Brooklyn Heights Historic District
The Brooklyn Heights Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. It was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1966. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
From the harbor, East River, or Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn Heights appears composed of the thin horizontal planes of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Esplanade, and the bulky upright masses of hotels, apartment houses, office buildings, and a few industrial plants stationed around its perimeter. These impressions belie the charm of the real Brooklyn Heights, with its tree-shaded streets and bluestone-paved walks lined by rows of fine old brick and brownstone houses behind decorative iron fences, and distinguished churches in the romantic styles, dating back to an era when this was the most easily accessible, desirable, and aristocratic suburb of New York. One gets an entirely different concept of the community from within than from any of various vantage points outside its boundaries.
Brooklyn Heights is an irregularly shaped area located on a high bluff off Long Island directly across from the lower tip of Manhattan. In the nineteenth century three ferries connected Brooklyn Heights with Manhattan. Today, traffic between Long Island and New York comes through Battery Tunnel at the foot of Atlantic Avenue and over the Brooklyn Bridge above Fulton Street, the two extremities of Brooklyn Heights. This leaves its predominantly residential streets to the relative quiet of local traffic.
Except for the variable outline in the northern part, and the peculiar angles of Joralemon Street, connecting the dock section with Borough Hall, and Love Lane, Brooklyn Heights is laid out on a rectangular grid scheme. Blocks were planned 250 feet to a side although less than a dozen turned out square. Omission of originally planned streets resulted in very long blocks. Along most of the west side extends the Esplanade, cantilevered out over two levels of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This promenade gives a magnificent view of South Ferry and Manhattan's financial district across the river, a vista up the East River to the north and across the New York harbor to Governor's Liberty and Ellis Islands, New Jersey and Staten Island on the south.
The first scene of active building was along the northern end of Hicks Street and on the cross streets adjacent to it around 1820. A large percentage of these early houses were frame construction such as Numbers 38, 40, 68, 70, and 72 Hicks Street and Numbers 27, 20, 55, 57, and 59 Middagh Street. Numerous contemporary brick examples are found along Hicks and Willow Street.
Although the row house predominated, some earlier houses were constructed to be free standing. Number 13 Pineapple Street is one of the oldest, and later examples include Numbers 70 Willow Street and 36 Pierrepont Street.
The Federal Period provided the standard plan of the row house used in Brooklyn Heights until well into the twentieth century. The normal twenty-five foot breadth of lots accommodated one room and a hall wide enough for a staircase to one side. This resulted in the three bayed house, usually two rooms deep, with the off center front door. The kitchen was generally in the basement.
In Brooklyn Heights, classic elements were played down although columns or small slender colonettes are seen flanking front doors or on mantelpieces in the interior. Other traditional elements such as rustication, paneling, carved sunburst, floral motifs, dentils and various moldings of cornices and entablatures are found on interior woodwork and exterior details.
Arched windows and fan doorways with leaded semicircular or semi-elliptical transoms in delicate patterns still can be found in many houses. Entrance stairs were either of wood or stone and railings were of wrought iron, decorated with small cast-iron fittings such as rosettes and pine cone finials.
The Greek Revival brought generally higher basements, usually with a family dining room on this level with the kitchen. Ceilings became higher and a screen of columns or pilasters flanking sliding doors between parlors added a new decorative element to the interior. Houses became a full three stories above the basement and roofs were lower pitched. Row houses often had superimposed open galleries along the back separated by brick partition walls as in Numbers 20-26 Willow Street. Greek Revival is the predominant style of Brooklyn Heights buildings. The style led to many of the attractive iron fences along the streets; thin square bars fashioned into frameworks filled with frets, meanders, guilloches and floral forms in double relief.
The name of Minard Lafever is closely associated with Brooklyn Heights. His pattern books provide designs for much of the interior detailing. His acknowledged works in the neighborhood include Packer Collegiate Institute (1854), Church of the Holy Trinity (1844-47) and two churches on Monroe Place. These public buildings of his design, unlike the private residences either by his hand or influenced by his designs, are in the Gothic Revival. These churches gave the Gothic Revival its start in Brooklyn Heights. Within six years the style was adopted for townhouses. Tudor arches with carved spandrels replaced pilastered doorways, slender clustered colonettes flanked sliding parlor doors and medieval window tracery offered models for plaster ceilings and iron railings.
Externally the least modified Gothic Revival house is a three story brownstone at Number 131 Hicks Street, with its adjoining twin at Number 135. The doorways are recessed under low pointed arches with horizontal hood molds and the windows retain their center mullions. Three brick houses on State Street are also well preserved although stripped of their hood moldings. Only Number 107 retains its first floor balcony railing but all three display iron tracery stair rails and fences. Four hoses on Willow Place also display a delightful blend of clustered colonettes, Tudor arches and trefoiled spandrels.
Brooklyn Heights also contains a few examples of the more ponderous Romanesque Revival, most notably in Herman Behr's house (now the Hotel Palm) and the Church of the Pilgrims (now Our Lady of Lebanon) by Richard Upjohn.
The Renaissance Revival began to appear in Brooklyn Heights soon after the Gothic Revival was adopted to residential buildings. This style is distinguished by a certain opulence, manifesting itself in an increased scale and greater ornamentation, especially around the openings. Balustrades replaced other types of railings and a half round arch was reintroduced at entrances, although spanning recessed vestibules instead of flush doors as in the Federal Period. Brownstone was the favored material with cast-iron painted to look like stone used for architectural detail (123 Remsen Street and 200 Columbia Heights).
