Living in a Sense of Place
“Prospect Heights is one of Brooklyn’s most distinguished, cohesive neighborhoods because of it’s architectural integrity and diversity, scale, tree lined streets and residential character. These features lend the neighborhood its unique sense of place, making it a natural for historic district status.”
-Charles Tierney, Chairman, NYC Landmark Preservation Commission
Apart from your particular street address, district or state of residency, what else do you need to know about the place in which you live? Besides meeting the new neighbors, the alternate side of the street parking schedule or best place for a latte, what else do you need to know about your community?
The history, of course, amongst other things. It is history that gives a home and community a defined meaning, an identity and what Chairman Tierney calls a true “sense of place.”
Every brownstone has a history. Every 18th century row house and landmark building has a story to be told. In 2009, the Landmark Preservation Commission deemed 850+ homes and buildings in Prospect Heights as historical landmarks. If the walls of these places could talk where would they begin? The history of Prospect Heights spans hundreds of years. Long before the Battle of Brooklyn was fought in 1776, there was farm land, Dutch settlers, slaves and of course native Americans in our vicinity. The boundaries of the Prospect Heights Historical District run from the outermost blocks of Pacific Street and Carlton Avenue to Sterling Place and Washington Avenue.
Between 1850-1910 the population of Prospect Heights slowly grew as families moved in to lay down roots. Although the name “Prospect Heights” was not invoked until around 1889, the land was being built up with row houses long before. A spike in population growth was expected due to the completion of Prospect Park in 1873. Public transportation by means of horse drawn trolleys up and down Flatbush made traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan easy especially after the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883.
The first homes to be built in Prospect Heights still stand today at 578 and 580 Carlton Avenue. Although, the two Italianate style wood frame houses have seen better days, the homes do date back to the 1850‘s. The architectural styles of row houses over the next 50 years would change like fashion in Prospect Heights.
In the late 19th century, a prolific visionary named William H. Reynolds lived more like a rock star than a builder of row houses in Brooklyn. Five or more different architects may have built several rowhouses simultaneously all on the same block. Whether it be an Italianate, Romanesque Revival, Neo-Renaissance, Queen Anne or any other architectural style that lines the streets of Prospect Heights today, each home or building can tell us a great deal about our community more than 100 years ago. In the architecture we are given some clues about the economic and social status as well as technological influences of the time.
As Montrose Morris of Brownstoner puts it “It’s really rather fascinating, as a social phenomenon, architecture as a social sign post.” Did you know, for example, that brownstone—the building material—was originally selected by architects because it was a bargain? During the mid-19th century, the middle class was growing exponentially. New home owners did not want exposed brick as a facade, but could not afford limestone or marble like their wealthy neighbors. Brownstone emerged as a fashionable choice for middle class home owners but was duly selected because it was budgetary. Today brownstone still covers the facades of rowhouses all over New York City.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting the historical landmarks of Prospect Heights and will share with you what I’m learning about our community’s past. While focus will be put on the architectural design of the landmarks, I will also look for any special stories that draw a lineage to the residents of this community and the current events of the time.
Chances are that if you live in Prospect Heights, then you may live in a historical landmark. If so, you may catch me taking pictures of your street and admiring your home from a distance. Don’t worry I'm harmless. There may be an air of mystery that each home and building possesses; an unique story transfixed to an original time that today creates a sense of place.
In 1889, a published letter entitled "Slope, Heights or Hill" was addressed to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle and dutifully signed from the "Residents of Prospect Hill." In the letter, the writer explains that an official name must still be selected and hence mandated to the residents of the "rapidly growing part of Brooklyn near Prospect Park." Up until this time, the district seemed to have many names, all to the liking of different factions or cliques within the community - all beginning with Prospect or Park and ending with a variety of different titles. According to the letter, "some call it Park Slope, some Park Hill Side, some Prospect Heights and others Prospect Hill". The name of this blog "Heights or Hill" was inspired by that letter to the Brooklyn Eagle and honors the history of a burgeoning community 100+ years ago and the spirit of Prospect Heights today.