The Tower and Home Buildings: Cobble Hill Towers

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, v1986.18.1.25; 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.

Sources:

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).

The Rise and Fall of LICH: America’s First Teaching Hospital

The Rise and Fall of LICH: America’s First Teaching Hospital

By Susan K. Harris

Because I walk past The Long Island College Hospital site every day, I’ve watched the busy institution as it slowed down, then closed. I miss the doctors and nurses scurrying past; I miss the linguistic jangle and ethnic mosaic that the hospital brought to our increasingly homogeneous neighborhood. (I also miss the fact that at 5 pm, when shifts changed, I just might be able to find a parking spot.)  If all goes as planned, few newcomers will be aware that a vibrant hospital once stood on this site. As LICH disappears, I thought we might look back at its history, a bit of our collective “memory” of a substantial piece of Cobble Hill’s past.

Part I: The Nineteenth Century

We know LICH as the large complex on the northwest corner of Cobble Hill–currently the site of a power struggle between developers and the community.  Its origins, though, were modest. It was first organized in March, 1856, as the Brooklyn German General Dispensary–“German” because its major sponsors were German doctors concerned that there be medical care for the large number of German immigrants then living in the neighborhood.  In the mid-19th century a “dispensary” was what we would call a clinic–an office staffed by doctors who diagnosed illnesses and “dispensed” medicines.  The Brooklyn German General Dispensary went a little farther than that; it also had wards for in-patient treatment.  Located at 132 Court St, it boasted two consulting physicians, two consulting surgeons, one resident physician, and one “cupper and leecher.”  According to Smith’s Brooklyn City Directory, 1856-1857, the Dispensary was “Open to the poor from 2 to 4 o’clock every day, Sunday excepted.”

The Dispensary met a real need: it treated 850 patients in its first 19 months, and it soon outgrew both its quarters and its founders’ ambitions.  In 1857 the doctors who had organized the Dispensary partnered with a group of prominent Brooklyn businessmen to develop a hospital and medical school in the neighborhood.  Briefly named The St. John’s Hospital, then The Long Island Hospital and Medical College, by 1858 it was formally referred to as The Long Island College Hospital.

The name signaled a major breakthrough for American medical practice.   To us it seems logical that medical schools partner with hospitals so that medical students can practice on real human bodies, but in the 1850s that was a radical idea.  Some European medical practices–most prominently, in Paris and Vienna–were beginning to experiment with teaching hospitals, but in the U.S. aspiring practitioners still learned their craft through apprenticeships with established doctors.  If they were ambitious, they might also attend some lectures on the science behind the practice, but these were not required, and people living outside city centers had little access to formal lectures. In contrast, LICH combined required series of medical lectures with practice in the adjacent hospital.  Thus it became the first American teaching hospital.

The founding fathers saw two advantages to this. In addition to improving medical care in Brooklyn, they hoped the medical school would challenge Manhattan’s status as the only modern city in the area.  Desirous, they claimed, of reflecting “both honor and credit upon our ‘City of Churches,'” they charged that the “City of Brooklyn has neglected to establish its own ‘temples of science'” because of its “contiguity to another great city.” In 1857 Brooklyn was an independent entity (it did not amalgamate with Manhattan until 1898) and the founders were clearly feeling competitive.  A medical college would put Brooklyn on the map, bringing a reputation for scientific innovation to the rapidly growing western section of Long Island.

The Brooklyn/Manhattan rivalry was on. The gentlemen organizers were all financial heavyweights–they included men like financier Daniel Chauncey and railroad magnate (and future state senator) Samuel Sloan.  Despite each member of the committee contributing $100 outright and pledging up to $500 more, however, they needed outside money to realize their goals. To raise it they sent out 2000 copies of a solicitation letter whose mission statement was calculated to appeal to their neighbors’ charitable instincts and civic pride. “This Institution appeals in the strongest manner to our benevolence and Christian sympathies,” it opined.   “Here the unfortunate, the friendless, and the destitute will find a home when afflicted by sickness, their wants be relieved, and the best medical attendance supplied to them.  If unable to pay for these benefits, they are freely bestowed without charge to any and all.”  They also noted that the proximity of the docks–site of frequent accidents–suggested that the hospital be located in the immediate area.

Having appealed to potential donors’ better natures, the letter outlines the proposed “Temple of Science.” This was to be “a college, where all the branches of medical science shall be taught and illustrated, and where medical students can be practically trained.”  The College would employ seasoned doctors and lecturers in anatomy and related fields.  Students would train for surgery, gynecology, and general medicine.  (That they would learn their craft on the bodies of charity patients was taken for granted–in those days people who could afford to have doctors and nurses come to their homes rarely went to hospitals.)

The appeal worked–more or less.  Cash flow is a continuing theme in LICH history, and it was clearly a problem from the start.  One way the founders raised funds was by sponsoring a lecture series, with Ralph Waldo Emerson giving one of the first lectures (his talk netted $100, a large sum for those days). They raised enough to purchase the “Perry Property”– a mansion and grounds on Henry Street between Pacific and Amity–for the sum of $31,250, and a Charter was granted by the State Legislature on March 6, 1858.  The venture began shakily; the medical school closed in 1859, only re-opening the following year through the generosity of William Henry Dudley, one of the doctors, who bought the property and maintained it in his name until the college could buy it back from him. Despite such financial adversity, the dedicated team of doctors and their supporters continued laying the institution’s foundations. By 1862 the hospital began receiving soldiers wounded in the Civil War, and seeing the need for competent doctors on the battlefield, the medical school initiated a course in military surgery. By 1873 the hospital was treating more than 10,000 patients per year, and by 1882 it had added a new wing, with new classrooms, wards, a museum, and steam heat.  It also added new buildings.  The Hoagland Laboratory, arguably the first bacteriological lab in the country, opened in 1888.  This was a significant institution. Germ theory gained currency slowly in the late 19th century, and an entire building dedicated to bacteriology signaled the medical school’s position on the forefront of scientific innovation.  The Polhemus Memorial Clinic, said to be the world’s first high-rise medical facility, went up in 1897. It continued the founders’ legacy, reserving two floors for outpatient clinics that treated the local poor. By 1899, when the LICH Alumni Association published a history of the institution and a list of its alumni, the college had expanded far beyond its founders’ expectations, adding a Nursing School, a four-year curriculum for medical students, and considerable new real estate.  And its reputation extended beyond Brooklyn’s borders, as evidenced by the U.S. government sending soldiers who had been wounded in the Spanish-American War.

Part II: Into the Twentieth Century

By the turn into the 20th century, then, the Long Island College Hospital had more than met its founders’ expectations.  It entered the new century energetically.  The Polhemus Memorial Clinic added laboratories and spacious amphitheaters to the medical school, and 1900 saw the adoption of the 4-year medical curriculum pioneered at Johns Hopkins, Baltimore’s pedagogically innovative Medical School. In 1903 the Dudley Memorial Building, a residence for nurses, opened its doors, and over the next few years existing buildings were restructured, paving the way for a modern medical complex.

With the changes in medical curriculum came changes in oversight.  In the 20th century, doctors, hospitals, and medical schools came under increasing scrutiny for standards, hygiene, and facilities.  In 1909 the Carnegie Foundation began reviewing medical schools across the nation.  The Foundation’s report, published in 1910, precipitated the demise of nearly half the medical schools in the country. LICH came off comparatively lightly; overall the institution got a B, primarily because it lacked full-time teachers (most professors also practiced medicine), a library, and physiology and pharmacology labs.  Critical as it was, the report came at a good time for LICH, which had already begun raising its medical school standards. Acting on the report’s recommendations, the administration began hiring full-time professors and building laboratories. By 1914 the American Medical Society gave the College an A.

