Heights or Hill: The 'Father of History,' Sterling Place and Introducing William H. Reynolds

Heights or Hill: A "Tour and Study" of Historical Landmarks in Prospect Heights with Robert L. Danforth is a blog dedicated to the history of a Brooklyn community.

"History is ultimately more important than its singers." -Michael Harrington

History & Architecture

He was known as the “father of history.”  He was also known as the “father of lies.”

During the fifth century B.C., in ancient Greece, Herodotus, a name synonymous with the word “history,” not to be mistaken for his tome Histories, authored what has become one of Western literature’s seminal narratives. Histories is the only work produced by Herodotus. In the treatise, also known as The Research, he records his own inquiries, “as an investigation into the origins of the Greco-Persian War.” Herodotus, the original historian. Scholars have for ages credited him for “arranging a well constructed and vivid narrative” of Greek civilization.

It may as well be stated now. Only a historian is able to alter the past.  “History consists of a series of accumulated imaginative inventions,” said Voltaire, “it’s the lie commonly agreed upon." But what exactly is history? Amongst other distinctions, Wikipedia defines history as "knowledge acquired by investigation. It is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events.” Apart from word definition found in free online encyclopedias, more conspicous and less popular is the idea that history may hold a message of nationalism or social purpose. It may intend to teach or even indoctrinate classical civilization at all costs. To that end, for a moment, please consider history as less the de facto and more the de jure—the making of a great melodrama.

If historians decide what will become history, do they ever leave any details out? Why do we recognize certain public figures and not others? Perhaps it’s a man’s predestined fortune, or privilege, or luck that gets him scribed in history. Visionaries, virtuosos and prodigies will rise and fall in life but in death are oftentimes simply forsaken or forgotten altogether. 

Building skyscrapers and developing colossal architectural projects demand great vision from leaders like Donald Trump. Looking back, New York historians have likened another real estate mogul to today’s titans. But as relevant as Trump may be, his predecessor William H. Reynolds has a history which largely has been forgotten.

In 2010, Montrose Morris of Brownstoner fame, positioned Reynolds back into Brooklyn’s consciousness. Morris profiled Reynolds, describing him as “a turn of the century mover and shaker in Brooklyn. One hundred years later, he is hardly known, but in his day, this Brooklyn native was an influential builder, real estate developer, politician, and entrepreneur. He was responsible for building much of Prospect Heights [with] row houses centered primarily on long stretches of Park and Sterling Places.”

Between 1850-1885, the City of Brooklyn was seeing exponential population growth, swelling to four million residents and ranking as the third largest city in the United States. Around 1880, a young, ambitious idealist named William H. Reynolds turned down an acceptance offer to Harvard to instead develop real estate in his hometown of Brooklyn. Reynolds and other competitive developers and architectural firms like  John V. Porter and William Flanagan  swarmed Park and Sterling Places to develop homes, build new communities and profit monetarily.

Today, chances are if you live on Park or Sterling Places in Prospect Heights, then William H. Reynolds may have been the original owner, developer and/or architect of your home.

At the outset of building, first Reynolds would purchase empty lots from the City of Brooklyn. No small feat for land that had been a source of local controversy as court litigation, protest and taxes had stifled any progress for years. By 1894, Reynolds would commissioned the architectural firm Dahlander and Hedman to design his first group of four row houses on the north side of the street from 287 through 293 Park Place. This group of Renaissance Revival style row houses have Romanesque Revival style elements and are arranged in , although the repeated facades display some minor differences.

By 1897, Reynolds was not only developing real estate on Park Place, but designing homes as well. He would not turn to Dahlander and Hedman for his next endeavor, he would rely on himself. William H. Reynolds, an unschooled architect and apprentice of his own projects would design and build 22 row houses beginning with 280 through 322 Park Place on the south side of the street. Each building was designed in the Renaissance Revival architectural style with Romanesque detailed elements. According to the Landmark Preservation Commission: “The row features Renaissance- and Romanesque- inspired ornament, such as rough-faced stone, carved panels, capitals and keystones, pilasters, round-arch fenestration, and cornices with dentils, scroll designs and scrolled brackets.” 

At around the same time, one block south, on Sterling Place, Reynolds was building his second set of 22 row houses. Beginning with 281 through 323 on Sterling Place, these row houses may be described almost the same as the grouping on Park Place, but of course, some modifications over time have changed the lot.

After the last home was built and sold in Prospect Heights, Reynolds must have known that he was on the rise. His momentum propelled him to bigger real estate projects, such as Borough Park. Morris states, “Reynolds bought up a large parcel of undeveloped land, and carved 4,000 lots from it, sold lots to investors, and started building on them himself. He called his new neighborhood Borough Park.”

Surprisingly, Wikipedia’s entry on Borough Park does not once mention Reynolds’ name, nevermind his significant role in developing another Brooklyn community. The entire residential landscape of Borough Park rests solely in Reynolds hands. He built Borough Park for Brooklyn residents, literally from the ground up—but I wonder how many of her residents have ever heard the name: William H. Reynolds.

Eventually, Reynolds’ strong political ties to Tammany made him a senator of New York and brought powerful friends to the table, but questionable ethics led to scandal which followed him from Coney Islands’ "Dreamland," to accusations of grave illegalities, more land development during the White Flight, financial ties to the Chrysler Building and even prison. 

An architect is not unlike a historian, or a surgeon, a civil engineer or couturier. All of these professions require a masterly skill set in the particular field of distinction. All leave behind immeasurable gifts of life, shelter and sublime beauty. All provide us with an answer, an outcome, product or design which can only be attributed to erudition and the intellectual superiority of great men and women. And yet, do you know any couturiers, or any surgeons at Mt. Sinai? How about an architect—even a name? Are the names Herodotus, Reynolds or even Trump important to us?

I suggest that all names may be abandoned here because we are not in awe of the man or woman who creates; rather the creation itself is the marvel. But with a name comes a legacy, a human tribute and a history worth knowing and passing along and along. 



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Claudette Brady May 21, 2012 at 06:14 PM
Reynolds started his career as a real estate developer in Bedford- Stuyvesant and built many houses in the proposed Bedford Historic District in Bedford-Stuyvesant. At the start of his career he lived on Hancock Street.
Robert L. Danforth May 22, 2012 at 01:24 AM
Thanks so much Claudette! As I'm sure you already know, Reynolds was a Brooklyn native. He left his 'real estate' footprint all around town from Prospect Heights to Coney Island to Borough Park and, of course, Bedford Stuyvesant. Speaking of which, I'm eager to take a landmark tour and study the architecture and history of Bedford Stuyvesant next!
Robert L. Danforth May 22, 2012 at 01:29 AM
Thanks for reading the piece, Gib! It's particularly gratifying for me when a reader has a personal connection to anything I'm writing. It's very cool. And I will most definitely check out the Old Brooklyn photos that you mentioned. Thanks again.
Robert L. Danforth May 22, 2012 at 01:42 AM
Everyone's participation in this blog is greatly appreciated. I look forward to reading the comments every week. For the next 2 weeks, I'll be using a different approach for Heights or Hill. I'm feeling inspired, going to try something new. Same type of subject matter, similar content, of course, with a fresh P.O.V. See ya.
Claudette Brady May 22, 2012 at 09:01 AM
Hi Robert, Send me and e-mail at info@bedfordstuyvesantsocietyforhistoricpreservation.org, and we will arrange a tour for you.


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