Brooklyn Heights is a prominent neighborhood directly across the East River from lower Manhattan. With blocks of 19th-century brownstone row houses representing a variety of architectural styles from Italianate to Greek and Gothic Revival the Brooklyn Heights historic district was the first neighborhood protected by the 1965 Landmarks Preservation Law of New York City.
Europeans first formed the settlement of “Breuckelen” in 1645. Early merchants built mansions on the bluff that rises from the river’s edge, offering the first views of Manhattan. With Wall Street a short subway ride away, many current residents of Brooklyn Heights are financial district workers who want more space for raising families but who also want to live in a neighborhood of historic buildings and Old New York character.
It is also possible to walk or ride a bike over the Brooklyn Bridge (on its elevated, wide wood-plank pedestrian walkway with a center line dividing it into walking and biking lanes) and this is an option that some Brooklyn Heights residents take advantage of when the weather allows.
Considered to be the first suburb in America, Brooklyn Heights has been home to many famous residents over the years. You may recognize the names Walt Whitman, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan. Even Barack Oboma lived here for a short time.
While the neighborhood is generally quiet and peaceful there have been incidents of “Murder, Suicide and Mayhem In Brooklyn Heights (Yes, Brooklyn Heights!)” as chronicled by Elon Green in the Awl.
A stroll down Montague Street ends at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade which first opened in 1950. Walks on the Promenade over the two-tiered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway offer spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline along the East River, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. You also get a birds-eye view of Brooklyn Bridge Park, the first major park built in Brooklyn since Prospect Park 135 years earlier. The Promenade, is lined with flower beds and playgrounds. It has grand townhouses and mansions as a backdrop providing shade for one of two rows of comfortable park benches.
The Brooklyn Historical Society on Pierrepont Street was founded in 1863. The museum and education center offers visitors exhibits and walking tours exploring Brooklyn’s history and culture. The Society’s Queen Anne style building, designed by George B. Post, was completed in 1881. The building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1991 and is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It is also one of the few Interior Landmarked buildings in Brooklyn. A free self-guided walking tour and map available at the Brooklyn Historical Society (courtesy of architectural historian Francis Morrone) will guide you to nearly two dozen historic churches and other buildings including the following:
On Hicks Street, the Plymouth Church—built in 1849 from designs by J.C. Wells—once served as part of the Underground Railroad. Its first pastor was Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A statue of H.W. Beecher by sculptor Gutzon Borglum is located on the grounds. There is also a fragment of Plymouth Rock in the church.
Completed in 1869, the former St. Ann’s Church was designed by James Renwick Jr. the architect of the Smithsonian Institution Building in Washington D.C. and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. St. Ann’s is a good example of the architectural style known as High Victorian Gothic which is often associated with the Arts & Crafts movement because of its emphasis on craftsmanship. The second phase of Gothic styling featured multicolored stone and literal motifs of leaves, birds and gargoyles. St. Ann’s Later merged with Holy Trinity Church to form the Church of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity just a few blocks away at the corner of Clinton Street NW and Montague Street. St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church was completed in 1848.
Minard Lafever designed the Gothic Revival Style church. St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church is considered his masterpiece and is one of three buildings Lafever designed that are now National Historic Landmarks. The more than 7000 square feet of windows, by William and John Bolton, are notable for being created with the first American-made stained glass. Lafever also designed the main building that houses Packer Collegiate Institute, an independent, college preparatory day school on Jaralemon Street in the Heights.
Several other historic churches surviving in Brooklyn Heights are listed on the Brooklyn Historical Society Walking Tour. They include another church designed by Minard Lafever—First Unitarian, a Gothic Revival church built in 1842–44, St. Charles Barromeo Church (photo to the left)—designed by Brooklyn resident, Irish immigrant and the most prolific Catholic church architect in American history; Patrick C. Keely, and two by Richard Upjohn, who designed Manhattan’s Trinity Church.
The first Richard Upjohn designed structure is another Gothic Revival—Grace Church built in the 1840s—and the second is Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Rite Roman Catholic Church . This 1840’s Congregational church was the first in America to be designed in the Romanesque Revival style. Its bronze doors were salvaged from the Normandie ocean liner.
An impressive Italianate brownstone mansion at Pierrepont Place in Brooklyn Heights was built for Alexander M. White, a fur dealer, and was the childhood home of Alfred Tredway White. Alfred T. White was a Brooklyn born social visionary and pioneer in the creation of beautiful sunlit housing for the 19th century working class—the “deserving” poor. White, who served 40 years as a deacon and 20 years a trustee of the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn, had the Warren Place Workingmen’s Cottages built in 1878 and built the Riverside Houses on Columbia Place in 1890. While the inexpensive apartments were small they were designed to have cross-ventilation, windows for natural light and no enclosed stair wells which could be fire hazards.
A large house in the Romanesque Revival style designed by Brooklyn architect Frank Freeman for Herman Behr, a wealthy industrialist was completed in 1890. It was later converted to apartments.
A wooden house built in 1824—the Eugene Boisselet residence—survives as a reminder of Brooklyn Heights early days.
A number of commercial buildings are included on the Brooklyn Historical Society Brooklyn Heights walking tour. The St. George Hotel—built in stages between 1885 and 1930—was once New York’s largest hotel featuring the largest indoor salt-water swimming pool in the world. The Hotel Bossert opened in 1909. Considered one of the finest hotels in NY it was known for its Marine Roof restaurant and nightclub with sensational views of Manhattan. The building is now owned by Jehovah’s Witnesses a major landowner in Brooklyn Heights.
The former Brooklyn Trust Company—now J.P. Morgan Chase Branch bank—built in Italian High Renaissance style in 1915 is one of the city’s most beautiful banks. Architects were York & Sawyer.
Heights Casino—built in 1905—was founded in 1904 as a private, community squash, tennis and social club. It has produced so many champions that it is one of the most renowned sites in the international world of squash. This “country club in the city” was designed by William A. Boring and Edward Lippincott Tilton who also designed the Ellis Island Immigration Station. “Casino” refers to “little house” and was often used as a name for clubs and restaurants.
The New York Transit Museum is in Brooklyn Heights at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street. Entrance to the New York Transit Museum is just one of many included attractions, museums and tours when you purchase the New York Pass.
By Andrea M. Meek and Lee Nelson