Oversight agencies continued to proliferate, however.  In 1918 the American College of Surgeons cited LICH for poor record keeping, lax supervision of interns and residents, inadequate surgical follow-up procedures, and indifferent quality control. Throughout World War I the hospital operated in crisis mode, including a shortage of nurses and annual deficits.  Still, its educational arm continued to improve: by 1922, 28 of the 108 students entering the medical school had B.A. degrees.  This may sound low to us, but it was a big improvement over the entering class of 1860, when many students lacked even a high school diploma.

The relationship between the medical college and the hospital deteriorated, however, and in 1930 the two agreed to separate, forming two administrative units.  The change had the most impact on the medical school, which now called itself the Long Island College of Medicine and included other Brooklyn hospitals (Kings County, Greenpoint, Coney Island, Brooklyn Jewish, Methodist Episcopal, and Brooklyn Hospital) for its clinical practices.  Strapped for funds, the LICH hospital could not provide the increase in teaching beds, facilities and staff teaching time that would maintain its status as Brooklyn’s premier teaching hospital, and by the decade’s end that crown passed to Kings County.

The population LICH served continued to evolve.  Although the institution’s founders envisioned the area’s German population as its client base, Irish immigrants were already present in the 1850s, and their numbers grew.  Over the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were joined by Italians, Syrians, Lebanese, and both German and Russian Jews. Later groups included Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and small numbers of African Americans and Asians.  As these immigrants’ socio-economic status rose, so did their demands for social services. The increased demand, coupled with improved hospital standards, the evolution of medical insurance, and the introduction of complex medical technologies that could not be transported to private homes, motivated a historic shift in public attitudes towards hospital stays.   Hitherto hospitals had been the often-dreaded last resort for the poor and the mentally ill.  Anyone who could afford it was treated at home.  Now this began to change: between the end of World War I and the 1950s medical care for the middle and wealthy classes shifted from the home to the hospital.

The sea-change both improved hospitals’ cash flow and compounded their financial difficulties.  On the one hand, employer-sponsored insurance programs made it much easier for patients to pay for hospital stays, specialist treatments, and multiple, technology-driven tests. Hospitals knew this; they also quickly realized that the way to attract middle-and upper-class patients was to develop private and semi-private rooms that would give the patients the sense of privacy and privilege to which they were accustomed.   During the World War II years LICH raised its rates for such rooms, putting it in the black for the first time.  The call for private and semi-private rooms continued to increase throughout the next decade.  Patient/staff relations also began to change. John Edson, author of A History of the Long Island College Hospital, notes that in the 1950s LICH advised its staff to “maintain courteous relationships with their patients.” Apparently paying clients did not like to be treated like charity patients. (Nor, one assumes, did charity patients.)

The down side of the combination of technological and payment changes was that hospital costs shot up. The new machines did not come cheaply, and once bought, they weren’t easy to maintain. Many needed special housing conditions to keep them in working order (if you have ever wondered why hospitals are cold, that’s the reason: they keep the temps down to keep the machines happy). Most also needed specially trained technicians to operate them, and many were so complex that outside repairmen had to be hired when they broke down. Knowledge that private insurance (and later, Medicare and Medicaid) would ensure that hospitals got paid led to costly testing and multiple hospital stays, a course that eventually led to increased oversight, complex billing processes, and, often, only partial reimbursement.  The upshot was that even as hospitals became venues of choice for medical services, costs began to outstrip intake, leading even well-managed institutions into the red.

Like most of the other hospitals in the country, LICH experienced all these pressures, eventuating in a major shift in its identity and mission. In 1950 the medical school, which had maintained a close relationship with the hospital even after the administrative split of 1930, merged with the new State University of New York to become SUNY Downstate. Offices, staff, students, and professors moved to Clarkson Avenue, the site of the SUNY Downstate Medical Center.  Known for a time as the Health Science Center of Brooklyn, it was the only medical school on all of Long Island until 1971.  After the merger, the Henry St. hospital no longer had the close association with the medical school that had driven its mission for nearly a century.

So America’s First Teaching Hospital entered the last third of the 20th century as a very different institution than it had begun.  It had lost its medical school, and instead of being the premier teaching institution had become one of many Brooklyn hospitals through which interns and residents rotated as they learned their craft.  Financial and social challenges continued, tracking major changes in the culture at large. The Nursing School is a good example.  Nurses won a 5-day work week in 1950, a decided improvement over their former working conditions.  Also in 1950, prodded by an accusation of discrimination by the Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, the Board announced a nondiscrimination policy. At the same time, the Board also announced that nurses who married or became pregnant would be immediately dismissed. Two steps forward, one back.  Despite the ups and downs, the hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary on March 6, 1958 with a fund-raiser held at the Hotel St. George. Menu: cocktails, appetizers, steak, salad, veggies, desserts, and ice cream cake.  Price pp: $8.50.   Net intake: $39,000.00.

Part III: The Downward Slope

At the end of the 1970s, LICH seemed in good shape.  The institution had achieved a tenuous fiscal solvency and was looking forward to a building campaign that would add the Polak, Othmer, and Fuller buildings and state-of-the-art technologies.  The Divisions announced for the new Fuller Pavilion illustrate how far medical technology had come since 1857: the divisions included Nuclear Medicine and Nuclear Cardiology, Hemodialysis, Ultrasound and Radiology, Neuroscience, and Radiation Therapy.  The building also boasted a small Linear Accelerator.

The new buildings increased the density of the existing campus.  In the 1980s the hospital also expanded its geographical reach, buying St. Peter’s church on Hicks St and moving its nursing staff into it, and, in a trade-off with the Cobble Hill Association, receiving permission to build a parking structure on Hicks St.’s upper Van Vorhees Park in exchange for three Henry St. plots previously used for parking.  These plots became the two playgrounds and the small passive-use adult park we know today.

But new buildings do not come cheaply, and the hospital’s debt increased.  The Fuller extension alone cost $87,932,000.  By the mid-1980s the hospital’s mortgage totaled $157,332,000.  With this, social changes created serious ethical conflicts among the hospital staff.  On the one hand, the Nursing School expanded its home care department and developed a midwifery program; on the other hand, the growing dispute about pregnancy termination divided the medical and administrative staff, especially the debate over extending the termination limit to 24 weeks rather than 20.  An extension would help the hospital’s finances, but it would also shift the balance of OB/GYN operations from live births to abortions.  Patients, families, and staff also confronted challenges over the Do Not Resuscitate program and over keeping brain-dead patients alive on respirators.  Another increasing problem came with the AIDS epidemic, which brought a new set of far sicker patients into the hospital mix.  By 1989 the hospital’s emergency room suffered from medical gridlock: according to John Edson, Emergency was “flooded with non-emergency patients, AIDS patients, and the homeless.” Poor discharge operations made it difficult to move patients from Emergency to beds.  Edson also notes that the hospital’s support staff were known to be chronically rude to patients, and that attempts to remedy the situation had had limited success.

LICH wasn’t the only hospital suffering.  According to Crain’s New York Business, by 2011 five of Brooklyn’s ten hospitals were in serious financial difficulties.  Crain’s lists years of government funding cuts as the central cause: despite the loss of government revenue, these “safety-net” hospitals were still obliged to serve poor communities, where few patients had privately-funded insurance.  The dearth of private insurance payments meant that the institutions’ revenues came from deeply discounted Medicare and Medicaid payments, not enough to keep them running without substantial other sources.  Crain’s laid the blame on the state government; New York, the newsletter claimed, wanted to completely restructure regional health care, and was willing to close hospitals to facilitate consolidation.

