Clinton Hill: suburban retreat

This post covers the period through the 1910s, when Clinton Hill changed from an upper-class escape to a mostly middle-class area.

Detail from a recently restored 1770 (1769?) map by Bernard Ratzer, now on display at Brooklyn Historical Society. The present-day Clinton Hill area is directly below Wallabout Bay and stretches south to the “Road to Jamaica”, now roughly Atlantic Avenue. Gowanus Creek is in the lower-left; Brookland Ferry is in the upper-left.

The area’s European history began in the 1640s, when Dutch settlers laid tobacco plantations near Wallabout Bay. Bedford Corners, situated just southeast of Clinton Hill, was incorporated in 1663, and the settlers (both Dutch and French Huguenot) purchased surrounding lands from the native Lenape in 1670.

Skip forward to August 27, 1776, where we see the “Road to Jamaica” (approximately Atlantic Avenue, the southern edge of today’s neighborhood) used by the British army in a surprise overnight march to outflank the American army, which was forced to retreat toward Gowanus Creek, and two nights later, to Manhattan. After the war, the Dutch continued to build on the land, which sloped toward the East River and offered great views of the water and of Manhattan.

200 Lafayette Av, at the southeast corner of Vanderbilt Av, is one of the oldest buildings in Clinton Hill. It was built as a retreat for Joseph Steele of Brooklyn Heights. It is described as “the best remaining example of a wooden suburban mansion in the transitional Greek Revival/Italianate style” in New York City. (From the Clinton Hill Historic District designation report)

Clinton Hill began to see buildings in the 1840s. (The area is named after Clinton Avenue, which in turn was named in honor of Governor DeWitt Clinton (1769-1828), a major proponent of the Erie Canal — so much so that critics derided the project as “Clinton’s Ditch”.) An 1842 survey registered a single house to the south of Myrtle Avenue, but several streets had been laid in preparation for expansion.

The area was originally devised for those “determined to escape from the closeness of city life”, as Walt Whitman put it in 1846. George Washington Pine had bought up the land in the area and broke it into lots, selling them to those who wanted to lead a quiet life not too far from the conveniences of Wallabout.

Whitman, a 28-year resident of Brooklyn, lived for less than a year in the area in 1855. It was a particularly important time, though: it was when he wrote his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass. The 1995 New Yorker article “Walt Whitman’s Ghost” identified the address as 99 Ryerson Street – technically on the Wallabout side of Myrtle. The building still stands today.

“The Hill”, as the general area was known (maximum elevation: 95 feet), was believed to have health benefits, as many thought germs were more prevalent in low-lying areas. Along with the view of Manhattan, this enticed Charles Pratt, a native New Englander, to build a mansion at 232 Clinton Avenue in 1874, the year his Charles Pratt & Company was acquired by Standard Oil. This was the start of Clinton Avenue’s transformation into a tree-lined lap of luxury; several other magnates built mansions on it, and Pratt gave three others (at 229, 241, 245 Clinton Avenue) to his sons as wedding-gifts. All four Pratt mansions still stand.

1904 photograph of Charles Pratt’s mansion at 232 Clinton Avenue. (from Kings Views of Brooklyn)

On side-streets, middle-class houses and apartments rose. By 1880, the area was saturated with homes, which meant that any new buildings required the demolition of an old one. This is one reason why many Clinton Hill blocks are a mishmash of several different styles spanning various architectural eras. Somewhere between 1910 and 1920, as Manhattan became the location of choice for the wealthy and as abandoned mansions were torn down to build more middle-class housing, the era of opulence came to an end.

That’s not to say there aren’t lasting reminders of this age. One of them is Pratt Institute, endowed by Charles Pratt in 1887. Although today it’s known as one of the top arts colleges in the country, it began as an engineering school, designed to train immigrants in then-novel sciences. (Pratt closed its engineering program in 1993.)

Twenty years later, the Brooklyn Masonic Temple opened at the northeast corner of Clermont and Lafayette Avenues. It is an exact replica of King Solomon’s temple. The Freemasons opened it to the public in 1977, and today it features what some consider to be New York’s loudest concert-venue, Masonic Boom. [July 2013: apparently, no longer.]

1909 photograph of the newly completed Brooklyn Masonic Temple. (from this article in The New York Times)

Much of Clinton Hill was designated a historic district in 1981. One of many now-gone locations is Clermont Skating Rink, one of the largest venues of its kind at the time and host to many different types of events, including track-meets. It was next to the Armory (which has been converted to middle-income housing) in the block surrounded by Clermont, Vanderbilt, Myrtle, and Willoughby.

Beginning of a 1903 New York Times article on an inter-borough match at Clermont Skating Rink. They sure don’t write ‘em like that anymore.

Starting in the 1880s, the Myrtle Avenue and Lexington Avenue elevated lines served the area. (For reference, see the 1910 map I used in my brief history of Fulton Ferry.) The Lexington Avenue line followed Grand Avenue, south from Myrtle; were it still around today, it would cut the Pratt campus in half. The last train on the Lexington Avenue line ran on October 13, 1950; dismantling of the elevated tracks began on November 1.

I’ve only skimmed the surface with this post, and there’s an entire century left of Clinton Hill’s history, including the place where Biggie Smalls was raised, and the neighborhood’s transformation into another type of retreat: the exodus of hipsters from Williamsburg.

A note on Clinton Hill:

Clinton Hill’s history is closely intertwined with those of Fort Greene and Navy Yard, so there was plenty of overlap between the three neighborhoods. As a result, I had to make some decisions on what to include in this post and what to save for later.

One example: The area north of Myrtle Avenue is sometimes called “Wallabout”, possibly Dutch for “bend in the harbor” or “bay of the Walloons [Dutch]” (Wall-bogt). Several pre-Civil War buildings were given landmark status last year. Present-day Wallabout shares many characteristics with Clinton Hill, the most obvious being that it comprises mostly residential buildings (unlike Navy Yard directly to its north).

In researching the area’s history, however, I discovered that Wallabout used to be much bigger; it was home to a huge market until World War II, when the land was seized by the government for an expansion of the existing naval facility. As a result, I chose to include that area’s history with that of Navy Yard, even though today the former is only two long-blocks wide.

Another example: the atrocities committed on the British prison-ships during the Revolutionary War, which were anchored in Wallabout Bay. I am saving this one for whichever comes first of Navy Yard and Fort Greene (where there’s a monument to the victims), but if you can’t wait, read about it here[Updated: my post is here]

Sources not linked to on this page:

“Clinton Hill and Wallabout” by Brian Merlis (Israelowitz Publishing, 2011)

“Fort Greene, Clinton Hill: neighborhood & architectural history guide” by Francis Morrone (Brooklyn Historical Society, 2010)

This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Clinton Hill: suburban retreat

  1. MrsDomestica says:

    Love this! Super jealous of your upcoming adventures…
    Have fun!!

  2. Topographically, “Clinton Hill” starts at, from west to east – Flatbush Avenue to Class on Avenue, with Clinton Avenue as the crest; and south to north – from Atlantic Avenue to Flushing Avenue with Lafayette Avenue as the crest.

    So if you measure from those coordinates, the height of Clinton Hill is much more than 95 feet.

  3. Fort Greene is, “topographically”, part of Clinton Hill, not the other way around.

Leave a Reply