…to 38 Hicks Street and 40 Hicks Street…each built 200 years ago in 1810. The oldest surviving houses in Brooklyn Heights!
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(Above is the “tax photo” of the house, taken around 1940 by the city’s finance department. From The City of New York Municipal Archives.)
The wood-frame house at 58 Hicks Street was probably built in 1814. There is no record of a deed transferring ownership to the property from Jacob Middagh Hicks and John Middagh Hicks after the brothers started subdividing their Brooklyn Heights farmland into lots in the first decade of the 19th century, but deeds to the lots on either side of the property were each granted in 1814. The owner of one of those adjoining lots (Hugh Carlin) granted a mortgage in favor of Jacob Hicks on the 58 Hicks Street property in 1816 and therefore Carlin is assumed to be the property’s first owner, possibly buying it in 1814 along with his other lot but for whatever reason failing to record the deed. The house on the other adjoining lot that was sold by the Hicks brothers in 1814 (now known as 60 Hicks Street) is believed to have been built that same year based on various documentary evidence. That house was recently discovered to have been built up against the original clapboard siding of 58 Hicks Street, indicating that 58 Hicks Street was built first, or not later than 1814.
Little is known about Hugh Carlin other than he was a cartman, according to 1820s Brooklyn village directories. Carlin appears to have sold the house in 1820 to Michael Trappal, a butcher and tanner who later became a prominent warehouse owner on Furman Street and importer of hides. The 1820 federal census and the first Brooklyn village directory in 1822 show Trappal living in the house, but his tenure there was short. From 1823 to 1864, the house was owned by Winant Johnson and his family. Johnson was a blacksmith who likely operated his shop from an outbuilding in the rear of the property. He was married to Hester Birkbeck, daughter of Alexander Birkbeck, who manufactured chain cables for ships out of a shop at the northwest corner of Hicks and Poplar Streets. (Hester’s brother Alexander started Brooklyn’s first iron foundry on Water Street.) From 1864 to 1921, the house was owned by Diedrich Sanneman and his family. Sanneman, a founding member of the Society of Old Brooklynites, was a ship captain who built the brick townhouse next door (54 Hicks Street) in the 1850s. Sanneman’s son Jonathan lived at 58 Hicks Street for several years; at other times, the Sanneman family appears to have rented it out. From 1923 to 1952, the house was owned by Fredericka Loew Coussirat, a divorced teacher who lived next door (60 Hicks Street) and rented out the house. From 1953 to 1960, the house was owned by Conrad Ten Eyck Beardsley, a mining engineer who substantially renovated the facade and interior of the house. From 1960 to 2007, the house was owned by Martin James, an art historian, professor of art at Brooklyn College, and former BHA governor. Since 2007, the house has been owned by Jeremy Lechtzin and Amy Klein.
Old maps and blueprints, and examination of the framing and foundation uncovered during recent construction, show that the original building was 22 feet wide by 16 feet deep and two stories tall over a high brick basement, with a single-pitched roof. (The mortise and tenon joints and hand-hewn beams of the wood frame structure corroborate the 1814 construction date suggested by documentary evidence.) The front door was on the first story and accessed by a wooden stoop laid out parallel to the sidewalk and street. The building’s footprint, tiny even for the era, suggests it was built as a store or workshop and not as a house – there was only one room per floor, and the attic was too low to have been used for anything other than storage. An attached rear structure started out as a wood-frame lean-to just several feet deep, but has been altered several times, successively adding depth until it became as large as the front building. The front and rear buildings are oriented perpendicular to one another, with a 4 foot alley located at the north of the front house originally leading to a wider side yard next to the narrower rear house. The two buildings appear to have been connected by an interior passage almost from the beginning, which backs up evidence that the combined structure was converted to a residential use from a very early time, with commercial uses relegated to outbuildings on the property. In the late 19th century, the attic was raised to a full third story by converting the pitched roof to flat, and soon thereafter an extension to the second and third stories of the front house was built over the alley. In the 1950s, part of the basement was removed and the alley was widened by several feet to create a driveway into the side yard. At the same time, the clapboard siding was replaced with asbestos shingles and the front facade composition was altered, including the removal of the front door and stoop in favor of a rear entry accessed through the driveway. At present, the house is being renovated to restore many of the original front facade elements including clapboard siding, traditional window composition, and front entry with stoop. The Belgian blocks that cover the driveway and rear yard are not original to the house, having been installed in the 1950s renovation; however, they have historical significance – they were salvaged from Fulton Street when the elevated train was demolished!