So the story of LICH’s demise is part of a larger narrative about the restructuring of healthcare throughout New York City.  The state government was far more concerned about the hospital’s financial leakages than about its service to the community. And leak it did. In 1989 LICH lost $5 million.  In 1998 it was taken over by Continuum Health partners, a management group based in Manhattan.  Attempting to pull the institution out of its financial hole, in 2007 Continuum began selling the Hospital’s buildings and shutting down programs, closing the sex abuse and psychiatric programs in 2008 and the nursing school in 2011.  With this, they laid off workers: 100 in 2008, 150 in 2012.  As Continuum faltered, the city searched for other options to save the hospital; in 2010 then-governor David Paterson engineered a merger with SUNY Downstate Medical Center, a move that seemed to brighten LICH’s future.  But it too failed; by 2014 the hospital had shuttered forever, sold to Fortis Development and to NYU Langone.

Why did LICH close?  Over the past 20 years, and certainly since the Continuum takeover, we have read countless accusations of mismanagement, political double-dealing, and community betrayal.  It’s most likely that some of these accusations–maybe all of them–are true.  But we also need to see LICH’s history within the evolution of healthcare in America.  As this brief history shows, as soon as the hospital was established in 1857 the medical situation began to change: standards for doctors began to rise, patient populations began to shift, increasing technological and scientific breakthroughs made medical care, and hospitals specifically, very different in 1900 than they had been fifty years earlier.  The 20th century saw even more profound changes. In addition to the continuing evolution of both medical science and its practice, financial pressures induced a series of structural changes: the rise of the powerful American Medical Association, of private and employer-sponsored insurance companies like Blue Cross/Blue Shield, of state and federal oversight, of federal and state-funded programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), of experimental programs such as Managed Care, and of the ever-increasing disparity between people who could afford private insurance and those who couldn’t. Long Island College Hospital, located in an increasingly-affluent neighborhood whose residents did not, on the whole, constitute its patient base, was caught in the cross-hairs.  By the second decade of the 20th century its struggle to serve patients who could not afford to cross the river to Manhattan’s hospitals gave in to New York City’s new normal: an abridged annex of a powerful Manhattan medical center (NYU Langone) surrounded by luxury residential towers.

Selected Sources:

“From the Cradle to the Grave: A LICH Timeline,” Brooklyn Paper, July 11, 2014.http://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/37/45/dtg-lich-timeline-2014-11-07-bk_37_45.html.

“Dispensaries, Hospitals, and Medical Societies of Kings County, 1830-1860,” by William Schroeder, M.D. https://archive.org/details/101218967.nlm.nih.gov.

“The Founding Of America’s First College Hospital” http://www.downstate.edu/brooklynhistoryofmedicine/pdf/medschool/chap1.pdf.

Raymond, Joseph Howard. History of the Long Island College Hospital and its Graduates, Together with the Hoagland Laboratory and the Polhemus Memorial Clinic.”   Brooklyn, NY: Published by the Association of Alumni, 1899. https://archive.org/stream/68140020R.nlm.nih.gov/68140020R#page/n3/mode/2up.

Edson, John N.  Brooklyn First: A History of the Long Island College Hospital, 1859-1990.  New York: The Long Island College Hospital, 1993.

“The Founding Of America’s First College Hospital.” http://www.downstate.edu/brooklynhistoryofmedicine/pdf/medschool/chap1.pdf.

Guide to the Archives, State University of New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn. Medical Research Library of Brooklyn, 1996. http://library.downstate.edu/archives.pdf

SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Department of Medicine History. http://www.downstate.edu/medicine/history.html

“Half of Brooklyn Hospitals on Life support.”  Crain’s New York Business, June 5, 2011.

Author InformationSusan K. Harris has served on the faculties of Queens College (CUNY), Penn State, and the University of Kansas, and has published with Oxford, Cambridge, and Penguin presses, among others. She lives in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn.

 

 

A Brief History of Cobble Hill

In 2009, the Cobble Hill Association marked its 50th anniversary.

One of the ways in which the CHA celebrated the milestone was by compiling a history of the area, from the days of the Canarsie tribe, who lived here when the Europeans first arrived in the 17th century, to the first decade of the 21st century.  The history was researched and written by neighbor Franklin Stone, who also found the illustrations and provided funding for the printing.

The History Committee can imagine no more fitting way to launch our section of the website than to reprint this engaging document.

Scroll down to read the full history  or you can click here to download the PDF in its entirety.


A Brief History of Cobble Hill

by Franklin Stone

Beginnings

The archaeological and ethnographic record makes it clear that Native Americans occupied the area now known as Brooklyn for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans. Many of the major thoroughfares in Brooklyn were once the approximate routes of Native American trails that were adopted by early colonists and turned into formal roads. In the 1600s, Brooklyn was occupied primarily by the Carnarsie tribe, a subtribe of the Delaware.

In 1636, about twelve years after the establishment of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan, a handful of Dutch settlers spread across the East River to set up plantations on the westernmost edge of Long Island. They bought nearly 1,000 acres of land east of present-day Court Street from the Native Americans and named the area Gowanus. As the Dutch settled into the area, they quickly transformed the marshland into farmland and utilized the creek for transporting their goods. In 1646, the first Dutch community on the island was incorporated and called Breuckelen, Dutch for “broken ground.”  The first settlers placed their farms along the Indian trail that ran from the East River southward.

The area now known as Cobble Hill was first settled by Dutch farmers in the 1640s when Dutch Governor Willem Kieft granted patents for farms north of Red Hook, from the East River to the Gowanus valley, legalizing the many farms already located in that area. Frederick Lubbertsen, Jan Manje, Claes Jansen van Naerden (aka Ruyter), and Andries Hudde were among those who received patents for large tracts of land in this area.

Lubbertsen’s large tract extended about a mile along the shore from the foot of the present Atlantic Avenue. Much of it was salt meadows, ponds, and tidal creeks with small wooded islands and sand banks, the last deposits of the glaciers. Lubbertsen built a large farmhouse, which included a large oven capable of baking at one time the equivalent in flour of about a bushel and a half of grain. This suggests the presence of a considerable force of work-hands, perhaps including slaves. In the 1600s the Van Rycken (aka Suydam) family acquired land and built a house at the corner of Hicks and West Baltic streets. Old Red Hook Lane was laid out in 1760, running roughly north-south near present-day Court Street.

In 1664, Brooklyn fell into English hands. In 1683, the English organized the five old Dutch towns of southwestern Long Island and the English settlement at Gravesend into Kings County.

In 1679, the Cobble Hill area was still an agricultural community, as described in the Labadists’ travel diary:

It is impossible to tell how many peach trees we passed, all laden with fruit to breaking down.… We came to a place surrounded with such trees from which so many had fallen off that the ground could not be discerned, and you could not put your foot down without trampling them; and, notwithstanding such large quantities had fallen off, the trees still were as full as they could bear. The hogs and other animals mostly feed on them.

The highest point in this region was a “peculiarly aggressive hill” that reared up solitary and alone among the cornfields of the surrounding farms, covering most of what is now the block bounded by Atlantic, Pacific, Clinton, and Court Streets. The Dutch called this highest point “Ponkiesbergh.”  

