Cobble Hill’s Landmark Status

by Leslie Alderman

It was momentous year. In 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and Cobble Hill was granted landmark status. Just four years after the creation of New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), the Cobble Hill Historic District, an area that comprises 796 buildings built between the 1830s and 1920s, was officially created. The area is circumscribed roughly by Atlantic Avenue on the north, Degraw Street on the south, Hicks Street on the west and Court Street on the east. In 1976, the Cobble Hill Association also helped add the district to the National Register of Historic places. (In 1988, the LPC extended the district to include two Italianate houses at 354 and 356 Henry Street and the adjacent Polhemus Building at 350 Henry Street.)

Together with low-scale zoning, including a 50-foot height limitation, the landmark laws have helped preserve the nineteenth-century scale, feeling, and quality of the buildings and streets of Cobble Hill.

The landmark distinctions, both local and national, were well deserved. Cobble Hill includes well-preserved examples of important architectural styles including the Greek Revival style of the 1830s and 1840s, the Gothic Revival, Italianate and early Romanesque Revival styles of the 1850s and 1860s, and French Neo-Grecian styles, which appeared in the 1870s. The district is home to prominent churches including Christ Episcopal Church and Strong Place Baptist Church. Cobble Hill represents “an unusually fine 19th century residential area that retains an aura of the past with its many tree-lined streets and rows of architecturally notable houses,” the LPC report noted. The neighborhood “has the pleasing quality of relatively low uniform building height, the houses display much architectural detail of note, some of which is unique in character [and] contains a number of churches of architectural distinction.”

As an interesting side note, the LPC observed in its initial report that a “certain time lag” of about five to fifteen years “seems to exist in Cobble Hill in the introduction of new architectural styles compared to their dates in Manhattan.” They point out that an Italianate style building from the 1850s in Manhattan may not emerge in Cobble Hill until the 1860s. Why? The LPC conjectured certain builders were “innately conservative” and desired “to continue in the tradition of their fathers.”

But it was more than just the architectural gems that garnered Cobble Hill’s landmark status—the area also played a significant role in the history of Brooklyn. First settled by Dutch farmers in the 1640s, Cobble Hill later figured in one of the earliest battles of the Revolutionary War. On July 18, 1776 General George Washington issued an order that two guns should be fired from Cobble Hill to signal that the enemy had landed nearby. Washington viewed the fighting at the Gowanus Creek from atop the steep Cobble Hill Fort (now Trader Joe’s on Court Street). During the War of 1812, Cobble Hill Fort was called into military use as Fort Swift, one of a line of defenses planned by General Joseph G. Swift.

Cobble Hill became a distinct residential neighborhood in the decades preceding the Civil War. The creation of ferry service from the foot of Atlantic Avenue to Manhattan in 1836 sparked a boom of real estate development. During the 1830s and 40s, the community transformed into a bustling suburb, replete with stores, banks and prominent churches; by 1860 most of the land within the Historic District had been built up. A few noteworthy additions were made later in the century, including the Home and Tower workers complex, designed by Alfred Tredway White and constructed between 1876 and 1879. In 1919, the city erected P.S. 29, a Neo-Gothic style elementary school designed by noted architect Charles B. J. Snyder.

When the Cobble Hill Association was attempting to landmark the area, not everyone was excited about the designation. At initial hearings held in 1966, there were notable dissenters including the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Benevolent Association and Long Island College Hospital (LICH). Ultimately, LICH was not included in the district.

What does it mean to live in a historic district? Alterations and repairs to homes and businesses (except interior changes), must typically be pre-approved by the LPC. The LPC works with owners to ensure that acceptable materials are used and that aesthetic standards are upheld. (You can download a pamphlet on the rules and procedures here.) Even if your home was built after the landmark ruling, you must go through the commission if you plan to make significant changes to the exterior of your building. What’s more, an owner can’t tear down their home and replace it, unless it’s deemed non-significant. If it is deemed non-significant, there’s a requirement that it be replaced by something “appropriate to the character of the historic district.”

Some homeowners find landmarks rules irritating and restrictive. Permits often take weeks or months to secure and improvements may end up being costly. Even updating the stone on the sidewalk in front of your home requires a permit. What’s more, say, if an addition to your 1860s home was added in 1950 and you want to change it, the LPC could insist that your change be “appropriate to the style and design of the building.”

While the process does involve some red-tape, most permits are easily approved. According to a 2016 report, of the 13,000 applications the LPC receives in a typical year, nearly 95% of do not require applicants to appear at the Commission’s public hearings and are resolved at the staff level; less than 3/10 of 1% are denied.

And owning a home within a historic district typically means your property will be higher priced and more valuable—particularly single-family brownstones. A recent LPC survey found that though “less than 10% of New Yorkers live in a designated historic district, over half of survey respondents would prefer to live in one. The survey also asked respondents if they could live in any type of housing, what would it be? “The top choice, representing nearly a third of all respondents, was a single-family brownstone.”

To see other landmarked areas in New York City, click on the LPC’s interactive map, which shows the location of every individual landmark and historic district and provides access to designation reports.