Cobble Hill Historic District
The Cobble Hill Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Cobble Hill Historic District includes over twenty-two city blocks, which are located generally between Atlantic Avenue, Court Street, Degraw Street and Hicks Street. It is approximately two blocks east of the Brooklyn waterfront of the Upper Bay, and forms a southerly extension of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District. Separated from the heights only by Atlantic Avenue, it is nonetheless quite different in character.
The development of Cobble Hill as a residential district began in the mid-1830's when an attractive row of Greek Revival town houses was built, and was soon followed by others. It retains its residential character today, since commercial activity is largely limited to Atlantic Avenue and Court Street. There are a number of fine churches, one of which was designed by Richard Upjohn and another by Minard Lafever.
Among the architectural styles represented are the Greek Revival of the 1830's and 1840's, followed by the Gothic Revival, Italianate and early Romanesque Revival styles of the 1850's and 1860's. The French Neo-Grec style which appeared in the 1870's, often in combination with retardataire examples of Italianate or French Second Empire designs, continued into the early 1880's. Lastly came the more sophisticated styles of the latter part of the 19th century: the Romanesque Revival, the Queen Anne style, and the new classicism which was influenced by the Chicago Fair of 1893. Of course this area also had its fair share of houses built in the local vernacular style — houses so simple that they are not readily identifiable with any particular style. The Cobble Hill Historic District also has many "transitional" houses which display the characteristics of one or more styles during a period when one style was giving way to another.
Houses were built individually or in rows of as few as three houses or groups which occupied half a city block. In some of these rows we find examples which are virtually unique in the City and which give Cobble Hill Historic District its special distinction.
Materials adhere closely to the masonry tradition, with brick and brownstone predominating. Ironwork includes both the standard designs and castings to be found in other parts of the City, as well as several most unusual designs. In its quantity, quality and variety it is the equal of some of the best areas in the City. Cobble Hill Historic District is notable as the site of one of the earliest housing projects in the country.
Important development continued in the Cobble Hill Historic District during the first four decades of the twentieth century. There are twenty contributing buildings in the Cobble Hill Historic District that were erected after 1900. All of these buildings are masonry structures with facades of brick, stone, and/or terra cotta, the materials used for most of the nineteenth-century buildings in Cobble Hill. These buildings are all five stories or less and are, thus, in scale with the earlier structures. In style they reflect the design trends popular in the early twentieth century — Beaux Arts, Neo-Renaissance, Colonial Revival, Art Deco — but all were designed with decorative details of the same quality as on the earlier buildings. The early twentieth century buildings are residential, institutional, commercial, and industrial structures, constructed for the same uses as the older buildings in the Cobble Hill Historic District.
The significance of Cobble Hill lies in its historical associations during the Revolution and its history as a desirable residential area during the nineteenth century. The high quality of the architecture of its many row houses, as well as churches designed by Minard Lafever and Richard Upjohn give a pleasing aura to this neighborhood which has survived as a district.
The history of Cobble Hill goes back to the 1640's when the Dutch governor, William Kieft, granted patents for farms north of Red Hook. "Cobleshill," on Ratzer's survey of Brooklyn in 1766-67, referred to a very steep conical hill shown on the west side of Red Hook Lane, near the present intersections of Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Street with Court Street. Another old name for the region was "Ponkiesbergh."
Cobble Hill Historic District was the scene of some military activity during the Revolution. General George Washington issued an order on July 18, 1776 that two guns fired from Cobble Hill were to be the signal that the enemy had landed on Long Island. Washington, General Putnam and other officers witnessed the disastrous battle of August 27, 1776 from the ramparts of Cobble Hill Fort.
Many changes came to Cobble Hill in the Federal period. The Dutch farms, extending from the East River to Court Street, were bought by relative newcomers. The old Red Hook Lane later became Court Street. Henry Street was opened by 1828 to connect directly with the Heights. With ready access to the South Ferry which was established in 1836 after years of opposition from Manhattan real estate owners — Cobble Hill began to change from an area of farms into a residential suburb of row houses. People could now commute readily to Manhattan by ferry.
The first stage in this development of Cobble Hill occurred in the blocks along the west side of Henry Street where the dramatic view of the harbor tempted owners to establish their rural homesteads or seats. None of these residences survive. The Greek Revival house which serves as a sole reminder of this period still stands at 149 Baltic Street.