In 1680 Frederick Lubbertsen died, leaving his Breukelen property to his two daughters by his second wife: Aeltje, who married Cornelius Sebring (aka Seuberingh), and Elsje, who married Jacob Hansen Bergen. He also left land to his three step-sons Cornelis, Pieter, and Hendrik Corsen. In 1698 Cornelius Sebring bought from Pieter Corson one hundred acres in the area of Brooklyn commonly called Lubbertsen’s Neck, next to the lands of George Hansen Bergen and Jacob Hansen Bergen. This neck has now lost its original appearance by the filling in of the Atlantic docks, the grading of streets, and the various improvements of the modern city. For many decades, the Sebrings operated a mill on their land near Red Hook.

The land covered by the three patents to Manje, Hudde, and van Naerden were subsequently purchased by Dirck Janse Woertman and eventually, with  some of Lubbertsen’s land, became the large estates of Jonas Remsen and Philip Livingston. In the late 1600s some of the Sebring property passed to Whitehead Cornell, who married into the old Sebring family. By this marriage and probably also by purchase, the Cornells became major landholders and joined the ranks of the most respectable citizens of old Brooklyn—“all staunch King and Church men.”

On the eve of the Revolutionary War, the Cobble Hill area boasted several substantial farmhouses of old Dutch families.  Maps survive from the pre-Revolutionary period, including Ratzer’s survey of Brooklyn in 1766-67, which described the very steep, conical hill on the west side of Red Hook Lane as “Cobleshill.”

Ratzer’s Map 1766
Ratzer’s Map 1766

On August 27, 1776, Cobble Hill played a major role in the Battle of Brooklyn.   This battle was the first major engagement in the Revolutionary War after independence was declared, and the largest of the entire conflict. British troops forced the Continental Army under George Washington off the heights near the modern sites of Green-Wood Cemetery, Prospect Park, and Grand Army Plaza. During the battle, Washington viewed the particularly fierce fighting at the Gowanus Creek from atop the steep, conical “Cobble Hill Fort.”

The fortified American positions became untenable and were evacuated a few days later, leaving the British in control of New York Harbor. While Washington’s defeat on the battlefield cast early doubts on his ability as commander of the armies, the subsequent tactical withdrawal of all his troops and supplies across the East River in a single night is seen by historians as one of his most important successes.

The British controlled the region for the duration of the war and leveled Cobble Hill Fort so it would not overlook their headquarters in Brooklyn Heights. The British also appropriated the estate of Philip Livingston and occupied it as a naval hospital.  British sheds and huts for the sick were erected on the banks of the river south of present-day Atlantic Avenue and east of Hicks Street. Along the river between present-day Pacific and Warren Streets several hundred British sailors and soldiers were buried in regular rows. The westernmost row was exposed to the lashing of the waves of the East River and, for many years afterwards, the remains of these poor fellows were from time to time disinterred by the actions of sea and shore.

Most of the Sebrings, who were anti-British Whigs, left Long Island after the departure of the American troops in August 1776. The Sebring home and mill near Red Hook were burned by the British and the family found themselves impoverished on their return after the war and obliged to dispose of their property. The Cornells were loyalists who became friendly with the British officers. At their urging, an English Colonel Thornel built a large house at what is now Strong Place on land sold to him by the Cornells.


The Nineteenth Century

Many changes came to Cobble Hill in the Federal period. The early days of the 1800s marked the point at which the steady stream of immigrants to Brooklyn from Europe—particularly Ireland and Germany—became a flood. The swelling workforce encouraged industrialization and vice versa, and by the middle of the 19th century, the Brooklyn waterfront (and the government’s newly christened Brooklyn Navy Yard) was dominated by factories, textile mills, and other manufacturing centers, and the little village of Breuckelen had become a city in its own right.

In 1810 Brooklyn had a population of 4,402. There were 400 houses, fifty to sixty ships docked annually at its wharves, six grain or tide mills, three magazines for storage of gunpowder, several distilleries, three ropewalks, one Episcopalian stone church, one Reformed Dutch stone church, one Methodist church, one poor house, and two market houses situated in the open spaces near the old and new ferries. By 1850, the population of Brooklyn had risen to 96,838. 

The old Red Hook Lane, laid out in 1760, was straightened into Court Street. By 1823, Henry Street was opened to connect directly with Brooklyn Heights.  Property which had which had been covered by the Dutch patents, and subsequently by the Remsen and Livingston estates, was sold to relative newcomers.

The first stage in the development of Cobble Hill occurred in the blocks along the west side of Henry Street where the dramatic view of the harbor led owners to establish their rural homesteads or rural suburban mansions. At the north end, Ralph Patchen built a home just south of Atlantic Avenue in the bed of present-day Hicks Street near his distillery and dock. Patchen eventually covered some 150 acres and the private Patchen’s Road led from his farm on the East River to Red Hook Lane. This country lane was swallowed up by District Street, which became the southernmost boundary of the Village of Brooklyn, incorporated in 1816. In 1855, District was renamed Atlantic Street, and by the 1870s it was designated an Avenue.

The next block south on Henry Street, originally part of the Patchen farm, was acquired in the 1830s by Joseph A. Perry who built a handsome, block-long Greek Revival mansion. Further south, the land between what is now Amity, Congress, and Court Streets and the East River, was acquired by Cornelius Heeney, a successful fur merchant, who built a summer home at Henry and Amity. Further south on Henry near Warren, Noel Becar built a large Greek Revival mansion and greenhouse.

Still further south, Parmenus Johnson purchased the old Suydam farm and built a house which occupied the entire block between Henry, Hicks, Warren, and Baltic Streets and was surrounded by pear trees a century old. Johnson owned the sixteen acres bounded by Congress, Baltic, and Court Streets and the river, and tripled the size of his property by filling in and docking out on his waterfront.  In 1833 his farm was cut up and sold off in small plots, making him one of Brooklyn’s wealthiest citizens of the time.

The southernmost farm in present-day Cobble Hill belonged to the Cornells, whose farm extended from Baltic Street to nearly Congress and from Red Hook Lane to the East River. The Cornell home and flour mill were located near the harbor, just outside what is now the Historic District. A considerable portion of the Cornell farm near Baltic Street was purchased by Selah Strong, a merchant and comptroller of New York City, who occupied the house built by Colonel Thornel in the bed of present-day Strong Place.

None of these rural houses survive, nor are there any houses in the colonial or federal style remaining in Cobble Hill. The next stage in the development of Cobble Hill was the breaking up of these large land holdings. Patchen’s large farm occupied more than a dozen blocks between what is now State and Amity Streets and was closest to the Fulton ferries. It was broken up into lots by 1832 when the oldest still-standing house in the Historic District, 122 Pacific Street, was built in the Greek Revival style.

Hooker’s Map of 1827

The development of Cobble Hill into an urban residential district escalated in the mid-1830s, with a boom in speculative real estate development associated with the establishment in 1836 of the ferry service at the foot of Atlantic Avenue. The gridiron pattern of streets was established by 1834 and extended south from Atlantic to Butler Street. Below Butler Street the old lanes and the new street design crisscrossed haphazardly for some time, except for Strong Place, which was regulated and paved as early as 1836.

Following the Fire of 1835, when his house in Manhattan burned down, Cornelius Heeney moved permanently to Brooklyn, where he spent the remainder of his days. Heeney, who never married, was known for his generosity. In 1784 he had left his native Ireland and sailed for Philadelphia. Entering the Delaware River, his ship was struck by lightning and wrecked. Oystermen laboring in the vicinity rescued the passengers, charging a dollar for each passenger put ashore. A friendly Quaker lent Heeney the money, saying, “Whenever thou seest a fellow creature in want of a dollar as thou art now, give it to him, and thou shalt have repaid me.’’

