Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ones and Twos, Mews and Throughs: Back in the Good Graces

When Maura and I lived near Red Hook, we dubbed one of our favorite dog-walking routes "The Cheever Weaver," after one of four, long single-block streets that ran between Degraw and Kane Streets in Cobble Hill. Not only did it allow us to put some serious mileage on the pedometer while staying close to home (invaluable), it also served as a gateway into the bizarre and pleasant world of short Brooklyn streets. Some are mews, some might be converted alleys, and some are simply mid-block connector streets, presumably created to give more street frontage to more houses on otherwise massive plots of land. Either way, they're mostly quiet and often leafy, and they're all distinct, with their own idiosyncrasies. These are their stories.

Brooklyn Heights has at least ten such streets. Let's take a walk, starting with the Graces: Grace Court (running west from Hicks Street and ending just above the BQE) and Grace Court Alley (from Hicks east to just shy of Henry Street).  

As the "Alley" might imply, Grace Court is the greener, statelier, more prominent elder sibling of the two. In the first half of the 19th Century, west of Hicks--between Remsen and Joralemon--stood the Trotter Estate to the south (which I believe was home to Jonathan Trotter, the 2nd Mayor of Brooklyn), and the estate of Charles Hoyt, a real estate speculator, to the north. The Trotter estate was later purchased by John H. Prentice, a fur trader and developer of the system of warehouses along the waterfront, who later became involved in the development of Prospect Park. His partner in the fur trade, William S. Packer, bought the adjacent Hoyt estate.  Packer met his wife, Harriet Putnam, when she was working as a governess in Prentice's home. After retiring, he founded the Brooklyn Female Academy, which burned to the ground shortly after his death.  Harriet picked up the pieces, rebuilding the academy as the Packer Institute. Anyway, Packer and Prentice eventually decided to subdivide the two estates, in turn creating Grace Court. An 1894 article from the New York Times, describing the contemporary character of Grace Court, as well as some of its history, explains:

As the land grew valuable and was sold into house lots, after Grace Court was cut through by Mr. Prentice and Mr. Packer, each purchaser bought a lot of double length, with the agreement that the end on the court should never be built upon. Every one at the upper end did this, but one man midway in the block would not agree. He wanted the double lot, but he must have it in width so that a house might be built for his daughter beside his own. This spoiled the arrangement, and two or three houses were put up on that side of Grace Court.

Thus, the north side of Grace Court remains somewhat less structurally populated than the south, though more street-frontage has grown up closer to the river, with the largest buildings (with the best skyline and river views) standing at the west end of the block.  On the other end, Grace Episcopal Church marks the east entrance to the Court (to the left in the first picture below).  The Gothic revival church was designed by the architect Richard Upjohn and opened in 1848 to accommodate the growth of the Episcopalians in Brooklyn.  Down the street, 31 Grace Court served as the one-time home of Arthur Miller, during the period in which he wrote Death of a Salesman.  In 1951, Miller sold the house to W.E.B. DuBois, who lived there until his passing in 1963.  The building has since been carved up into a multi-family dwelling. 

View west down Grace Court, from Hicks Street

Clockwise from left: Brownstone single-family home, a backyard garden fronting Grace Court, Grace Church.
View of the water from the west end of Grace Court

Though not quite as leafy as its western counterpart, Grace Court Alley has been bequeathed smaller doses of green by its residents.  The backs and sides of a few larger apartment buildings face the alley, but it is lined mostly with carriage houses, which were once tethered to the mansions facing Remsen and Joralemon Streets.  For them, the alley is the street.  It's a much quieter and more intimate experience than that of Grace Court, which--probably due to the larger scale of the buildings, the water view and the church--has grown up to become a proper street.  The Alley, in contrast, only hosts the traffic of cars belonging to its houses, and the foot traffic doesn't seem to be much more frequent.  Early in the morning, when the bustle has begun in the rest of Brooklyn, Grace Court Alley can play the ghost town.
View east down Grace Court Alley from Hicks Street.  The 60 Remsen apartment building is to the left.

Designed in the early 1990s by architect Joseph Stella to follow the Landmarks Preservation Commission's recommendation to fit with the character of the nineteenth-century mews, the home at the end of the block stands on the site of a former stable.  On Stella's website, you can see how the alley previously terminated in the side-rump shot of a stable-cum-garage.  The new structure circumvented zoning regulations, which would have limited the building to projecting about half as far into the alley as it does.  Instead, the right (south) side of the ground floor is treated as a breezeway, or entry court, the second floor above is an open air porch, and the third floor is an attic, which can't be held against it, zoning-wise.  If you haven't noticed, zoning regulations and the Landmarks commission carry a lot of weight in this town, and architects, engineers and building owners are constantly fighting to stay one step ahead.

Scenes from the east end of Grace Court Alley.

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