The next stage in the development of Cobble Hill was the breaking up of large land holdings. The oldest house now standing in the Cobble Hill Historic District is 122 Pacific Street, built during or shortly before 1833 in the Greek Revival style on the former Patchen farm. Construction of row houses soon began to transform Cobble Hill into an urban community. Here, in contradistinction to Manhattan, the rows built during this period are seldom longer than five or six houses. Architectural compositions of two or three units were popular. A handsome row of six Greek Revival houses was built on Warren Street, between Court and Clinton Streets, as early as 1835.
In the 1850's, Leonard Jerome lived in two rented houses on Cobble Hill between his removal from Rochester and the construction of his great mansion on Madison Square. The one on Amity Street was the birthplace of his daughter Jennie, the mother of Sir Winston Churchill.
By 1860 Cobble Hill had been largely developed into a suburban community, complete with bank, stores and other services, as well as a number of churches whose towers or steeples rose against the skyline. The chief innovations after that date were Alfred T. White's well-known model tenements for the laboring classes.
The famous 19th century architects, Minard Lafever and Richard Upjohn, each designed a church in Cobble Hill. Upjohn, and later his son Richard M. Upjohn, lived at 296 Clinton Street.
Among the builders was Asa Stebbins who began his career in the 1830's as a local carpenter of Cobble Hill. By 1847 he had become a member of the Common Council for the district, and advertised as an architect specializing in Gothic cottages and villas. William Johnson and Horatio White, Brooklyn architects, designed a fine row of residences at the south end of the district. Thomas Sullivan, first a mason and later identified as a builder, lived for a time within the district as well as nearby, and did a considerable amount of work in the area. Michael Markey, a neighborhood carpenter, erected the Cobble Hill Historic District chief Gothic Revival row. Jeremiah O'Donnell was a local contractor who lived just outside the Cobble Hill Historic District, and may have participated in the development of the area.
The Cobble Hill Historic District was largely developed in the decades preceding the Civil War. The Cobble Hill Historic District is part of a neighborhood known until the post World War II era as South Brooklyn. This area encompassed the neighborhoods that are now known as Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, and Red Hook. Much of South Brooklyn was built up with brick and stone single family row houses and the streets were punctuated by institutional buildings constructed to serve the needs of the primarily middle-class families who moved into the new homes. Development in South Brooklyn began at the northern edge of the area (Cobble Hill), near Brooklyn Heights and the ferry lines to Manhattan. By 1860, most of the land within the Cobble Hill Historic District had been built up and by the end of the 1860s the area to the south (now Carroll Gardens) had also been fully developed. Development, however, was not frozen at this time. Instead, South Brooklyn remained a dynamic neighborhood witnessing change and growth in both its architectural character and in the economic and ethnic composition of its residents. Between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century, changes in the Cobble Hill Historic District included the construction of the famous Home and Tower model tenements and workers' houses on Hicks, Warren, and Baltic Streets and Warren Place (1876-79), the construction of P.S. 78 (1888) on Pacific Street, St. Paul's School (1886-87), a Catholic school on Warren Street, and the erection of several multiple dwellings and row houses. Similar changes occurred elsewhere in South Brooklyn as schools, hospitals, churches, and some housing were built.
Growth and change continued into the twentieth century. By the early twentieth century the economic and ethnic character of the South Brooklyn area had changed noticeably. As the housing stock aged, middle-class families moved to the newer neighborhoods in southern and eastern Brooklyn or left the borough altogether. These people were replaced by working-class families whose livelihood often depended on the nearby port facilities (this is the neighborhood that is the setting for such American classics as On the Waterfront and A View From the Bridge). A large percentage of the new population was Italian, with smaller numbers of Irish and Scandinavians. The new families tended to be larger than those of the early neighborhood residents. In addition, many of the one-family houses were converted into multiple dwellings at this time. Thus, the population density of Southern Brooklyn, including the area within the Cobble Hill Historic District, greatly increased. The new population put pressure on the old established institutions, particularly the schools. Consequently, in the first decades of the twentieth century many new institutional buildings were constructed. Throughout South Brooklyn new public schools were erected and Catholic schools were built or expanded.
