Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ones and Twos: The State of Joralemon West

Part 1 of 2 on the intermediate streets between Joralemon and State Streets in Brooklyn Heights

Moving south from last week's jaunt, we travel to the area now known as "Willowtown". According to its eponymous association, the neighborhood sits on the former estate of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Within Willowtown, we encounter a couple of short blocks that fall within our present scope of interest: Columbia Place and Willow Place.  Clay Lancaster and Edmund Gillon describe the creation of Willow Place--which presumably also explains Columbia Place--in their book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb:
The Hicks brothers originally planned Willow Street to extend only between Middagh and Clark Streets. In 1818 the Brooklyn trustees wished to continue it to State Street, but Hezekiah B. Pierrepont wanted to maintain long blocks running in an east-west direction across his estate, and the scheme still prevails. Willow Street takes up on the south side of the former Pierrepont estate, the stretch from Joralemon to State Street going by the name of Willow Place. (Lancaster and Gillon, 74)
If it weren't for Pierrepont, Willow and Columbia would be just like any other street. Luckily for us, we now have two more quirky little streets to explore. The two maps below help to illustrate the result of Pierrepont's stubbornness. The first depicts Brooklyn Heights in 1855, while the second is contemporary. Notice the modern-day truncation of State Street and Columbia Place.  More on that later...

Illustration of isolation of Columbia Place and Willow Place, ca. 1855 (Map via Rumsey Collection)

Present-day configuration of streets (Google Maps)

Columbia Place from the north (left) and south (right)

One of the foremost philanthropists of 19th Century New York was Alfred Tredway White, who espoused the notion of dignified living for the working classes. In fact, his Tower and Home Buildings, built in Cobble Hill in 1879, reportedly constituted the earliest public housing project in the United States AND proved that worker housing could turn a profit (though he famously limited his profit to 5%). By 1890, White and his architect, William Field, had refined the model in the creation of their largest and most ambitious work, the Riverside Buildings, located at the corner of Joralemon and Columbia Place. In several ways, these projects represented a radical shift in tenement housing. Perhaps the biggest innovation was the provision of ample light and air for all tenants. This was accomplished by reserving approximately half of the buildable lot for gardens and open space, and by limiting the depth of the building to allow daylight and views on both sides of the apartments. The courtyard at Riverside also acted as a community gathering place, featuring a park, a bathhouse and a music pavilion. Originally comprising 9 buildings aggregated in a U-shape around the central courtyard, the complex today is a shadow of its former self. Thanks to Robert Moses, in the middle part of the 20th Century, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cleaved through the site, eliminating the four western buildings and a large portion of the courtyard (and cutting off State Street from the water). In the aerial photo below, you can see the remaining complex hugging the expressway.

Bird's eye view of Riverside Buildings from West (courtesy of Bing Maps)

Regardless, what remains is a testament to the remarkable vision of White, embodied by the care given to the details. The cast iron railings--prominent in the photos below--do not signify private balconies, as one might expect. Instead, they mark shared outdoor entry porches to eliminate the need for corridors (the tower portion contains an open-air stairwell). Admittedly, this probably isn't as nice in colder months, but other than that, it's a nice touch. 

Detail views of Riverside Buildings

Across the street to the west, four colorful clapboard houses stand anachronistically amidst the spring chickens adorned in austere brick. In the 1840s, the wood frame homes were erected as part of a string of nine such homes known as "Cottage Row" (Lancaster and Gillon, 74). Accustomed as Brooklyners are to the near-omnipresent stoop, it's rare that one comes across actual front porches in this neck of the woods. By the end of the block, the buildings fall away, and we are treated to a community garden, flanked by a narrow dog run and finally (just out of view) a playground, which provides a buffer to Atlantic Avenue.  Thanks to the climbing vegetation behind the garden, it's almost possible to forget that a loud and obnoxious expressway looms just beyond.

Right: Single-family "Cottage Row" townhomes.  Left: Community garden in foreground, dog run beyond

If you thought Columbia Place was motley, wait till you turn the corner.  The southern end of Willow Place is odd, but also a little awesome. In the left photo below, you'll notice a line of Greek Revival homes on the right, unified by a two-story white portico, recently restored. A remnant of something similar appears to have survived across the street, meeting a much different fate. It has been embraced by its modern, deceptively fun-loving family, who doesn't care if it doesn't brush its teeth or if it gets its nose pierced.

Willow Place from the south (left) and north (right)

While I wonder about bugs, I love the vines sprouting from the columns. It gives the old rebel an organic, New Orleansy feel--and a little extra character to the block buildings that love it. Looking at the row of homes from the street, it almost seems like the newer buildings have been built in an E-shape around the two older houses.  That would be ridiculous, of course.

In the middle of the block stands a small Gothic Revival chapel, also bearing the imprint of Alfred White (it is now known as the Alfred T. White Community Center). Originally built by the Unitarian Church, of which White was a prominent and involved member, the chapel has witnessed a startling variety of activity throughout its history. Since 1962, the Heights Players have called it home. The acting troupe's website offers this succinct account of the building's evolution:
The building at 26 Willow Place has had an interesting history. After Mr. White died and the Center was no longer supported, the City of New York took it over as a social center; what was at one point a gym, is now our theater. During World War II, mainly prostitutes used the building. It was then sold to a foundry, which cast the bronze eagle that hangs over the door of the American Embassy in London.
In 1957 a group of Willowtown parents started a cooperative nursery school. Having outgrown the small room they were using, a search for a new space was begun; finally, the chapel and its attached building were found. In the fall of 1962, a group of citizens purchased the chapel and mission house and established the A.T. White Community Center. The three occupants of the building, the Brooklyn Community Nursery School, The Heights Players, Inc. and the Roosa School of Music, were all designated as permanent users.
As the chapel sets back to form an entry court, we are afforded a good look at the adjacent construction, including the structural tie-back for the floor inside (the little plus shape on the brick wall at right).  Evidently seismic separation between buildings was not an issue in White's day.  God bless the building code.

A.T. White Community Center, home of the Heights Players

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