Folk hero: Musician Joan Baez joins locals in push to save Carroll Gardens schoolhouse

Folk hero: Musician Joan Baez joins locals in push to save Carroll Gardens schoolhouse
Photo by Caroline Ourso

They shall overcome!

The city must landmark a Carroll Gardens building where some of Kings County’s youngest learned their ABCs before a developer destroys it to build condos, demanded a pack of preservationists including a legendary folk singer and activist whose family lived next door.

“I was disheartened to learn that there is a possibility of demolition,” musician Joan Baez, whose grandfather once lived adjacent to the former learning house at 236 President St., wrote in a letter read aloud to locals who rallied for its protection on Friday. “The building is of unique social and historical significance, and it should be protected and celebrated.”

Neighbors claim that bigwigs at the Manhattan-based real-estate firm Avo Construction are in contact to scoop up the old school — known two centuries ago as the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten — and plan to bulldoze the ancient classrooms to erect a seven-story apartment building in their place.

The two-story, ca. 1897 structure between Clinton and Court streets served as the borough’s first freestanding kindergarten before public schools offered classes to such young tykes. And it later became home to parishioners of Brooklyn’s first Spanish-speaking house of worship, the First Methodist Episcopal congregation, where Baez’s Mexican-born grandfather preached.

Builders erected the school’s next-door neighbor at 238 President St. more than four decades earlier, in 1853, and it later served as housing for teachers before becoming living quarters for locals including the folk singer’s kin, according to a history buff.

“These two buildings are linked together in history,” said Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of private preservation group, the Historic Districts Council. “It served as actually the residences for the teachers.”

Preserve history: Assemblywoman Jo Ann Simon and Councilman Brad Lander were among the protestors rallying to save the historic President Street building on March 23.
Photo by Caroline Ourso

The properties sit just outside of the protected Carroll Gardens Historic District, which the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission established in 1973 to preserve some 134 buildings on Carroll and President streets between Smith and Hoyt streets.

And now, current and former residents of the schoolhouse-adjacent building along with local pols and 77-year-old Baez — who was born on bucolic Staten Island and gained notoriety for publicly championing the civil-rights movement and criticizing the Vietnam War during her nearly six-decade career — are calling on the landmarks agency to designate the one-time kindergarten and its neighbor for protection, in order to save the former from the wrecking ball before it’s too late, according to residents of 238 President St.

Avo Construction officials have yet to file the necessary paperwork to demolish the old classrooms and build the seven-story complex — the tallest height allowed by current zoning laws — but a deal is in the works, according to Bankoff, and the city must landmark it and the next-door residences before the Department of Buildings issues any permits to the developer.

“The issue is that 236 has recently been sold, the paperwork hasn’t gone through,” he said. “It’s very imminent.”

Landmarks Commission members are reviewing the proposal to preserve the two structures after receiving a requests from Baez, a 238 President St. resident, and local pols including Carroll Gardens Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon and Councilman Brad Lander, who stressed the urgency of saving the schoolhouse.

“We have an opportunity to save a Carroll Gardens treasure,” Lander said. “If we don’t act now, it will very likely be lost forever.”

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Still fighting: Activist and iconic folk singer Joan Baez is among the preservationists calling on the city to landmark the Carroll Gardens building that served as the borough’s first freestanding kindergarten before becoming its first Spanish-speaking church, where her grandfather preached.
Associated Press / I. Lopez