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Thread: Clinton Hill

  1. #1

    Default Clinton Hill

    You hardly see any tour groups in Clinton Hill, like you do in Brooklyn Heights. Too bad if it’s been overlooked, because there’s a lot of history there.

    The two areas of Clinton Hill and Fort Greene developed as one – they were not considered separate neighborhoods until the 20th century. The boundaries are the BQE to the north, Classon Ave to the east, Atlantic Ave to the south, and Flatbush Ave to the west. Much of both neighborhoods are within historic districts, the two divided by Vanderbilt Ave.

    What makes Clinton Hill unique is the second wave of development during the late 19th century, leading to a great diversity of architecture. There are great mansions and tiny wood frame houses, row houses and turn of the century apartment buildings.

    Although incorporated in 1645, the village of Breuckelen developed slowly. Even when incorporated as a town in 1788, the population was barely 1600, mostly because of unreliable ferry service across the East River to New York.

    That changed in 1814, when Robert Fulton’s ship Nassau began ferry service across the river. Also, in 1801 the federal government purchased 40 acres of land along Wallabout Bay and established the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

    Brooklyn began to grow and in 1834 was incorporated as a city. At that time, rapid development began in areas to the west and south – Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, and Boerum Hill were heavily developed by mid century. However, most areas east of Flatbush Ave remained rural.

    The exception was The Hill, where Clinton Ave was laid out in 1832 as a wide boulevard to attract rich residents who wanted suburban retreats, far enough away from the growing city, but close enough to reach the ferry by the Ferry Road (Fulton St). By the Civil War, Clinton Ave was lined with freestanding villas, most made of wood. The William Crane House and the Daniel Burdette House [photos 13 and 34] are the only surviving villas on Clinton Ave.

    At that time, Italianate rowhouses began to appear on the western side of Clinton Hill. By the early 1870s, development activity had reached a peak. The early villas remained, though there was some infill on land between them.

    The second period of development in Clinton Hill from the 1870s until about 1920 was precipitated mostly by one man – Charles Pratt.

    When Pratt merged his Astral Oil Works in Greenpoint with Standard Oil, he became the richest man in Brooklyn. In 1874, he built a mansion on Clinton Ave, and later three others as wedding gifts to his sons. [photos 3 - 7].

    This encouraged other industrialists, including partners at Standard Oil, to build their own mansions. Many of the antebellum villas were demolished.

    Refer to Robinson’s Atlas of Brooklyn, 1886 ward map. Zoom in on Clinton Ave and Willoughby Ave, note the large estate sites.

    Pratt’s influence also extended to cultural institutions. Much in the mold of Andrew Carnegie, he was a philantropist with an interest in education. He founded Pratt Institute, funded Adelphi Academy (now Adelphi University), and funded the landmarked Emmanual Baptist Church.

    Clinton Hill began to lose its status as a preeminent neighborhood by the second decade of the 20th century. the merger of Brooklyn into Greater New York in 1898 made Manhattan the place for the rich to live.

    The institutions of Clinton Hill - St Joseph’s College and Pratt Institute - saved some of the mansions. The biggest blow was the demolition of an entire block in 1942 to put up towers for Navy Yard personnel during WWII. Can’t argue with total war.

    One unusual characteristic of the neighborhood is the layout of streets. Clinton Ave and Washington Ave were the premier streets, wider than the others, will deep front yards. The alternate streets – Vanderbilt Ave, Waverly Ave, Hall St – were laid out as service streets for the mansions, with stables, carriage houses, and staff quarters [photos 45 - 59]. These streets have a distinctly different character than the rest of the neighborhood, and many structures survive. One is gorgeous.

    Remarkably, as the neighborhood descended further into the dangerous lanscape of the 1970s and 1980s, much of it is intact. Part of that must be that no one wanted to build anything here. The most bizarre destruction was right next to the oldest house on Clinton Ave [photos 14, 15, 16]. The facades of three rowhouses were stripped away in the 1970s, and resurfaced in brick. Parts of the original buildings can be seen at the rear on DeKalb Ave.

    I try to put myself in the heads of the LPC in 1981, as they surveyed Clinton Hill for landmark designation. It must have been disheartening to note that historic buildings were vacant and boarded up. One in particular was the residential Mohawk Hotel [photo 41]. LPC stated, “Although the complex has been abandoned since 1976, the architectural integrity of the facades has not been compromised. ”

    This intersection was particularly dangerous in the early 1980s. PS 11 is diagonally across the street, and back then school yards and playgrounds were not safe havens. Next to the hotel, there was a block long vacant lot on Greene Ave. The 11 modest houses that were constructed in the 1990s [photo 42] reflect a reality about attracting residents. At best the houses seem to connect to Higgins Hall.

    Pratt Institute almost left its roots as student enrollment plummeted and debt mounted during the worst of times for Clinton Hill. Hard choices were made, and the institution is back on its feet, undergoing a renovation.

    The campus is beautiful.

    The two commercial streets, Myrtle Ave and Fulton St, are outside the historic districts, reflecting an early reluctance by the LPC to designate commercial streets. Their architectural (and commercial) character suffer for it. Of the two, Myrtle Ave has better survived, with lots of trees planted after the El came down.

    Clinton Hill photo album

  2. #2


    Since it's the Fourth of July, I should note that some of the streets at named for Revolutionary War figures.

    We all know about George Washington.

    Nathanael Greene was one of his most trusted officers. He conducted the brilliant Southern Strategy (long before the GOP one in the 1970s ) that denied Cornwalis the Carolinas, and forced his retreat to Yorktown. We know what happened there.

    We know about the Marquis de Lafayette, but he was brought to the Americas by Johann de Kalb, a German officer in the French army, who became a major general in the Continental Army. He was mortally wounded at Camden SC, and held in such high regard after the war that many places were named for him.

    More on the negative side was Horatio Gates, whom Washington had little use for. Gates took credit for the pivotal Battles of Saratoga, although the campaign was run by junior officers, such as Daniel Morgan, and most notably Benedict Arnold, which led to the Boot Monument

  3. #3
    NYC Aficionado from Oz Merry's Avatar
    Join Date
    Oct 2002


    Thank goodness for the "outer" boroughs, which have been less prone to the destruction of architectural heritage than Manhattan.

    Awesome photos, Zippy . The Royal Castle Apartments and the Mohawk Hotel are magnificent.

    So, a move to Imgur? No more ImageShack? (...good, no more popups .)

    I just posted a NYT article yesterday about Clinton Hill in the Brooklyn Neighborhoods thread.

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