Many orphan children were educated by him, and not a few of his female protégés married into highly respectable families. His fine Brooklyn orchard was utilized every summer for fresh air parties for orphan children, who were given all the apples, cherries, and other fruit they could consume. Wood was also distributed to the poor of the neighborhood, and he contributed generously to many charitable associations and churches of New York and Brooklyn. When he died in 1848, Heeney left his estate to the Brooklyn Benevolent Society for the support of the Catholic Orphan Asylum Society. He is buried in St. Paul’s Church, at the corner of Court and Congress Streets. Unlike neighboring estates, the Heeney property was not sold, as the Society adopted the policy of giving only lease-hold titles and reserving a ground rent to yield the largest income on the property.

Coles Estate Map of Cobble Hill in 1836.

In contrast to Manhattan, the rows of houses first built in Cobble Hill were either built individually or in rows, ranging anywhere from three houses to groups which occupied half a city block.  A handsome row of six Greek Revival houses at 228-238 Warren Street, erected between 1833 and 1835, are the earliest significant row of houses in the neighborhood—and still one of the most beautiful. According to the 1840-41 tax lists, there were already rows of houses on Pacific, Warren, and Baltic Streets in the blocks between Clinton and Henry Streets, as well as on Strong Place. In 1845, according to the recollections of the Rev. Sewall S. Cutting of the Strong Place Baptist Church:

On this side of Atlantic Street I recall no instance, in the streets running either way, unless, near the river, where any street was built from one corner to another. In all the district from Atlantic Street to Carroll, the buildings were dwellings in detached clusters. Whole blocks were without a building on them, or with no more than two or three or four. Everywhere were footpaths across the blocks to make shorter routes to the South Ferry. My own family had been in 1845 the first to occupy a house in the row of houses on Harrison (Kane) Street, fronting Strong Place.

Many of the original builders of Cobble Hill are unknown, but some names occur with great regularity as early as the 1840s, among them Asa Stebbins, William Johnson, Horatio White, Thomas Sullivan, Michael Markey, Jeremiah O’Donnell, and Jacob Carpenter. According to the 1969 Cobble Hill Historic District Designation Report, some of these rows contain “examples which are virtually unique in the City and which give Cobble Hill its special distinction.”

Excerpt from Hayward’s Map of Cobble Hill, 1843. See the full map in the map gallery.

The architectural styles represented in Cobble Hill include the Greek Revival of the 1830s and 1840s, followed by the Gothic Revival, Italianate, and the early Romanesque Revival styles of the 1850s and 1860s. The French Neo-Grec style which appeared in the 1870s was followed by the Romanesque Revival, the Queen Anne style, and the new classicism influenced by the Chicago Fair of 1893. The District also has many “transitional” houses which display the characteristics of one or more periods when one style was giving way to another. Materials are in the masonry tradition with brick and brownstone predominating. Ironwork includes both the standard die and castings to be found in other parts of the City as well as several most unusual designs not to be seen elsewhere. In its quality, quantity, and variety Cobble Hill’s housing stock is some of the best in the City.

Cobble Hill also drew the attention of two famous 19th-century architects. Richard Upjohn in 1842 designed the Gothic Revival Christ Episcopal Church at Clinton and Kane Streets. In 1852 Minard Lafever designed the Gothic Revival Strong Place Baptist Church at DeGraw Street and Strong Place. Upjohn, and later his son Richard M. Upjohn, made their home at 296 Clinton Street.

Other churches were also built during this period. In 1855 the Romanesque Middle Reformed Dutch Church was built on Kane Street. The buildings were later owned by the Salvation Army and the Trinity German Lutheran Church, and in 1905 became home to the Harrison (now Kane) Street Synagogue. In 1857, the well-known architect Jacob Wrey Mould designed the Second Unitarian Church at Clinton and Congress. The building was in the shape of the cruciform, with a low pitched, concave roof covered with green and purple octagon slates in alternate rows, resembling a tortoise for which it became known as the “Church of the Holy Turtle.” This church became a cultural and abolitionist center and one of its parishioners, Mary White Ovington, was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Roman Catholic centers of St. Paul’s at Court and Congress Streets and the Romanesque Revival St. Peter’s Church at Hicks and Warren, built in 1859-60, included schools, an orphanage, and a hospital.

Perris Map of Cobble Hill in 1855

By 1860, Cobble Hill had been converted from a sparsely populated rural outpost into a quiet and comfortable suburban community, complete with banks, stores, and other services, as well as many churches whose steeples rose against the skyline.  Its residents were moderately well-to-do, middle-class citizens. Throughout the late 1800s, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle contains many advertisements seeking cook, laundresses, maids, and other servants for homes in the area. In the late 1800s, fashionable shopping along with waterfront commerce and manufacturing firms defined the Avenue.

In the 1870s, Cobble Hill also became home to two of the earliest experimental housing projects in the country—the Home & Tower Buildings and the Warren Place Workingmen’s Cottages—both designed by William Field & Son. A sociological experiment sponsored by Alfred Treadway White, a Brooklyn merchant and philanthropist, these buildings were landmarks in the field of tenement house reform.  The Tower Buildings at Baltic and Hicks Streets provided ample light and air to all rooms and carried such luxuries as private toilets, decorative iron railings, and a garbage chute. Behind the Tower buildings, White laid out Warren Place, a group of 34 tiny houses grouped around an inner garden courtyard. Although the dwellings served working-class tenants admirably, Alfred White insisted that he built them not as a philanthropist but as a sound business investment and as proof of what could be done to improve conditions throughout the city. Today Warren Place is described as “Brooklyn’s most charming residential enclave.”

The rapidly expanding city of Brooklyn annexed the neighboring areas of Bushwick, Gravesend, Flatbush, New Utrecht, Williamsburg, and New Lots, becoming the third largest city in the nation by 1860.  Cobble Hill was generally known as South Brooklyn (or the Sixth Ward) because, until 1894, it was the southernmost part of the City of Brooklyn. Later, all of Kings County was incorporated into New York City in 1898. In the late 1800s, however, Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles also refer to the area just south of Atlantic Avenue as “Cobble Hill,” after the Revolutionary War fort.


The Twentieth Century

Other than a few houses from the 1890s and some apartment houses built early in the twentieth century, little physical change occurred in Cobble Hill since White completed his work. Fortunately, because the neighborhood escaped the “improvements” that marked the 1920s and 1930s, much of its original character remained intact. In the 1930s, on blocks of Atlantic Avenue blocks near the waterfront, Middle Eastern immigrants began opening restaurants and food shops.

From the 1950s through the 1970s, Brooklyn’s fortunes and population declined as manufacturing plants deserted the area and residents moved to nearby suburbs. By the mid-1950s, residents of Cobble Hill and the surrounding brownstone neighborhoods began to sell their brownstones at low prices. It seemed that cheap rooming houses would engulf the area in a few years.

Fortunately there were young families who bucked the trend to the suburbs. These families found spacious brownstones at attractive prices and bought them with an eye toward maintaining and restoring their elegant design. Older residents, chiefly Irish, Italian, Greek, Syrian, and Lebanese who had clung to their family homes, welcomed the new arrivals.

