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.

“Dispensaries, Hospitals, and Medical Societies of Kings County, 1830-1860,” by William Schroeder, M.D.

“The Founding Of America’s First College Hospital”

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.

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.”

Guide to the Archives, State University of New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn. Medical Research Library of Brooklyn, 1996.

SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Department of Medicine History.

“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.



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.

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.”