I don’t know how else to put it to you. As soon as I entered the room, I knew I was home. This is the one and only time in my life that I've ever experienced such familiarity in an unknown place. I felt like I had just come home after a long long time away. Albeit this was my first apartment viewing not to mention first impression after 6 seconds in the door. The real estate agent began talking non-stop. I began looking around a room which seemed impervious to the wear and tear of her former guests. Perhaps it was the aged white marble casing around the fireplace or the quality of light pouring through beaten wood shutters or maybe it was the 18-foot-high ceilings where I surveyed crown moldings deeply embedded and perfectly intact. It was brownstone love at first sight - a residential romance began in an instant. Which architectural detail of the parlor floor digs shall I hold most dear? For a second or two of what seemed like minutes, I watched the real estate guy’s mouth stretch and fold but could not specifically discern any words. Clearly he was speaking but I was 'in my own world,' as they say, both figuratively and physically and nothing would help or hinder my decision. Still I wasn’t sure why I was so drawn to apartment on Park Place. Whatever it was I couldn’t pinpoint it exactly. But, as I looked around at the freshly painted white walls, polished wood floors and all, after only 60 seconds in the door, I knew one thing for certain.
- Robert L. Danforth, in an excerpt from a 2003 journal entry.
History & Architecture
Ten years ago, just before moving to Park Place, I had drawn up a checklist for my new dream apartment. The list was decidedly short and willfully straightforward: I wanted a fireplace and a backyard. Period. Little did I know, until very recently, in fact, that simple amenities, as such, would only scratch the surface of what gives my home and perhaps every home on Park Place its true value. It’s taken almost 10 years to fully recognize and appreciate the place in which I live. Park Place has emerged as more than just an affordable and comfortable to reside.
This is not the Park Place of lower Manhattan or of Battery Park that rests at the foot of Ground Zero. This is the other Park Place. This is Brooklyn’s Park Place. According to maps from the late-19th century, many residential streets in Brooklyn had been renamed, perhaps, to better suit the more cosmopolitan demographic group of middle class families that were pouring in to the area. Baltic Street was Park Place’s an original name, given some forty years prior to the residential development that would emerge in 1881. Ironically, a name like Baltic doesn’t seem to capture the spirit of the promising lifestyle enclave that would soon emerge. Park Place, the secondary and permanent name, was aptly assigned to replace Baltic Street because of the close proximity to Prospect Park and I would imagine because it simply sounds better.
It was, in fact, 1839 that the City of Brooklyn laid down streets for maps based on grid formations. The grid extended to Prospect Heights even before there was such an “invention." As David Ment and Mary S. Donovan explain in "The People of Brooklyn: A History of Two Neighborhoods":
The mapping of city streets through the fields and woods of Dutch farmers did not mean that the streets would be opened immediately ... it did signify the public expectation of the eventual urbanization of the area and established a structure within which future development would take place.
But progress takes time.
During the late-19th century, there were setbacks which had hastened residential development on soon to be known streets such as Sterling and Park places. Indeed, some 25 to 30 years prior, a pair of row houses went up just blocks away on Carlton Avenue. But south and east of Carlton, stretching alongside Flatbush Avenue and north of the Park, there were was still “rocky, sterile land, occupied by only goats and squatters’ shanties” as reported in the Brooklyn Eagle.
Apparently, the 110 acres of land, known as the “East Side Park Land” was owned by the City of Brooklyn, who had made improvements in transportation and the opening of Prospect Park the priority over residential development in the area. But by the 1880s, the Park was open, plans for Brooklyn Bridge were being developed and Flatbush Avenue was set to provide an easy thoroughfare in and around all points.
But there were still loose ends. The New York Times, in 1881, spoke of the land and it's status more descriptively:
When these lands were bought they were, to use the classic expression of one of Brooklyn’s untutored Aldermen, “a howling wilderness.” The reservoir was upon them, and that was about all the sign of civilization to be found in the immediate neighborhood. They were farm lands gone to seed. The speculators, however, saw their value when the project of a public park in that section of the City was mooted and they bought them in for a song. As a consequence, when the park scheme became fully outlined, the city was compelled to pay many times their value.
After years of litigation, red-tape, protests and community wrangling over property taxes and questions about eminent domain, the land was steadily sold off, lot by lot, to buyers, real-estate developers and architects like William H. Reynolds and William E. Mowbray.
While many brownstone faced row houses on Park Place between Washington and Underhill avenues were designed by Reynolds, the more prolific architect of the two, other homes on the track, including mine, were built by Mowbray. Mowbray, was himself an important builder of the times, with famed architectural credits to include The Verona, one of Manhattan’s most highly regarded Italian Renaissance architectural style buildings. In 1893, some thirteen years before he built The Verona located at 64th and Madison Avenue, Mowbray laid bricks on Park Place for four row houses in an A-B-A-B formation which was a popular architectural scheme. This formation would make the "A" buildings the first and third homes and almost identical and likewise the “B” buildings as the second and fourth in the grouping.
Designed in the Renaissance and Romanesque Revival architectural styles, my building, the first in the “A” pairing is a four-story brownstone facade dwelling made in brick. The Romanesque Revival architectural style was inspired by the 11th and 12th century Romanesque architecture and featured rounded arches on the windows. The Renaissance Revival would include an “all-encompassing designation that covers many 19th century architectural revival styles including the Italianate architectural style. According to the Prospect Heights Deignation Report:
There are ”subtle differences in the detailing of each facade. The row is unified by rough-faced brownstone stoops (all intact), a variety of Romanesque- and Renaissance-inspired ornament, such as foliation, round-arches, iron cornices decorated with brackets and paneled friezes. Although most of the original sash has been replaced and new ironwork has been introduced in the form of fences, gates, railings, and window grilles, this fine and remarkably-intact ensemble survives as a significant example of row house architecture in late-nineteenth-century Brooklyn.
More than 115 years have passed since Mowbray and his team laid the first brick of what has today become "my building." My building has been witness to to the historic rise of a middle class Brooklyn community called Prospect Heights. My building and 849 others in this community are rich because of the history they've survived. Several weeks ago, as I started this blog, I visited the Brooklyn Historical Society in the hopes that I may discover something scandolous or notable even about my building. However, the past like today tells the same modest story of a brownstone where families or singles, like myself, generation after generation, lay down roots and simply call Park Place "home."