On May 24, 1958, the Cobble Hill Association was formed in response to developmental threats to the historic neighborhood, including a plan to demolish the area bounded by Atlantic Avenue and Pacific, Henry, and Hicks Streets for a low-income housing project. The stated goal of the Association was to preserve and improve the residential quality of the Cobble Hill neighborhood. The November 1, 1958 membership invitation states:

You may have read in the newspapers that our area is again being considered for slum clearance. It will take vigorous effort on the part of each of us to oppose these plans successfully… Your help and support is very much needed to fight the blight and deterioration which can reduce the value of our homes and make our neighborhood an unsafe and undesirable place to live. By joining together we can accomplish as a group what we cannot do as individuals.

Under the CHA’s leadership, more than 1,700 signatures were gathered for a petition opposing the housing project. Continued protests led to the abandonment of the project by the Housing Authority and the preservation of many historic buildings.

In 1959, the CHA also led area residents in a battle against development on the area bounded by Verandah Place and Clinton, Congress, and Henry Streets. Three buildings had formerly stood on the site: the Weber and Whitten mansions and the abandoned Second Unitarian Church. During the late 1940s the mansions had been demolished and, in 1959, the owner proposed the construction of a supermarket on this site. Opposition by the CHA and community protests led to the abandonment of this plan.

In 1960, the New York Times lauded the CHA: “An example of what a tough minded group of homeowners can do to restore the quality of their neighborhood has been demonstrated in a twenty four block area just south of Brooklyn Heights.” The Times noted that all the area’s residents were joining the “association’s effort to preserve the area’s last-century charm.”

In 1962, the Verandah Place and Clinton property was sold to private builders who razed thechurch and moved forward with plans to construct a six-story 128-family brick apartment building on the site. News of a budding neighborhood park movement prompted the builders to move up their construction schedule to July or August of 1962.

From late April to July 1962, the CHA and residents of Cobble Hill mobilized to convert the property into a public park. They collected 1200 signatures and successfully petitioned the City Planning Commission, Bureau of Budget, Parks Department, and the Mayor’s Office. The plot officially became City property on March 7, 1963. Plans were soon underway to construct a park that would both provide an area for passive recreation and protect a heavily urbanized area from further development. Cobble Hill Park was formally dedicated on July 14, 1965. Its prominent features at the time included new trees and shrubs, game tables, concrete walls, and a sand pit area. Described in the New York Times as a test of the “theory of small park feasibility,” it became the City’s first “vest pocket” park.

In the 1960s, Cobble Hill began to thrive again as young professionals realized that there were tremendous housing bargains to be found in the neighborhood, just a few subway stops from Wall Street. According to the New York Times, “More and more brownstones are being sold at between $10,000 and $20,000 for owner occupancy.” As the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) described it:

Cobble Hill is currently undergoing a renaissance as young couples acquire and renovate the attractive, moderate sized houses on its tree-lined streets. Like Brooklyn Heights, it is emerging from a rather long period of quiescence. This period actually protected it from the rapid pace of rebuilding and alteration, so typical of much of the City. Most of the fine, old houses were preserved with little change. Apartment houses appeared in the area in the 1880s but they are not very high and few were built there after the 1920s. The fact that apartment houses did not invade the streets in recent years is responsible for the charming, low lying quality of this neighborhood where the skyline is punctuated occasionally only by church spires.

In 1969, after months of research and fact checking by the CHA, Cobble Hill was designated as a historic district and, with “many tree-lined streets and rows of architecturally notable houses,” came under the protection of the City’s landmark preservation laws. Together with low-scale zoning, including a 50-foot height limitation, these laws have been responsible for preserving the nineteenth-century scale, feeling, and quality of the buildings and streets of Cobble Hill.

In 1970s, the CHA led the effort to defeat a proposal to widen Atlantic Avenue into a highway, which threatened the destruction of the adjacent houses.  Hundreds of Cobble Hillers chartered buses to Albany and picketed the legislature, forcing the abandonment of the plan. Two years later, the CHA worked to redraw the boundaries of the proposed container port so that fewer families would be displaced by this much-needed facility.  It also began a major tree-planting program, now institutionalized by CHA’s establishment of the Cobble Hill Tree Fund, to permit tax-deductible donations for street trees. In 1976, the Association succeeded in getting Cobble Hill listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1981, 18-year-old Bob Diamond entered a manhole at Atlantic and Court Street and discovered a long-lost Long Island Rail Road tunnel that once ran from Hicks Street to Boerum Place. Constructed in 1845, the Cobble Hill Tunnel was part of the first rail link between New York City and Boston, via Long Island and Connecticut. In 1861, the state legislature voted to ban railroad locomotives within the limits of the City of Brooklyn, and the ends of the tunnel were sealed. Diamond opened access to the main portion of the tunnel, popularized the tunnel as an antiquity, and began leading tours of its interior. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1989.

In 1984, the Cobble Hill Community Fund was established to support local non-profit agencies and organizations. Also in the 1980s, the CHA joined neighboring community organizations to fight waterfront development plans for Piers 1 through 6. It became a founding member of the Brooklyn Bridge Park Coalition and helped develop the 13 Guiding Principles that were intended to govern the design for a park on the site.

In 1989, at the instigation of the CHA, Cobble Hill Park was reconstructed. The new design won the 1988 Annual Award for Excellence in Design from the Art Commission and the Parks Council’s first Philip Winslow Award for Public Projects in 1990. The steel-panel fencing and concrete slabs of the 1960s park were replaced by a design more in harmony with the surrounding Greek Revival architecture. The formal, geometric pattern of present-day Cobble Hill Park utilizes 19th-century period materials such as blue stone and cast iron as well as granite entrance columns and herringbone-patterned brick walkways.

Shortly after the restoration, the CHA began sponsoring an afternoon Halloween Parade in Cobble Hill Park. The annual event, which began as a gathering of just a few families, has now swelled to accommodate over a thousand ghouls, ghosts, and goblins on the streets of Cobble Hill. The CHA also initiated a series of Dinners in the Park and the very successful summer concert series in Cobble Hill Park, which continues to be enjoyed by hundreds of residents, young and old.

In the late 1980s, the integrity of the residential neighborhood was threatened by Long Island College Hospital’s proposal to build a large parking garage on Henry Street at Pacific Street.  Although the construction of the garage on this site was “as of right” under the law, the CHA persuaded LICH to instead place the garage on the other side of the hospital on the site of a little-used playground adjacent to the highway. LICH also agreed to create three new parks on the community side of the hospital, to expand the historic district, and to sell hospital-owned brownstones. Years of public hearings and litigation pitched LICH and the CHA against well-intentioned and well-financed opponents. In the end, LICH constructed its garage by the highway, away from the residential community. These dedicated playgrounds are now among the most used in the area, teeming with children, residents, and lunching hospital staff.

In 1999, the CHA played a vital role in another significant challenge—Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s threat to close down the community service organizations at 250 Baltic and replace them with a homeless shelter for mentally ill men. The mayor’s action came in the wake of a feud over the administration’s homeless policies with the area’s City Council Member. The action would have uprooted Families First, South Beach Psychiatric Center, Community Board 6, and a senior citizen drop-in center run by the Heights and Hill Community Council.  After many months of community activism, protests, petitions, and litigation, the eviction order issued to tenants at 250 Baltic Street was rescinded and the City agreed to drop its proposal for a new homeless shelter at that location.  

In addition to these major efforts, the CHA also provided leadership in other areas. It successfully lobbied for the return of regular alternate-side parking regulations after decades of having our streets designated as through-traffic streets with rush hour regulations. It worked with city agencies on the planning and execution of the Clinton Street water main replacement project. It also lobbied for and obtained historic lampposts on Clinton Street.

