By Eileen Minnefor
Architecturally, Cobble Hill is largely defined by its classic brick and brownstone row houses. But the neighborhood is also home to one of the first “social housing” apartment complexes in Brooklyn, the Tower and Home Buildings on Hicks Streets, now known as the “Cobble Hill Towers.”
Brooklyn’s 19th Century Housing Crisis
As it became more accessible in the 19th century, Brooklyn began to grow exponentially. After the first steam ferry to Manhattan opened in 1814, Brooklyn’s population went from 7,175 in 1820, to 396,099 in 1870. This influx of people, many of them poor, created a huge demand for housing. As demand and rents increased, Brooklynites started creating smaller rental units within existing buildings. Workers slept in warehouses and lofts by the waterfront, as well as in subdivided row houses.
Alfred Tredway White, Social Reformer
Alfred Tredway White, the developer of the Tower and Home Buildings, was born in 1846 to a prosperous merchant family that was amongst the ten wealthiest in Brooklyn at the turn of the 19th century. White became aware of the horrific housing situation for many of the city’s poor when he began teaching immigrant children through a program sponsored by the First Unitarian Church. Having trained as an engineer, White became convinced he could build better housing than the “badly constructed, unventilated, dark and foul tenement houses of New York,” and traveled to England to study housing reform efforts in that country.
Upon his return to New York, White invested his family’s money into his own model housing developments, the Tower and Home projects along Hicks Street, as well as the Riverside Houses on Columbia Place in Brooklyn Heights. White’s motivation was not purely philanthropic; he sought to do well by doing good, famously adopting the motto “philanthropy plus five percent,” an economic concept developed in England in the 1860’s in response to the housing crisis there.
The Tower and Home Buildings Project
The Home Buildings at the southeast corner of Hicks and Baltic Streets were constructed first, in 1876-1877. This initial project consisted of apartment buildings situated in an L-shape around an internal courtyard that took up more than half the lot. Approximately one year later, in 1878-1879, the Tower Buildings were constructed one block north, on the east side of Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets. Named the “Tower Buildings” because of two ornamental peaks at either end, the second project consisted of apartment buildings situated in a U-shape around another large internal courtyard. Adjacent to the Tower Buildings, White also built a group of small row houses sometimes called “the Workingmen’s Cottages.” The rear of the cottages served to enclose the Tower Buildings’ courtyard. These courtyards for the Tower and Home Buildings may have been the first semipublic communal spaces in a New York City housing project and provided safe areas for children to play away from the dangers of the street.
The Tower and Home Buildings initially provided 218 units of rental housing. Beyond basic shelter, however, the buildings were a ground-breaking attempt at tenement reform. Rather than the oppressively dark internal staircases and corridors found in most tenements, White’s design enhanced fire safety and introduced more light and air into his complex through distinctive exterior staircases and open balconies. As White noted in 1879, every family had “its dwelling . . . entirely private and apart from, and with no room opening into another, while all the rooms have direct sunlight.”
Each unit had its own toilet, although there was a common bathing area located in the basement of the buildings, use of which required payment of an additional fee. The apartments also featured fireplaces and mantles in every sitting and living room, windows extending up close to the ceiling, and ceiling heights of 8 feet 3 inches. In addition, because Hicks Street was then a retail corridor, the ground floors of the buildings had stores along their Hicks Street sides.
White did not limit his reforms to his tenants’ housing. He prohibited liquor and, according to an 1876 article in the New York Times, said that the success of the project would be guaranteed by “strict moral and police supervision under a faithful janitor.” In 1879, he published a number of rules and regulations governing the buildings, including the requirement that halls and balconies be swept daily before 10 a.m. and a prohibition on clothes hanging out windows. His overarching rule was that “[d]isorderly tenants will not be allowed to remain.”
At the same time, White sought to reward good tenants. Rent was due weekly, every Saturday night between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tenants who paid four or more weeks in advance would receive a 10 cent per week reduction in their rent. According to White, “the whole spirit of the regulations [was], while leaving complete individual liberty, to encourage thrift and care, by making these to the interest of the tenant. . . .”
Tower Buildings, 1891, v1918.104.22.168; Brooklyn photographs in black, v1986.18; Brooklyn Historical Society.
The Workingmen’s Cottages—Warren Place Mews
As part of the Tower Buildings project, in 1878-1879, White also built a group of row houses facing each other across a narrow garden running between Warren and Baltic Streets. At two stories high, 11 ½ feet wide and 32 feet deep, the houses were smaller than the typical Brooklyn row house. At the end of each row were larger houses facing Warren or Baltic Streets, three stories high and 16 feet wide.
These individual “cottages” were intended for craftsmen and foreman who earned more than the typical laborer but still had a modest income. White stated that, in building the cottages, he aimed “to erect the best six-room house possible for a cost of about $1000 to be substantial, healthy and attractive.”
Cobble Hill Towers
During his ownership, Alfred Tredway White continued to improve the Tower and Home Buildings, upgrading them from gas to electric at the start of the 20th century. As time went on, the buildings experienced other changes. In the 1940’s, the White family sold the complex, which eventually became known as the “Cobble Hill Towers,” and in the 1950’s, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway was built, dramatically altering Hicks Street.
By 1975, the buildings had declined substantially along with the declining economic fortunes of the Brooklyn waterfront. Of the 244 apartments then in the complex, nearly 100 were vacant, 11 were boarded up following fires, and the courtyard was piled high with garbage. A local real estate broker, Frank Farella, heard from his oil supplier that the complex was for sale and on October 31, 1975, purchased the buildings for $450,000. Conditions in the buildings may have been worse than he expected; at his first meeting with tenants two days later, he learned that there had been no heat or hot water for two weeks. Mr. Farella resolved that immediate crisis, and in 1978, began a restoration of the complex, moving tenants from the Home Buildings into vacant apartments in the Tower Buildings and then back as the work was completed. His biggest task was restoring the apartments, many of which had been subdivided after World War II, back to their original design. Ultimately, Mr. Farella brought the number of apartments down to 188, with sunlight and air on both sides, restoration work that was not completed until 1986.
In 1998, Mr. Farella entered a partnership with the Hudson Companies, and the owners are now pursuing a non-eviction plan condominium conversion of the complex.
Gray, Christopher, “Architectural Wealth, Built for the Poor, The New York Times, October 10, 2008. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/realestate/12scap.html.
Hudson Company website. http://hudsoninc.com/cobble-hill-towers/.
Jamieson, Wendell, “My Brooklyn: Landmark Towers, Still Loved and Lived In,” The New York Times, January 24, 2003. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/24/arts/my-brooklyn-landmark-towers-still-loved-and-lived-in.html.
LaFarge, Tom, “Conditions Necessary to the Formation of Alfred Tredway White,” in The Social Vision of Alfred T. White (Wendy Walker, Ed., 2009).
Morrone, Francis. An Architectural Guide to Brooklyn (2001).
Osman, Suleiman. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (2011).
Warnke, Benjamin, “Plus 5%: Social Venture Capital Today,” in The Social Vision of Alfred T. White (Wendy Walker, Ed., 2009).
White, Alfred T. Improved Dwellings for the Laboring Classes (1879).
Yarmolinsky, Sally, “The Man Who Built My House,” in The Social Vision of Alfred T. White (Wendy Walker, Ed., 2009).