Among later nineteenth-century styles, perhaps the most important and enduring was Ruskinian or Ventian-Gothic, distinguished by the multi-colored use of stone. The principal example in Brooklyn Heights is Saint Anne's Protestant Episcopal Church by Renwick and Sands. The Ruskinian style had little effect upon domestic architecture.
Unlike other revivals, the Queen Anne was not concerned with a specific style for its own sake but rather with unusual harmonies of forms, colors, and textures. The best example of Queen Anne is a group of three houses inclusive on Numbers 108-112 William Street, dated 1883. Treated as a single irregular mass of brick, stone, terra-cotta and shingles, great interest is achieved through the use of bay windows, towers, gables, chimneys, and a variety of different shaped openings. (For a detailed analysis of each street the reader is referred to Clay Lancaster's book on Brooklyn Heights cited in the bibliography references.)
The interesting variety of nineteenth-century architecture at times beautiful in its refinement, delightful in its fancy or ponderous in its massiveness still remains well represented in Brooklyn Heights. The area has been revived as a residential area over the last two decades and most of the private residences are well maintained. The hotels and apartment houses erected in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century have not destroyed either the architectural interest or residential nature of Brooklyn Heights. Montague Street is the principal commercial strip, but most of the shops and businesses are located within old buildings so the scale is not disrupted. In fact, great potential remains for a complete rehabilitation of the area. The Brooklyn Heights Association, chartered by the city, is an active organization which has had remarkable success in safe-guarding the area. Their greatest triumph occurred in 1950 with the construction of the Esplanade, forcing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway below the Heights, thus keeping heavy traffic and noise from the residential area. Following the construction, modern low-level dock facilities below the Esplanade were procured, opening up the harbor and skyline view. This innovative solution to the problem of modern highway construction saved the integrity of Brooklyn Heights which would most certainly have been destroyed. In 1971 another battle saved the South Heights from a multi-lane expressway. As long as people are willing to search for alternative answers to the questions of urban development, the continued existence of Brooklyn Heights seems hopeful and should serve as an example for other communities.
Brooklyn Heights, the leading residential district of New York City before the rise of the large homes along Fifth Avenue, contains many private and public buildings that display the various popular architectural styles of the nineteenth-century. Although the area has been intruded upon by modern buildings to some degree, it retains enough of its earlier structures to remain almost a textbook for architectural development between the 1820's and the early 1900's.
The residences in this area display, in the period after 1814,, one architectural style after another. Three styles, the Federal, Greek Revival, and Renaissance Revival are represented by outstanding houses. Particularly striking are the fine front doorways flanked with rich ornamental ironwork. Interior ornamentation is equally elaborate, with marble fireplaces, heavy plaster cornices, and carved woodwork. In short, Brooklyn Heights reflects the comfortable, opulent culture of the Victorian era.
Brooklyn Heights was the leading residential area of New York City before the rise of Fifth Avenue. Three ferries connected Manhattan with the promontory of Long Island directly across from the lower tip. The Fulton Street Ferry docked at the northern end of the Heights where the Brooklyn Bridge crosses today. The second and third ferries carried passengers from the base of Montague Street to Wall Street and from Atlantic Avenue to South Ferry. The Atlantic Avenue ferry was the terminal of the Brooklyn-Jamaica Railroad. From 1842 to 1859 the last mile of this line ran through an underground tunnel, thus, becoming the world's first passenger subway. The railway was placed below ground to preserve the character of Atlantic Avenue, which in those days was a fashionable shopping street. The tunnel ended at a two-storied frame depot built in 1836 and demolished in 1914. Although unused for a century, all but the eastern extremity of the subterranean vault over the two-way tracks is said to remain intact.
The history of Brooklyn Heights as a residential suburb began soon after the establishment of a steam ferry plying between New York and Brooklyn in 1814. At that time a number of landowners, whose memories are perpetuated through such street names as Middagh, Pierrepont, Hicks, Remsen, and Joralemon, began dividing their respective holdings into 25 x 100-foot building lots. The first village map, recorded by Jeremiah Lott in 1816, the year Brooklyn was incorporated as a village, shows virtually the same street arrangement that exists today north of Clark Street, except for the crook to Orange Street at the Fulton Street end; and the Poppleton and Lott map of the Pierrepont estate, made three years later, indicates in a general way the present layout of the southern section of the Heights. This area, however, was still not much developed when a new map of the Pierrepont estate was made in 1831 by Isaac T. Ludlam, the village surveyor. All streets on Brooklyn Heights were given their definitive form by about mid century, and they have remained unaltered down to the time of the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway during the early 1950's, which took off the northwest and southwest corners of the Heights.
Not a single building existing on Brooklyn Heights today figured on the Lott map of 1816 or the Lott and Poppleton map of 1819, barring perhaps part of No. 39 Henry Street not visible from outside. A good many structures stood on Fulton Street in those days, and several farm houses and villas were inside the range of the Heights proper, but all have since disappeared. However, a number of buildings put up soon after the Lott surveys were made are still to be found. The first scene of consecutive building operations was along the northern end of Hicks Street and on the cross streets adjacent to it.
Today the area is entirely built-up, forming an integral part of Brooklyn by its active commercial boundary street. Only when one gets beyond Atlantic Avenue and Fulton and Court Streets does the special character of the area become apparent. Brooklyn Heights remains a community, sustaining the quality of neighborhood in the vast spread of New York City.
Lancaster, Clay, Old Brooklyn Heights, Rutland, Vermont, 1961.
Reed, Henry Hope, "Brooklyn Heights, A Walking Tour" (mimeographed guide) New York, 1957.
________, and Bayley, John Barrington, Classical Brooklyn: Its Architecture and Sculpture, Long Island Historical Society, Brooklyn, 1956.