Historian to take stock of Hts

Riverside apartments
Columbia Place, between State and Joralemon streets
Designed by Alfred Tredway White, they are “model housing for the working class.”
The Brooklyn Paper / Jeff Bachner

A renowned architectural historian has undertaken the gargantuan effort of documenting the history of every single building in the Brooklyn Heights historic district.

Francis Morrone’s building census, funded by the Brooklyn Heights Association, will provide a comprehensive history of all 700 or so post–Civil War buildings, and, if funding and time permit, all 700 or so of the ante-Bellum structures, too.

That means, for the first time, Brooklyn Heights residents will be able to find out when their homes were built, who built them, what their architectural significance is, and what interesting things, if any, happened in the places they now call home (or school or church).

Willow Place Chapel, now a part of St. Ann’s school
26 Willow Pl., between Joralemon and State streets
“When the trees surrounding the chapel are in bloom, it is hard to imagine a more charming place.”
The Brooklyn Paper / Jeff Bachner

“Brooklyn Heights is an encyclopedia of American urban architecture of the 19th century,” said Morrone, who has led walking tours through the neighborhood for 20 years and turns rhapsodic when discussing the district (though he is, gasp, a Park Slope resident).

“Few other neighborhoods anywhere in the world — let’s not mince words — are really as special or as beautiful,” said Morrone.

Morrone, who will rely for his research on old city records and lots of shoe-leather, is undertaking this mega-project because Brooklyn Heights, New York City’s first historic district, is also one of its worst documented.

First Unitarian Church
50 Monroe Pl., between Clark and Pierrepont streets
Another Minard Lafever maserpiece.
The Brooklyn Paper / Jeff Bachner

In 1965, when the newly formed Landmarks Preservation Commission anointed the neighborhood as a historic district, the agency’s protocols weren’t quite in order.

These days, the Commission produces architectural history reports of staggering length — its report for the 250 homes in Fiske Terrace-Midwood Park, the city’s 91st historic district, came to nearly 400 pages.

But back in the day, the city made do with no more than a five-page report for Brooklyn Heights. So, aside from a general history of the pre–Civil War–era houses by Clay Lancaster, there’s no historical resource that homeowners can turn to when they want to renovate their homes. (In historic districts, all renovations to the buildings must first be approved by the city as historically appropriate.)

St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church
157 Montague St., between Clinton and Henry streets
“When the trees surrounding the chapel are in bloom, it is hard to imagine a more charming place.”
The Brooklyn Paper / Jeff Bachner

“If the home’s architectural history is not in Clay Lancaster’s book, basically we’re dependent on the [historical research of the] architect who is putting together the renovation proposal,” said Brooklyn Heights Association President Tom van den Bout. “I think this project will actually make [renovating] easier.”

Morrone has only just begun his work, and said he’d appreciate any historical arcana residents manage to dig up.

He is looking for everything from when the building was built to, well, some of its more sordid tales.

Packer Collegiate Institute
170 Joralemon St., between Court and Clinton streets
Lafever’s last. “When it was built, this must have been one of the most imposing buildings in Brooklyn.”
The Brooklyn Paper / Jeff Bachner

“If it’s the house that [last mayor of an independent Brooklyn] Seth Low grew up in, we’ll certainly mention it,” said Morrone. “If there’s a ghost in the house, or someone was murdered there, we’ll want to mention that as well.”

Morrone’s Fab Five

Historian Francis Morrone has begun the huge task of documenting the history of every building in historic Brooklyn Heights. Here are his favorite five:

Residents with choice historical photos or relevant Brooklyn Heights lore can e-mail Morrone at fm27@nyu.edu. (Wait a minute; that’s in Manhattan, right?)

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