Making history! Brooklyn Heights celebrates 50 years as historic district

Making history! Brooklyn Heights celebrates 50 years as historic district
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Brooklyn Heights celebrated 50 years as New York City’s first historic district with a rededication of a plaque commemorating its exclusive status at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Friday.

And the man who led the charge to get the brownstone lined neighborhood protected as city power broker Robert Moses attempted to destroy the neighborhood with his Brooklyn-Queens Expressway said the designation helped save the low-rise nabe from becoming yet another luxury condo enclave.

“It’s lucky that we got it designated because given the way development has taken over, there wouldn’t be very much left,” said Otis Pearsall, a Willow Street lawyer who formed the Historic Preservation Committee of influential civic group the Brooklyn Heights Association in the ’50s. “That would have been a tragic loss for the nation, much less Brooklyn and the city.”

In recognition of Brooklyn Heights’ preservation of the past, the National Park Service presented the neighborhood with a plaque in 1965 declaring its historical significance, making it the third nabe in the country and the first in the city to hold the honor.

Officials passed the New York City Landmarks Law the same year and the neighborhood was designated as the city’s first ever historic district in November.

But someone stole the plaque years ago and the National Parks Service created a replica that it adorned to the Pierrepont historical society building in recognition of its half-century on the register.

In a historic district, there are height restrictions and homeowners must follow strict rules meant to guarantee the stock of 19th century row houses remain just as charming as they were when horse and buggies roamed the streets.

Pearsall says that Brooklyn Heights’ landmark status has been instrumental in maintaining the old school allure of the neighborhood where everybody knows everyone, while the rest of the city becomes overrun with impersonal sky high apartment buildings.

“It’s a pathway to a gentler and more attractive era,” he said. “You can see the sky, for example. It has a tendency to cause neighbors to know each other and pay attention to each other, it’s not like a bunch of filing boxes for people where they don’t have any identity at all.”

He said that not much has changed in Brooklyn Heights from when he was fighting to preserve it, thanks to the designation, except for a few new restaurants and shops.

“There’s a lot of satisfaction in have done what we did,” he said. “It is very much the same because of the operation of the law.”

And one pol pointed out that the designation was yet another example of Brooklyn leading the way for others in the nation to follow.

“Not only is Brooklyn Heights an important part of New York’s history, but when it was named a ‘Historic district’ fifty years ago, it helped pave the way for the protection of other culturally significant sites around the country,” said Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D–Brooklyn Heights).

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill
Making history: The Brooklyn Historical Society replaced and rededicated a stolen plaque to commemorate 50 years of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini