Brooklyn Heights

From the (1939) WPA Guide to New York City:

Brooklyn Heights, bounded by the East River, Fulton Street, Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, is an old, distinctive residential quarter, famous in Victorian days for its churches and its clergymen. The Heights section occupies a bluff that rises sharply from the river's edge and gradually recedes on the landward side. Before the Dutch settled on Long Island in the middle of the seventeenth century, this promontory was called Ihpetonga ("the high sandy bank") by the Canarsie Indians. The natives lived there in community houses, some of which were a quarter of a mile long. Apartment dwellings were not brought back to the Heights until the twentieth century, and today there are but few.

The view from the apartments, hotels, and rooming houses along Columbia Heights, the street that edges the bluff, is one of the most exciting in the world; it includes Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge, Governors Island, the Statue of Liberty and the shipping factories and wharves along the East River. A popular vantage point is the plaza at the foot of Montague Street. The distinguished artist Joseph Pennell found the vistas from his studio atop the Margaret Hotel on the Heights more exciting than those from the London Embankment, and he made many etchings of the harbor. The locale was also made famous by Ernest Poole in his novel, The Harbor.

Late in the nineteenth century Brooklyn Heights was an aristocratic neighborhood whose residents set the tone in manners and customs for the elite of the entire city. Many of the brownstone mansions belonged to the merchants whose trading ships docked near by. The piers ran back to warehouses whose roofs were planted with real lawns and trees, forming backyard gardens for the houses above them.

The seclusion of the Heights was destroyed in 1908 when the IRT subway opened the neighborhood to commuters. Many of the patrician inhabitants fled; the old Victorian mansions were partitioned into studios and apartments; and writers and artists were attracted to the region. Many hotels, the Touraine, the Towers, the Bossert, and the huge St. George were erected.

An amusing story is associated with the naming of Cranberry, Pineapple, Orange, Poplar, and Willow Streets, directly west of the Brooklyn Bridge. In the decade before the Civil War these streets bore the names of prominent local families. This fact aroused the ire of a Miss Middagh, a determined member of the Brooklyn aristocracy, who vented her dislike of some of her neighbors by tearing down the street signs bearing their names and substituting placards with botanical titles. When the original signs were replaced by the city authorities, she again changed them. This continued until an aldermanic resolution accepted her signs as official. A Heights street retains, however, Miss Middagh's own family name.

After disastrous defeat in the Battle of Long Island, General Israel Putnam and his troops retreated to the Heights. Washington was able to save the remnants of the army by transferring them, under the protection of a dense fog, to lower Manhattan.

The Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, Orange Street between Henry and Hicks Streets, was one of the most influential churches in America during the period (1847-87) when its minister was the eloquent Henry Ward Beecher (1813-87). (Visitors admitted weekdays 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 12 m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.) As a center of Abolitionist sentiment, its pulpit was occupied by such anti-slavery agitators as Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Charles Sumner. Charles Dickens spoke here on the occasion of his second visit to America in 1867.

Plymouth Church was established in 1846 by a group from the mother Church of the Pilgrims, Remsen and Henry Streets, headed by Henry C. Bowen, founder of the Independent. In 1934 Plymouth merged with the parent congregation, and both now constitute the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims.

Henry Ward Beecher rose to a position of undisputed leadership among the clergymen of his time by virtue of his passionate oratory, his uncompromising vigor, and a striking flair for the dramatic. On assuming his pastoral duties at Plymouth Church he at once stated his intention of dealing with the living issues of the day--slavery, war, temperance, and general reform.

One Sunday Beecher astounded his congregation by putting up for sale a mulatto slave girl called "Pinkie." Mimicking a slave auctioneer, he roused his listeners to a fury of compassionate indignation, obtained the money to purchase the girl's freedom, and caught the attention of the entire nation. The girl, Mrs. James Hunt, returned in 1927 to speak from the same platform on which she had been sold.

During the Civil War entire Union regiments on their way to the battlefront paused for services in Plymouth Church. In 1863 Beecher visited England on a speaking tour, and was successful in helping to stem the rising tide of English sympathy for the Confederacy. At the close of the war he was chosen by President Lincoln to deliver the ore oration at the raising of the flag at Fort Sumter, April 14, 1865.

Beecher was also active in the woman's suffrage movement and was the founder and editor of several periodicals. From 1861 to 1863 he edited the Independent; in 1870 he started the Christian Union and later the Outlook.

The church structure, erected 1849, was designed by J. C. Wells, an English architect. It is in the New England meetinghouse style, a large, severely plain building of dark red brick, without tower, steeple, or other external ornament. The interior consists of a simple rectangular auditorium with plain white walls and woodwork. The balcony is carried on slender cast iron columns, and the clear eighty-foot span of the piling gives an impression of spaciousness. Nineteen memorial windows, designed by Frederick S. Lamb to represent the History of Puritanism and Its Influence Upon the Institutions and People of the Republic, modify somewhat the severity of the interior.

A gallery or arcade at the rear joins the church proper with the Plymouth Institute, built in 1913 by John Arbuckle, Brooklyn coffee merchant. The institute contains a gymnasium and recreational facilities, and serves the church as a parish house. In Memorial Park, the area between the church and the institute, is a bronze statue of Beecher by Gutzon Borglum, erected in 1914.

