The story of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and the preservation of New York’s first historic district

PODCAST Part Two of our series on the history of Brooklyn Heights, one of New York City’s oldest neighborhoods.

By the 1880s, Brooklyn Heights had evolved from America’s first suburb into the City of Brooklyn’s most exclusive neighborhood, a tree-lined destination of fine architecture and glorious institutions.

The Heights would go on a roller-coaster ride with the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge and the transformation of Brooklyn into a borough of Greater New York. The old-money wealthy classes would leave, and the stately homes would be carved into multi-family dwellings and boarding houses.

The new subway would bring the bohemians of Greenwich Village into Brooklyn Heights, transforming it into an artist enclave for most of the century. But even with addition of trendy hotels and the Brooklyn Dodgers (whose front office was located here), the Heights faced an uncertain future.

When Robert Moses began planning his Brooklyn Queens Expressway in the 1930s, he planned route that would sever Brooklyn Heights and obliterate many of its most spectacular homes.

Courtesy Landmarks Preservation Commission

It would take some devoted community activists and some very clever ideas to re-route that highway and cover it with something extraordinary — a Promenade, allowing all New Yorkers to enjoy the exceptional views of New York Harbor.

This drama only served to highlight the value and unique nature of Brooklyn Heights and its extraordinary architecture, leading New York to designate the former tranquil suburb on a plateau into the city’s first historic district.

FEATURING: Truman Capote, Jackie Robinson, Gypsy Rose Lee, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Matt Damon and the Jehovah’s Witnesses!

LISTEN NOW — THE PROMENADE AND THE PRESERVATION OF BROOKLYN HEIGHTS

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Standing on the roof of the Standish Arms (at 171 Columbia Heights) in the early 1900s, looking out towards sprawling Brooklyn. Today the Standish is a luxury condominium.

Library of Congress, Bain Service

The dramatic fire which destroyed the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Montague Street, 1903.

1921: “Greenwich Village is moving to Brooklyn. No there isn’t a catch in it. It’s so. The new site of Village activities is Brooklyn Heights, that’s right, that part of the City of Churches just to the right of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

From the New York Tribune — April 24, 1921

Children play in front of the brick row houses of Willow Place (nos. 43-49) with Greek Revival colonnades, in 1937. These stunning houses are still with us today.

Berenice Abbott, courtesy New York Public Library

70 Willow Place, photographed on May 14, 1936. Almost 20 years later, Truman Capote would live in the basement rooms, cranking out work like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

113 Willow Street, also taken in 1936. “Boys in sailor hats play with toy guns under fanciful wrought iron porch front of clapboard house with shuttered windows; girl sits on railing.” Once again, thanks to preservation, the house looks entirely unchanged today.

Pierrepont Place, before the construction of the Promenade.

Brooklyn Public Library

Construction of the Promenade and the BQE, 1948….

New York City Parks Photo Archive

…and in 1949, nearly completed. Note the rows of warehouses along the waterfront.

Brooklyn Public LIbrary

An excerpt from “Discover New York with Henry Hope Reed, Jr.– : a series of well-mapped walking tours, reprinted from the pages of the New York Herald Tribune” . The whole book is an amazing time capsule.

For some reason, the book is listed with a release date of 1900 but it clearly mid-century, given the inclusion of the Appellate Court (built in the 1930s) and the Promenade. Internet Archive

The Brooklyn Heights Historic District

Courtesy Brownstoner

FURTHER LISTENING:

Listen to these shows in our back catalog for more information on subjects mentioned in this show —

Part One of our series on the story of Brooklyn Heights:

The Consolidation of Greater New York was not a concept that the people of Brooklyn unanimously embraced.

Bohemian Brooklyn: Author Hugh Ryan joined us this summer to discuss Brooklyn’s unique bohemian (and LGBT) character:

Robert Moses: Did he save New York City — or destroy it?

Red Hook: Moses’ BQE project may have spared Brooklyn Heights, but it pretty much cut off the neighborhood of Red Hook from vital services.

FURTHER READING:

The Brooklyn Heights Historic Designation Report

Battling for Brooklyn Heights: The Fight for New York’s First Historic District by Martin L. Schneider

Brooklyn Heights: A Personal Memoir by Truman Capote

Brooklyn Heights: The Rise and Fall of America’s First Suburb by Robert Furman

Brooklyn Heights: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Bridgewater Meredith Langstaff

The Brooklyn Heights Promenade by Henrik Krogius

The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn by Suleiman Osman

Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb by Clay Lancaster

The Power Broker by Robert Caro

When Brooklyn Was Queer by Hugh Ryan

Yesterdays on Brooklyn Heights by James H. Callender

Brooklyn Heights: History of Montague Street and Surrounding Area,” by John B. Manbeck

How Brooklyn Heights Became America’s First Historic District,” by James Nevius

Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Watchtower Sales Revitalize Brooklyn Neighborhood” by Alex Boyer

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Top photo of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade courtesy Brooklyn Public Library