Pineapples Everywhere

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Pineapple finial at corner of Willow and Pierrepont Streets. One of many, many examples of the traditional symbol of welcoming and hospitality located in the neighborhood.

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Poplar Street, circa 1830s

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79 Poplar Street. Greek Revival house circa 1830s. Gas lamp is modern reproduction.

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Church bell

 

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Front yard church bell at Danske Sømandskirke. 102 Willow Street. If Brooklyn was known as the City of Churches, then the density of houses of worship in Brooklyn Heights makes the neighborhood first among equals.

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Victorian Canvas Shade Awnings

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Victorian canvas shade awnings @ 75 Willow Street. Once ubiquitous across Brooklyn Heights and brownstone Brooklyn in the late 19th century, now mostly vanished.

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Sgraffito! (Say that 10 times fast)

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Extremely rare example of sgraffito etching in New York City, located on the ground story of 177-179 Columbia Heights

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24 Hicks Street (circa 1808)

3-storied clapboarded frame house with attic; curb roof; arched dormer windows. Demolished early 1950s to make way for Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

24 Hicks Street was one of the first houses to have been built on the Heights once the old estates started to be broken up for development in the first decade of the 19th century. Located at the corner of the newly opened Poplar Street, one block up the hill from the Old Ferry Road, the Hicks brothers sold this lot in early 1807 to James Stephens, who quickly flipped it to Alexander Birkbeck later that fall.  Birkbeck built the house on the lot as early as when the spring building season began in 1808, because he is listed living at the property in the 1810 census and Longworth’s 1811 Brooklyn directory.

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Birkbeck was a blacksmith who manufactured iron chain cables for ships, originally in the rear of this lot and then later out of expanded shops in the rear of adjoining properties he purchased over the next several years. These workshops fronted the little lane behind the first block of Hicks Street (running south from Doughty Street to the eastern corner of the Ludlow estate). Before Poplar Street was opened through the Ludlow estate, this lane was a dead end and not much more than an alley, and simply called “Back Lane” at the time. In the 1820s, after the Ludlow estate was subdivided and Poplar Street extended, the name was changed to McKenney Lane after John McKenney, a coachmaker with a shop nearby on the Old Ferry Road. Still later, McKenney Lane was widened and the name changed to McKenney Street.

Birkbeck died before 1820; his son (also Alexander) continued the business.  Several blacksmiths living in the houses on Hicks Street, in front of the workshops on McKenney Lane, are noted in the 1820 census and the first village directory from 1822. The younger Birkbeck soon opened Brooklyn’s first iron foundry at a property he purchased along Water Street near Dock Street, down the hill and across the Old Ferry Road from his residence.

Later in the nineteenth century, the shops behind 24 Hicks Street and its neighbors (along McKenney Street) were torn down and replaced by apartment tenements. The upper floors of 24 Hicks Street became a boarding house and the ground floor was turned into retail, with a series of candy stores occupying the building for many years, as shown in pictures from the 1910s through 1930s. (A classified ad from the Brooklyn Eagle in 1910 advertises the sale of the candy store, noting its location opposite Public School 8 and guaranteeing a “good living for a family,” evidently the elementary school kids and their sweet-tooths a valuable demographic. In 1925, during Prohibition, the Eagle reported a fire that raged through 24 Hicks and the rear tenement building, requiring the evacuation of 50 residents, allegedly caused by an illegal still operating in the candy store.) The entire block was razed in the early 1950s to make way for the Fulton Street off-ramp from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. 24 Hicks Street stood where today the Poplar Street Community Garden sits.

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38 Hicks Street (circa 1810) and 40 Hicks Street (circa 1810)

These two houses, 38 Hicks Street and 40 Hicks Street, built very close in time together, are the oldest houses still standing on Brooklyn Heights (albeit with the “Roger Maris Award” for oldest-house-record-holder-with-an-asterisk going to 13 Pineapple Street, which was built earlier but at a different location down the hill, before being moved to its present location).

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Peter Van Cleef bought the lot for Number 38 from the Hicks brothers in 1810 and he appears in the census for that same year living at the property, as well as in Longworth’s 1811 directory. The same story applies to Number 40, with Michael Vanderhoof as the owner.   Both continue to appear in the first village directory from 1822 and subsequent directories at these houses.

Van Cleef is described in the directories as a cartman; Vanderhoof (sometimes rendered Vanderhoef) as either a cartman or waterman. Van Cleef is probably related to the “sisters Van Cleef” who according to Stiles ran a shop down the hill on the Old Ferry Road (perhaps their brother); they’re described as the daughters of “Old Rulof Van Cleef, the ferryman.”

The two houses, together with their owners, might have been regarded by contemporaries as completely typical and without special note, but as the oldest surviving examples in Brooklyn (and probably all of New York City) of laboring-class residences, they’ve come into their own as a special pair.

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As was typical for the early 19th century in Brooklyn, each house was almost certainly built with a gabled roof (ridge parallel to the street), and most likely just two stories tall.  (Carefully examine Francis Guy’s “Winter Scene in Brooklyn, 1820” which accurately represents the houses and streets around the ferry landing – not one flat-pitched roof in the bunch.) Given the shallow depth of each building, the roof would’ve been a single pitch and unlikely to have an attic tall enough to be suitable for anything other than storage. By the second half of the 19th century, “fire districts” outlawed the construction of new frame buildings across much of the city, but certain enlargements were still possible for grandfathered structures and it became fashionable to create one or more additional stories by raising the pitched roof, eliminating the attics and creating buildings that have essentially flat roofs. Number 38 ended up at four stories and Number 40 with three. Evidence for these original gabled roofs has been found in many of the frame houses in the Heights that have undergone renovations. The heavy bracketed cornice on Number 38 is a typical late 19th century style, added after the roof was raised; the smaller dentiled cornice on Number 40 is more in keeping with the early 19th century facade but is no less of a later alteration than its neighbor’s cornice.

40 Hicks Street presents a rare opportunity to peek through the front fence and look down the narrow alley between the two houses at the rear buildings on the lot. Many frame houses in the Heights had various rear sheds, workshops or back houses, sometimes attached at right angles like the frame rear house here (with its wooden porch), or sometimes detached (which is also present on this property in the form of the brick building). These rear-lot structures were accessed by side alleyways (such as is the case for Number 40) or sometimes by “horsewalks” – extremely narrow passages built right into the basement of the house allowing even a horse (supposedly) to walk directly from the street to stables or other rear-lot workshops.  Side alleys were quite typical for the early Brooklyn Heights houses, especially the wood-frame ones, because the owners would often run their businesses (cooper shops, blacksmith shops, etc.) on the same property.  But true horsewalk passages (as distinguished from side alleys) are rare on the Heights, being more associated with the Federal brick houses in Greenwich Village and other downtown areas of Manhattan.

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