The CHA also worked closely with other neighborhood groups towards goals of mutual interest. It was a driving force for the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park, participating in the design process that succeeded in attracting over $164 million of state and local funding for a new park that will stretch from Atlantic Avenue to the Manhattan Bridge.


The Twenty-first Century

Today historic Cobble Hill is a modern urban American neighborhood characterized by a vibrant mix of ethnic, economic, and cultural diversity. The CHA has continued to effectively represent the interests of the community with all levels of government, public and private institutions, the business community, and the press.

In 2001, the Cobble Hill Community Fund opened the new, street-level Cobble Hill Community Meeting Room at 250 Baltic Street. The space, which has a separate private entry, is available to any non-profit group or organization in the Community Board 6 area.

In 2002, it gathered leaders of civic associations representing the communities along Atlantic Avenue and helped secure $350,000 in funding for a master planning process that focused on greening, pedestrian safety, and improving Atlantic Avenue. The CHA was also instrumental in obtaining over $2 million worth of renovations to Van Voorhees Park, including a new playground, two new tennis courts, a fully fenced basketball court, renovated handball courts, and a new ball field.  

The CHA has continued to be a driving force for the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park. It lobbied successfully for a $1 million Brooklyn Bridge Park Transportation Access Study Grant secured in 2002 by Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez. It stands opposed to the Brooklyn Bridge Park Development Corporation’s plan to erect 400 apartments in two buildings, one 30 stories tall, at the foot of Atlantic Avenue on the upland of Pier 6 and has lobbied for additional recreation facilities and a major park entrance at Atlantic Avenue. The CHA also renewed a proposal to “Fix the Ditch” and bridge the BQE trench to rejoin Cobble Hill with the Columbia Street neighborhood.

In 2008, the CHA faced the most direct attack on the 50-foot height limitation when developer Two Trees sought to convert the magnificent Independence Savings Bank building to residential use and to construct a new 60-foot high apartment building adjacent to it. With the support of the Brooklyn Heights Association, the CHA fought the proposed project. Today, the bank building, now Trader Joe’s, retains its original height.

Most recently, the CHA’s Green Committee organized the first Annual Cobble Hill Bike Ride, a 12-mile loop that paused at ecological points of interest, and has worked with the Court Street Merchants Association to encourage recycling of plastic bags, canvas bag use, and the use of compostable cutlery and cup-ware.

Today, as we celebrate fifty years of neighborhood service and launch the Cobble Hill History Project, we are proud of our role in the campaigns to maintain Long Island College Hospital as a full-service hospital and to remove the proposed new housing from the future Brooklyn Bridge Park. Thank you for joining us as we begin our second fifty years.

The People of Cobble Hill

 

Learn more: Bibliography and Image References

Explore: Historical Maps of Brooklyn and Cobble Hill

Cobble Hill Association History:

Past Cobble Hill Association Presidents

Cobble Hill Association Timeline: History of Achievements

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.

Origins of the CHA

by Rebecca Johnson

With brownstones in the neighborhood selling for millions of dollars, it’s hard to believe that the Cobble Hill of  the 1950’s was a low income area suffering from urban blight.  In 1958, city officials announced plans to raze the entire black of Pacific Street between Clinton and Hicks in order to construct a public housing project on Atlantic Avenue. The Cobble Hill Association was created on November 14 of that year “to oppose slum clearance for Cobble Hill.” The fight raged for years, prompting the memorable New York Post headline, “THE SECOND BATTLE OF BROOKLYN.” In 1962, the plans were abandoned, but the area continued to be viewed as a dismal slum. In 1967, a LICH official noted that the hospital “is located in a low income area.”

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The next big fight for the CHA concerned a proposal to build a supermarket on the site now occupied by the Cobble Hill Park. The Association vigorously fought the proposal, advocating for the current vest-pocket park which now occupies the site.

Mindful that the neighborhood needed permanent protection to keep its historic character intact, the CHA initiated the drive in 1965 to get the neighborhood designated a historic district under the newly passed Landmark Preservation Law.

–adapted from Cobble Hill-A Slum? By Dick Hayes , The Cobble Hill Courier, 1984

Also see CHA Timeline: History of Achievements

CHA Timeline: History of Achievements

This timeline was created for the CHA membership application form “Help Protect and Preserve Cobble Hill.”  It has been lightly edited.  –Jeanne Grifo and Susan K. Harris, for the CHA History Committee

The Cobble Hill Association

Highlights of a Proud and Active Past

1960’s

  • Successfully opposed commercial development on the site that became Cobble Hill Park, the city’s first “vest-pocket park.”
  • Initiated the first of many Cobble Hill House Tours.
  • Obtained designation of Cobble Hill as NYC Historic District
  • Successfully opposed plan to establish drug rehab center at site of present Cobble Hill Health Center.

1970’s

  • Created the Cobble Hill Tree Fund and the “Greening of Cobble Hill” tree planting program.
  • Succeeded in limiting Cobble Hill Historic District building heights to 50 feet.
  • Successfully opposed legislation for a highway on Atlantic Avenue.
  • Achieved NYC Historic District designation on some LICH properties.

1980’s

  • Fought housing development plans for the waterfront and organized the Brooklyn Bridge Park coalition of communities advocating a park.
  • Achieved a landmark agreement to provide LICH with a parking garage while securing four new parks to replace the one park replaced by the garage.
  • Secured award-winning renovation of Cobble Hill Park.

1990’s

  • Successfully advocated for renovation of Lower Van Voorhees Park.
  • Opposed proposed homeless shelter at 250 Baltic Street; succeeded in retaining existing social services there.
  • Worked with utilities on Clinton St. water main replacement
  • Successfully lobbied for Clinton St. historic lampposts
  • Collaborated with other neighborhood associations on the creation of Brooklyn Bridge Park.

2000’s

  • Introduced the popular music concerts in Cobble Hill Park.
  • Organized Halloween parade attracting thousands of ghouls, ghosts, and goblins each year.
  • Created the Cobble Hill Community room at 250 Baltic Street, used for community group meetings.
  • Advocated for new safer access into Brooklyn Bridge Park from Cobble Hill. Opposed two condo towers at Pier 6.
  • Defended the 50 foot height limit against developer encroachments.

2010’s

  • Supported the renovation of the Cobble Hill Health Center, making it one of the best healthcare and rehab facilities in the city.
  • Fought for comprehensive pedestrian safety improvements.
  • Led fight to save Long Island College Hospital.
  • Secured a $300,000 grant from Congresswoman Velazquez to help “fix the ditch” in order to reunite the waterfront and our community.

List of Past CHA Presidents

A complete list of CHA presidents since 1958 is below. Special thanks to Franklin Stone for compiling this list. To see the CHA’s current leadership visit the Board page.

2015 Laurel Burr

2013-2014 Roy W. Sloane (Acting)

2010-2012 Dave ‘Paco’ Abraham

2008-2010 Jeff Strabone

2004-2008 C. Murray Adams

2000-2004 Roy W. Sloane

1996-2000 Franklin H. Stone

1992-1996 Jerry Armer

1990-1992 Kenneth Adams

1988-1990 Richard Hayes

1986-1990 Rufus Jarman

1982-1986 Roy W. Sloane

1980-1982 Lyn Spath

1978-1980 David LeBeau

1977 Selma Abramowitz

1976 Stanley Maurer

1975 Tom Spath

1974 Richard Sosis

1973 Alice Van Bolt

1972 Evan William

1971 Cortes De Russy

1971 Bernardi Friedberg

1970 Frank Decker

1969 Leo McCarthy

1968 George Polimeros

1967 C. Murray Adams

1966 David Beckly

1965 Jacob Hertz

1964 William Winship

1963 John Weber

1962 H. Dean Michener

1961 H. Dean Michener

1960 Frank Saker

1959 Frank Saker

1958 William A. Mason

The Origin of Cobble Hill Park

The story of the neighborhood park that was almost a supermarket.

