is evident. Mr. Coburn pointed to the strip of 14 ornament-free town houses on State Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, described by the designers, Rogers Marvel Architects, as “a respectful dialogue between old and new.”

    “Half the neighborhood hates them,” Mr. Coburn said, “and the other half loves them.” He counts himself among the fans.

    As evolving attitudes along East 64th Street show, even ardent devotees of traditional town houses can change with the times. Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, admits to a deep fondness for the crystal doorknobs and brass-accented window sashes in his Brooklyn Heights brownstone. During the renovation of a Greek Revival town house on West 15th Street that he has put on the market for nearly $6 million, Mr. Guerrieri was thrilled to discover original knotty pine wide-plank floor boards beneath the parquet.

    Still, he knows that a growing number of town-house buyers, especially in a happening neighborhood like West Chelsea, crave a contemporary aesthetic. So he has prepared detailed architectural drawings for the house on 15th Street that suggest ways a new owner could retrofit the building for a new century. Proposals include a glass wall running up the rear facade overlooking the south-facing garden, topped by a glass-walled penthouse that in Mr. Guerrieri’s opinion “gives the feel of an artist’s loft.” Because the block falls outside the historic district, the landmarks commission would not have to sign off on such changes.

    A new look has already come to the brownstone in the West 90s where Alexander Southwell, a lawyer, grew up and now lives with his family. An extension that jutted from the rear wall was torn out and replaced by a sweep of windows. Because the front door is glass and there is no interior door, passers-by can peer in and see slivers of a new double-height living area and an ethereal-looking floating staircase designed by Kinlin Rutherfurd Architects.

    Mr. Southwell, who is 41, has warm memories of the house as it looked when he was a child there in the 1970s. “But the changes are terrific,” he said. “For example, thanks to the reconfiguration, we have a mudroom. With three young children, that’s very welcome.”

    In Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods, with their profusion of rear gardens, the battle between tradition and modernityoften plays out in backyards, with owners substituting glass walls or metal projections for traditional back facades.
    Sometimes this works well, as with the brick row house on Huntington Street in Carroll Gardens that Timm and Kelly Chiusano bought in 2008 for about $800,000. “The place had been abandoned for about 15 years and was an utter wreck,” said Mr. Chiusano, who works in sales and marketing at ESPN. “There was no water, no electricity. Basically, we bought a shell of a house.”
    As part of a gut renovation, the Chiusanos’ architect, Mr. Coburn, rebuilt the rear wall to feature a huge double-height window. Changes inside included putting the kitchen and living and dining rooms on the garden floor with easy access to the backyard to accommodate the couple’s two potbellied pigs, because, as Mr. Chiusano explained, “Pigs don’t do stairs.”

    “Some of the neighbors weren’t thrilled about all the construction,” he said. “But we didn’t get any push-back about the new look.”

    Not every rear-yard transformation goes so smoothly. Landmarks commission staff members can cite multiple locations — on Warren Street and Cheever Place in Cobble Hill, for example, and on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill — whose neighbors showed up in full force to rail against rear-yard additions at commission hearings.

    The commission is paying increasing attention to such changes, and over the last few years has more carefully scrutinized the potential impact of proposed additions on historic buildings and the central green space within the block — the “doughnut,” as some preservationists describe it. A year ago, the commission issued amended rules for staff-level approval of rear-yard additions to reflect this approach. The regulations deal with matters like the size and height of an addition, whether it is visible from the street, whether it would eliminate a rear yard and whether it echoes the scale and character of the house and others on the block.
    “In historic districts, the commission always regulated the entire lot,” said Sarah Carroll, the director of preservation at the agency. “But in the last decade we’ve been seeing more applications for rear-facade changes, particularly in Brooklyn, where there hadn’t been as many changes in the rear yards as in the past. And so we’ve been focusing more on the interiors of blocks.”

    For neighbors who suddenly find their rear windows facing a stridently contemporary vista, the issue can be huge. Roy Sloane, the president of the Cobble Hill Association and a member of the community board for 30 years, has witnessed their unhappiness firsthand.

    “Many people are concerned about the loss of privacy in the doughnut,” Mr. Sloane said, “and almost all extensions are problematic for neighbors, especially large decks or glass walls. People aren’t happy about giving up privacy, and they always oppose such changes if they’re aware of them in time.”

    Mr. Sloane is no foe of contemporary design. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “I like Modernist architecture. Can Modernism be integrated into traditional design? Yes, if it’s timeless. But if your intent is to call attention to your house, if you want to treat your house as an experiment, that’s a different story.”

    He also worries that if historic districts are transformed too greatly, much will be lost. He wonders if a generation of children will grow up thinking that glass walls and metal trim were part and parcel of the traditional Victorian row house. “I’m in favor of dynamic change in the city,” Mr. Sloane said. “Not everything should be landmarked. But the tiny areas that remain should be preserved. We don’t need Mies van der Rohe everywhere.”

    Whatever the explanations for the profusion of retrofitted town houses, one thing seems likely: What at first looked stark and shocking may one day melt into the background, as has been the case with two buildings that seemed aggressively out of place when they arrived.

    One is at 18 West 11th Street, where a Greek Revival building was destroyed by a bomb in 1970. Eight years later Hugh Hardy designed an aggressively Modernist brick structure for the site, with an angular facade that jutted out toward the street. The house was recently put on the market by Corcoran for $10.9 million.

    And in 1980, at the end of a row of stately brownstones on Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, the developer Bruce Eichner built a distinctly contemporary town house for himself on a prime site with a harbor view.

    Both newcomers are now part of the landscape, and maybe understandably. “The glass wall or the extension that at first seemed to stick out, may in time fit in,” Mr. Mellins said.

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