The Long Island Historical Society, Pierrepont and Clinton Streets, owns a collection of historical material so valuable that the building has been nicknamed "Long Island's strongbox." (Open daily, except Sunday and holidays, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; July and august, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday; admission free.) Since its organization in 1863, the society has assembled one of the finest special libraries in the country. The history of Long Island from earliest Colonial days to the present is told in hundreds of books, pamphlets, and manuscripts; in genealogies and family records; and in portraits, photographs, and sketches of prominent families, places, and institutions.

The society's interests are not limited, however, to local history. It has published American historical works as well as a Catalogue of American Genealogies, and its collection of 102,000 books, documents, and deal with American and world history. In the field of genealogy the library has but two rivals in the entire country, the New York Historical Society and the New England Historical Genealogical Society. It owns 8,200 volumes dealing with American families.

Among the rarities in its possession are the Samuel Bowne Duryea collection of illuminated manuscripts, a holograph manuscript by Voltaire on the life of Molière, several Books of Hours, a set of Audubon's Birds of America. Among the paintings are portraits of Egbert Benson by Gilbert Stuart and of Chief Justice Marshall by Rembrandt Peale; The Old Roadway by George Inness hangs in the foyer. Many fine antiques statues, and paintings are exhibited in the spacious reference room antiquities the second floor. Until a few years ago the society maintained a natural history museum on the fourth floor, but lack of space and funds forced an indefinite loan of much of the collection to other museums in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The society was originally organized in 1863 by leading citizens of Kings, Queens, and Suffolk counties. Funds for maintenance come from an endowment and membership dues. The four-story red-brick and terra-cotta building, designed by George B. Post, was completed in 1880.

The Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, 19 Montague Street, between Fulton and Clinton Streets, is an aged brownstone structure opened in 1869. The Brooklyn Public Library began to function under that name in 1897; its progenitor was the Brooklyn Athenaeum Reading Room, founded in 1853. A new central building is now (1939) in process of construction at Flatbush Avenue and Eastern Parkway.

The Brooklyn Public Library, which contains about 1,153,000 volumes, consists of 35 branch libraries and 546 other agencies of distribution. It serves more than 600,000 borrowers, and approximately 6,700,000 books circulate annually. The library is maintained by the city of New York, with additional income from endowments, fees, and state grants.

The Church of the Holy Trinity (Protestant Episcopal), northwest corner of Clinton and Montague Streets, a handsome dark-red structure built in 1847, is considered one of the most felicitous Gothic designs of Minard Lefever, famous architect of Brooklyn churches. The square east end, the arrangement of the window divisions, and the rich tracery of the ceiling ribs are typically English Gothic. The edifice has a remarkable set of stained-glass windows, designed by William J. Bolton The congregation was organized in 1846. Its pastor from 1870 to 1895 was Dr. Charles Henry Hall, a leading figure in the councils of the Episcopal Church.

The Church of the Pilgrims, northeast corner of Remsen and Henry Streets, part of the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, was located originally at Pineapple and Fulton Streets. The corner stone of the present building was laid in 1844. Architecturally it belongs to neither the Gothic nor the Classic revivals current when it was built; yet the bold and simple exterior, of good fieldstone masonry, marks the original work of a master, Richard Upjohn, whose reputation rests on more elaborate and conventional churches in traditional Gothic, like Trinity Church in Manhattan. The interior has an unexpected delicacy. Widely spaced slender oak columns and semicircular oak arches support the ceiling; the buff-colored plaster walls and blue ceiling are painted with small repeat patterns. Near the tower corner, under the announcement board, there is a slightly projecting stone, a fragment of Plymouth Rock.

Dr. Richard S. Storrs, who assumed the ministry of the church in 1846 and held it uninterruptedly for almost fifty-four years, rivaled Henry Ward Beecher in popularity.

The Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, Grace Court and Hicks Street, is set amidst large trees, giving the impression of an English parish church. It was designed by Richard Upjohn in 1847, soon after he built the Church of the Pilgrims. In the more conservative design of Grace Church he reverted to the Gothic Revival style.

The simple bays of the exterior are pierced by well-proportioned openings. The pattern of varied tool grooves gives the wall surface a distinctive texture, which accentuates the bold relief of carved moldings, brackets, and capitals. The light interior is roofed with delicate open wood vaulting-trusses. The original wood piers were replaced by stone in 1909 when Herbert Wheaton Congdon repaired the interior. At that time the Pierrepont Memorial Doorway was added. The handsome alabaster alter and reredos and stained glass above the altar were contributed in 1891 as a memorial to certain members of the Bill family. Three of the stained-glass windows in the nave and aisles are by Louis Tiffany.

St. Ann's Church (Protestant Episcopal), 131 Clinton Street, at Livingston Street, is known as the Mother of Brooklyn Churches. Its parishioners have helped to organize St. Mary's, St. Luke's, two St. Paul's, St. John's, and Christ Church. St. Ann's dates from 1784, when its founding members held services at 40 Fulton Street, then the home of Garret Rappelje. Its first building was erected in 1805 at Washington and Sands Streets. In 1825 it moved into a brick edifice, and in 1869 into its present quarters, a Gothic structure with traceried gables and heavy buttresses, completed in 1869 from plans by Renwick and Sands. In its record books the baptisms of Negroes are noted as "black" and "free black."

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