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How Brooklyn Heights Became the City's First Historic District

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A view of Brooklyn Heights circa 1852. Image courtesy the Museum of the City of New York.

On November 23, 1965, New York's newly minted Landmarks Preservation Commission—which just five weeks earlier had outlined the first historic protections for nearly three dozen individual buildings—took the bold step of widening its scope and designating the city's first historic district: Brooklyn Heights (warning: PDF). While the neighborhood's claim to being America's original suburb (and home to over six hundred historic buildings) made it the perfect candidate for landmarking, its selection had taken a tremendous amount of lobbying from within the community. Just two decades earlier, Brooklyn Heights had been seen as a backwater, whose dilapidated housing stock was ripe for redevelopment and—in the case of the original plans for the BQE and Cadman Plaza—total destruction.

The area we know as Brooklyn Heights today was originally a Native American settlement, probably called Ihpetonga (though all Western labels for pre-contact settlements should be met with skepticism). Fulton Street—today split into Fulton and Old Fulton by Cadman Plaza—was certainly the original trail up from the water's edge, and the charming alleys of the Heights, like Love Lane and Grace Court Alley, were likely trails leading to the high bluff that gives the neighborhood its name.

In the Dutch colonial era, settlement of this part of Brooklyn was mostly limited to the waterfront, where the ferry to and from Manhattan plied a route that would remain in use for centuries. By the time of the American Revolution, the waterfront was beginning to industrialize, and a few houses had been built atop the bluff, including the "Four Chimneys House," which George Washington commandeered as his headquarters during the Battle of Brooklyn, and which later became the home of the Heights' most prominent early resident: Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont.

Pierrepont was born in 1768, and made his first fortune in international trade, including a spell as an American merchant in Paris during the Reign of Terror. However, most of Pierrepont's wealth was plundered when pirates raided one of his ships, so he turned his attention to domestic pursuits. Having married into a wealthy New York family in 1802, Pierrepont opened a gin distillery along the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights around 1804 (the same year he purchased Washington's former headquarters). When the distillery floundered, Pierrepont turned to real estate speculation, buying up the farms surrounding his own property, hiring a surveyor, and laying out a grid plan for Brooklyn Heights similar to John Randel Jr.'s plan that had recently been overlaid on Manhattan. Like the Manhattan grid, Pierrepont's emphasized uniform house lots: 25 feet of street frontage and 100 feet of depth, backing up onto an identical lot on the neighboring street. Generations later, New Yorkers would flee to the Heights to escape Manhattan's monotony, not realizing that what Pierrepont had built was essentially a Manhattan clone.

At the same time, brothers John Middagh Hicks and Jacob Middagh Hicks, whose family had lived in the area for some time, began developing family land on the northern section of the heights. Some streets were already named for the family (Middagh, Hicks); others, they named after fruits, such as Pineapple, Orange, and Cranberry. Despite a persistent rumor—which is even enshrined on official signs—that these odd street monikers were the result of some protracted battle between the Hicks's aunt and other local landowners, the truth is more prosaic. The Hicks had the same motivation of suburban developers today: curb appeal. Who wouldn't want to live on Pineapple Street?

No amount of urban planning or fruity street names, however, could draw people to Brooklyn Heights if there was no way to get there. While the Hicks brothers saw their land as a natural spot for growth from within Kings County, Pierrepont had his sights set on a wealthier crowd: Manhattanites. And Pierrepont's market was not New Yorkers who were interested in moving themselves and their businesses to Brooklyn; he wanted to create an entirely new class—the suburban commuter.

[The Brooklyn Ferry. Image courtesy of the New York Public Library.]

Luckily, Pierrepont was an old friend of Robert Fulton. They'd met in Paris and Pierrepont had been an early backer of Fulton's steam ferry, which launched on the Hudson in 1807. Seven years later, with Pierrepont ready to begin selling lots in the Heights, Fulton launched a commuter boat from Manhattan to Brooklyn, the Nassau, on May 10, 1814. The boat, which could hold 200 passengers, cargo, and teams of horses, opened up Brooklyn in a way that earlier vessels—which were powered by sail, oar, or horse-on-a-treadmill—never could. Within a decade, Brooklyn Heights was beginning to prosper, and fine examples of housing date back to this first building boom.

The oldest home standing in the Heights, 24 Middagh Street (below right), was built in 1824, and remains a fine example of a wood-frame house of the Federal style. Nearby, there are many other wooden homes from the 1820s and 1830s, including one at 64 Poplar that was built in 1834 by Walt Whitman's father (with help from young Walt).