By Peter Justice

(originally published on BoCoCa Patch. July 5, 2011 4:37 pm ET)

In the 1950s, neighborhood kids used to play in the empty lot off of Verandah Place. Next door, at the corner of Clinton and Congress streets, was the old church, with its low, wide sides and protruding front porch, that people in the neighborhood called the Church of the Holy Turtle. The lot itself was strewn with rubble and debris. How it turned into what it is now — the leafy, landscaped Cobble Hill Park — is a small example of how the neighborhood has changed in the past several decades.

Before the park, the Church of the Holy Turtle or the rubble-filled lot, the neighborhood belonged to an Irish fur trader named Cornelius Heeney. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Heeney arrived in 18th-century America as a poor immigrant, became a partner of John Jacob Astor and ended up rich enough to own a sizable piece of Brooklyn farmland. A 1969 report on the Cobble Hill Historic District locates his land’s southern edge at what is now Verandah Place. Heeney had no wife or children, and when he died in 1848 — his body is interred in the chapel of St. Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, near the corner of Court and Congress streets — he left his money and property to be overseen by an orphan welfare group called the Brooklyn Benevolent Society.

During the 19th Century a wave of New Englanders moved onto the former farmland, building brownstones and mansions and establishing the Church of the Holy Turtle, actually the Second Unitarian Church. Built in the 1850s, it became one of Brooklyn’s main cultural centers. Samuel Longfellow, brother of the poet and abolitionist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was its first pastor.

By the early-to-middle decades of the 20th Century, the area, like much of what was then called South Brooklyn, was a working-class community intertwined with the industry of the nearby waterfront.

“In the 40s and into the 50s, Cobble Hill and Brooklyn Heights were not hot ticket neighborhoods,” said Barbara Krongel, of the Cobble Hill Association and Friends of Cobble Hill Park. “There were a lot of boarding houses that served the docks.”

Even in the 70s, when Krongel first moved to the area, it was still a neighborhood where “longshoremen went home for lunch.”

It was during the 40s that two old mansions next to the church were demolished and the rubble-strewn lot was born. In the 50s, according to a New York Times article from February 1960, the area was becoming run down, and in turn, residents “began selling their brownstones and brick dwellings at low prices, and it seemed that cheap rooming houses would engulf the area in a few years.”

In the late 50s the supermarket chain Bohack’s bought the property from the Brooklyn Benevolent Society, looking to put in a store. The next step was to obtain a zoning variance to allow a supermarket in the mostly residential area.

But Bohack’s ran straight into a powerful emerging force in city politics.

The Times piece describes an influx of middle-class, professional homeowners from Brooklyn Heights and Greenwich Village beginning to move in during the late 50s and early 60s. The new “brownstoners” were attracted to the better housing value they could get for their money south of Atlantic Avenue. But as historian Suleiman Osman writes in The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (), they also craved exactly what the area offered: a small-scale, traditional community of close-knit neighbors and 19th century buildings.

That preference placed them at odds with a school of urban planning that had been in fashion since the New Deal of the 1930s. Planners like parks commissioner Robert Moses prized the modern, large-scale efficiency of high-rise towers, public housing projects and multi-lane expressways. The newly arrived brownstoners, on the other hand, identified with writers like Jane Jacobs, the Greenwich Village urban theorist and activist whose opus The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed thinking about urban life in the 60s. “In contrast to the universal, integrated and modern cityscape championed by modernist planners, anti-renewal writers commemorated diversity, mixed-use buildings, historic architecture, ethnicity and distinctive local neighborhoods,” writes Osman.

The brownstoners saw the arrival of a large chain supermarket — Bohack’s was ubiquitous in the city at the time — as a threat. As the Times recounts, they organized other neighborhood residents and testified against the zoning variance at a city hearing, eventually defeating the supermarket plan.

In 1958, Osman writes, neighborhood activists revived a name that predated even the days of Cornelius Heeney. Cobble Hill had been the name of a Revolutionary War fort that once stood in the area. The coalition of neighborhood activists that defeated the supermarket plan became the Cobble Hill Association, patterned after the Brooklyn Heights Association across Atlantic Avenue.

The vacant lot remained into the early 60s while the property repeatedly changed hands, a Times article from July 1962 reports. The abandoned Second Unitarian Church was demolished in 1961. A developer wanted to put up a brick, six-story apartment building, but the Cobble Hill Association wanted a park. In 1962, the Parks Department came through, agreeing to acquire the property for an experimental “vest-pocket park,” a pilot for what would become a major, citywide initiative under Mayor John Lindsay a few years later.

The new park opened on July 14, 1965. According to historian Francis Morrone, author of Brooklyn: A Journey Through the City of Dreams, the names of well-known people who had lived in the area were proposed for it, among them novelist Thomas Wolfe, who had roomed for a while on Verandah Place. In the end it was given the name of the neighborhood, although it is sometimes unofficially known as Verandah Park.

Influenced by Jacobs’ theories, vest-pocket parks were small green spaces meant to be located in the middle of neighborhoods, a departure from the larger parks and ball fields Moses tended to favor. To Jacobs, parks would only be popular if they were small enough, far enough from other parks, and placed in accessible enough locations to feel full and thriving.

“Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value,” she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

For his part, Moses advised Lindsay that such parks would be too expensive and hard to oversee, as the Times reported in 1966.

“These tiny parks will not bring light and air to the neighborhoods where they are built and will in the end prove to be neighborhood nuisances,” he warned in a private note the press got hold of.

In fact, the park “fell on hard times” during the 80s, according to Krongel. Part of the problem, she said, was that it was built over the original foundations left behind from the buildings that had been at the site. That created sinkholes in the park that had to be repaired. The Cobble Hill Association once again got involved and persuaded local politicians that the park needed a renovation. In 1989, a new design was unveiled.

The Parks Department Web site notes that where the original design had featured steel fences and concrete walls, the new layout featured cast-iron fences and herringbone-patterned walkways. The renovation gave it the look of a 19th Century leisure park, complimenting the surrounding architecture.

“It’s a small park but with great symbolic value because it represented the triumph of neighborhood residents — many, if not most, of them being young ‘brownstoners’ — working together,” said Morrone in an email. “This was exactly the kind of small neighborhood park that Jane Jacobs advocated as something that would bring people together but not isolate one part of a neighborhood from another.”

As Osman writes, there are those who have criticized the brownstoner movement for paving the way for gentrification, inadvertently helping transform the old working class character of neighborhoods like Cobble Hill into an affluent place. It was, after all, a movement of middle-class professionals, and there are few signs of longshoremen or rooming houses in the area today.

But others say larger economic forces have changed the neighborhood, and the legacy of the brownstoners has been to help preserve, not displace, much of its culture in the face of that change.

There seems little doubt that Cobble Hill Park has defied Moses’ expectations. Today the park is often crowded, with children, their parents and babysitters in the playground in the rear of the park, adults and teenagers using the tables near the front and dog-walkers circling the large, grassy mound in the center.

Krongel and a group of volunteers meet in the park on designated mornings to plant flowers, like the tulips that were donated this past fall by a local florist and the Parks Department.

“The neighborhood won, because Cobble Hill Park is the jewel in the neighborhood,” she said. “And it is fussed over to keep it a restful oasis.”