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).
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.
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.