Over the next sixty years, the Heights would welcome homes built in every possible architectural style: Greek Revival, Gothic Revival (popular in churches, but less so in homes), Victorian Gothic, Renaissance Revival, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival—and hybrids that have no name. Homes like 24 Middagh, in the original Hicks brothers development, were closer to the commerce of the East River and tended to be more modest. Further up the hill, the mansions whose back balconies opened onto the view of Manhattan were immense. Abiel Abbot Low, a shipping tycoon, built a 17,500 square foot mansion on Pierrepont Place (currently on the market for a cool $40 million). His son Seth, who was raised there, was mayor of Brooklyn when the Brooklyn Bridge opened and a tireless advocate for five-borough unification a few years later.

One measure of the area's growing wealth was the sudden influx of churches, which were built not merely to serve the spiritual needs of Heights' residents, but to serve as markers of social status. As Episcopalians, the power elite of Manhattan, moved to the Heights, parishes sprouted: St. Ann's, the oldest, had served the old waterfront village (it later relocated to Livingston Street). Architect Minard Lafever's Holy Trinity opened on Clinton Street in 1847, and Richard Upjohn's Grace Church—just a few blocks away on Hicks Street—was finished a year later. At the same time, Brooklyn had always had a decidedly Puritan streak, in part evidenced by the proliferation of houses of worship closely tied with New England. The Unitarians hired Lafever in 1844 to build a Gothic home for them on Pierrepont Street, while the Congregational Church of the Pilgrims commissioned Upjohn to build their Henry Street headquarters in 1846.

The most famous church in the Heights in the era before the Civil War was the Congregationalist Plymouth Church, the home parish of noted abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher. By 1860, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Beecher's invitation to Abraham Lincoln to come to the church to speak that February was a catalyst both for Lincoln's nomination to the presidency and the beginning of the war. (Ultimately, Lincoln's speech was moved to Cooper Union in Manhattan, though he did attend services at Plymouth.)

[The Plymouth Church. Photo by Edward V. Gillon, image via the Museum of the City of New York.]

B y the time Seth Low's five-borough city became a reality in 1898, the area was changing. The combination of increased immigration and the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge meant that areas like the Heights could now draw more working-class commuters. While the average Heights resident still tended to be white and middle class, the opening of the IRT to Brooklyn in 1908 further eroded the idea that Brooklyn Heights was an elite enclave, especially in the areas near the waterfront, City Hall, and Atlantic Avenue. Many of the old townhouses were chopped up into apartments or turned into rooming houses. Churches closed, merged, or sold off their property. A few new apartment buildings and hotels dotted the landscape, but with the onset of the Depression, much of Brooklyn Heights was in stasis.

The neighborhood was shocked out of that slumber by city planner Robert Moses and the one-two punch of Cadman Plaza and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Cadman Plaza began as a relatively small project in 1936. In order to widen the approach ramps to the Brooklyn Bridge, Moses planned to tear down ninety buildings. In their place, the city would not only build new roads, but also construct a small Brooklyn Bridge Park (soon renamed Cadman Plaza after S. Parkes Cadman, another noted Congregationalist minister). Relatively speaking, these changes to the landscape were small, but they signaled a much larger upheaval on the horizon.

[Construction of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Photo courtesy of the New York City Parks Department archive.]

First, however, Moses turned his attention to the BQE. When mapping the highway's route, Moses paid no regard to the fabric of the neighborhood, favoring a route that would have put the highway along Hicks Street. Not only would that have meant the demolition of a large swath of housing, effectively destroying the neighborhood, it would have orphaned the area's nicest houses—like the Low mansion—on the wrong side of the tracks. None of this phased Moses. He had little use for history and found those who wanted to protect it to be "woozy with sentiment."

Dissent from within the neighborhood was fast and furious—and, unlike many neighborhoods in which Moses operated, predominantly white and upper middle class. The Brooklyn Heights Association, founded in 1910, began a campaign against the highway. In September 1942, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, under the headline "Plan for Express Highway Is Shocking," suggested what seemed to everyone the logical alternative: routing the BQE along Furman Street at the water's edge. This idea was embraced by residents, especially those along Columbia Heights and Pierrepont Place, who advocated for a top deck cantilevered over the new highway to both shield them from noise and to replace their back gardens which would be destroyed during construction. Surprisingly, Moses—who believed that "When you operate in an overbuilt metropolis you have to hack your way with a meat ax"—embraced the new plan. In fact, to the chagrin of some in the Heights, he took the idea one step further, deciding that the cantilevered area over the highway should be turned into a public promenade, opening the views to the masses.

[The Brooklyn Heights Promenade soon after its completion. Photo by Albert Abbott, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.]