Most of the residents moving to South Brooklyn in the early twentieth century were immigrants from primarily Catholic countries or were first generation Americans from the same background. By the early twentieth century there were at least seven major Roman Catholic churches in South Brooklyn. Some were older churches that served the community's early Catholic residents; others were large new complexes built specifically to serve the Catholic immigrants. All, however, were revitalized and expanded their services during this period.
The new immigrant families frequently chose to send their children to religious schools, where traditional values would be respected. Parochial education became extremely important in South Brooklyn during this period. Several Catholic churches erected new schools in the area. The Church of the Sacred Heart, which was located on the west side of Hicks Street and was demolished during construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (the church merged with St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church several blocks to the south on the corner of Hicks Streets and Carroll Street), commissioned a new school in 1922. Designed by local architect Nicholas Serracino, the school is a handsome white brick and stone structure with the Classical and Renaissance details popular during the early decades of the twentieth century. These forms complement the Classical and Renaissance details of the surrounding Greek Revival and Italianate style row houses. The Sacred Heart School building is representative of early twentieth century parochial school architecture and it played an important cultural role in the neighborhood for over fifty years, serving approximately 1100 elementary school students during its peak enrollment period. Most of these students came from the South Brooklyn area.
The churches were not the only institutions to expand in South Brooklyn during the early twentieth century. Because of the increased population density, demands for city services expanded. Several notable municipal buildings are contemporary with the new parochial schools. Within the Cobble Hill Historic District are P.S. 29, a Neo-Gothic style elementary school built in 1919, and an Art Deco style clinic built by the New York City Department of Health on Baltic Street. The larger South Brooklyn area contains a Neo-Georgian firehouse on Hicks Street (c.1915) and a Beaux-Arts style library on Clinton Street (c.1905), among other structures. Private institutions also expanded so as to increase services to the new community. Several commercial and residential structures were also erected. The Long Island College Hospital erected the Neo-French Renaissance style Dudley Memorial Building in 1902 (within the Cobble Hill Historic District) and a number of Beaux-Arts/Neo-Georgian style hospital buildings that are outside of the historic district. The South Brooklyn Savings Bank, now the Independence Savings Bank (the 1976 name change is indicative of the larger change in the neighborhood, reflecting a decline in the use of the old neighborhood designation), erected a magnificent Florentine Renaissance style limestone building at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Court Street in 1922. A movie theater and a three-story office building were also constructed on Court Street and several private houses and multiple dwellings from this era are scattered throughout the neighborhood.
These buildings and others from the early twentieth century are an integral part of the history and development of South Brooklyn and are architecturally distinguished structures that contribute to the special character of both the Cobble Hill Historic District and the larger South Brooklyn area. When Cobble Hill was designated an historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the importance of these buildings was recognized in the official designation report (printed in 1969). These later buildings generally complement the older structures, using many similar design features and preserving the scale of the area. They are important elements in the local streetscape. Perhaps even more important is the role they play as symbols of the changing ethnic and economic character of the community in the early twentieth century when working-class ethnic immigrants were becoming he dominant population group.
Development in Cobble Hill in particular, and in South Brooklyn in general, has come full circle. Today the working-class population is declining and more affluent families are again moving into the old row houses, often converting these homes back into one-family units. As the older population has aged, many of the institutional buildings have become redundant. This is particularly true of the once thriving Roman Catholic institutions within the Cobble Hill Historic District. In recent years St. Peter's Church on Hicks Street has closed and two schools, St. Peter's and Sacred Heart, have discontinued. As of June 1984, St. Peter's School was in the process of being converted into cooperative apartments and the conversion of the Sacred Heart school building into residences was in the planning stages. This trend towards the reuse of older buildings reflects, in many ways, the changes of the early twentieth century. Cobble Hill has adapted to a changing population and it remains one of Brooklyn's most dynamic neighborhoods.
Cobble Hill Historic District retains an aura of the past with its many tree-lined streets and its rows of architecturally notable houses. It is a residential neighborhood which has the pleasing quality of a relatively low, uniform building height. The houses display much architectural detail of note, some of which is unique in character. Through most of its urban life, Cobble Hill was variously known as part of Red Hook, South Brooklyn or the Sixth Ward. Known as Cobble Hill since 1959, the area today has its own identity. The Cobble Hill Historic District has experienced a marked renaissance and rejuvenation.
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