After World War II, as work was beginning on the highway and promenade, Brooklyn Heights was being "discovered" by a whole new breed of resident: the "brownstoner." As Suleiman Osman writes in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, "brownstoning was a cultural revolt against sameness, conformity, and bureaucracy." Although the term gentrification was not yet in vogue, these mostly young, college-educated families—who worked in media, finance, and the arts—were the vanguard of that movement. They picked Brooklyn Heights for a complex combination of reasons: entire townhouses could be had for $15,000 (though often with working-class tenants who had to be kicked out); the area had a quiet, provincial charm; it was steeped in history; and it wasn't Manhattan. In "Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir," Truman Capote, who'd lived in an 1839 townhouse at 70 Willow Street, evoked the sort of "woozy sentiment" that Moses railed against: "These houses bespeak an age of able servants and solid fireside ease, invoke specters of bearded seafaring father and bonneted stay-at-home wives: devoted parents to great broods of future bankers and fashionable brides."

Capote might well have been writing a manifesto for the brownstoners. As Suleiman points out, one thing these new Heights residents were adamantly opposed to was modernist urban planning of the sort that Robert Moses represented. While most of the new residents had missed that BQE battle (and benefitted from the addition of the promenade), they were in place for Moses's next idea: a radical expansion of Cadman Plaza, a makeover of Brooklyn's Civic Center, and the addition of a vast swath of Title I housing in the Heights. Moses, as both commissioner of slum clearance and housing, had long used his power to shape the city by pulling down aging housing stock and dilapidated tenements in favor of high-rise apartments. At the same time, the expansion of Cadman Plaza (made possible by the demolition of the Fulton Street elevated tracks between 1940 and 1956), would help him physically remake city government, still very much in thrall to local political machines. (It's ironic that one of Moses's changes, the installation of an independent Board of Education at 110 Livingston Street, would later be undone by Michael Bloomberg for similar reasons.)

In 1959, the city's Slum Clearance Committee put forward its formal housing proposal: the destruction of seven acres (mostly on Fulton Street) to be replaced by a 20-story apartment building with shops and an underground garage. The residents of the Heights responded by forming the Community Conservation and Improvement Council (CCIC), whose goal was to fight the destruction of "the historic atmosphere of [the Heights'] quiet secluded streets." One option for fighting Moses that the CCIC began to explore was a little-known piece of legislation known as the "Bard Law," which gave the state of New York the ability to preserve "buildings, structures...having a special character or special historical or aesthetic interest or value." In 1959, the Bard Law had never been used, but the CCIC saw an opportunity: New York City was in the process of overhauling its zoning regulations. Perhaps the city could be convinced to invoke the Bard Law and seal off Brooklyn Heights from further development.

As the main plaza neared completion in the late 1950s (Moses likened it to an Italian piazza), the focus shifted to the Title I housing complex. The Brooklyn Heights Association and CCIC rallied in the new plaza in 1960 to halt development, to which the city responded by increasing the number of middle-income rental units—and then, perhaps in a bold stroke of reverse psychology—a low-income development. These compromises garnered the endorsement of some residents, but the newly formed North Brooklyn Heights Community Group pushed back: build no towers at all—instead, rehabilitate existing housing stock and turn it into co-ops. In 1961, Clay Lancaster, a Heights resident and architectural historian, published Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb, a detailed examination of 619 homes in the Heights worthy of historic preservation. The CCIC took Lancaster's book to the city, noting that it could be used as a blueprint for a zoning enhancement that would protect the Heights from further development, even if the Cadman Plaza project continued forward.

[The view of Manhattan from Brooklyn Heights in 1837. Image courtesy the New York Public Library.]

The timing couldn't have been better. With Mayor Robert Wagner facing pressure from many groups to put the brakes on Moses-style development (and with Moses's own influence beginning to wane), Wagner created a Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1962. Though the commission had no legislative power yet, it was a sign that the city was beginning to take its heritage seriously. In April 1964, ground was finally broken on the Cadman Plaza housing complex—the civic groups of the heights had ultimately proved no match for the city's desire for new housing. However, the low-income housing had, at least temporarily, been removed from the equation, after much hand-wringing from the neighborhood. As the president of the Brooklyn Heights Association told The New York Times: "The city is trying to put over public housing on us and overexploit the neighborhood." Or, as another resident succinctly put it: "Heights residents don't want poor people and they don't want Negroes and Puerto Ricans…."

Just months earlier demolition had begun on Charles McKim's grand Pennsylvania Station, and the pendulum of public opinion had swung sharply in the direction of preservation over development. Mayor Wagner endowed his Landmarks Preservation Commission with legislative power under the Bard Law and in November 1965, Brooklyn Heights became the first landmark district, all the legwork having already been done by the CCIC, Brooklyn Heights Association, Clay Lancaster, and countless individuals living on the Heights. In a precedent-setting move, the Commission opted to include every building within the borders of the district—whether it was historically interesting or not—and to ignore the pleas of the Jehovah's Witness, who wanted their non-religious buildings exempted. Though landmarks laws would suffer many reversals in the coming decade, the Brooklyn Heights district remains intact and a sterling example of how a community—albeit a white and well-connected one—can sometimes face down city bureaucracy and win.
· The Forgotten Developer Who Transformed 19th-Century NYC [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]