For all Brooklyn’s ever growing popularity, you’ve not discovered its true virtues until you’ve taken a stroll around Brooklyn Heights. This small, historic neighbourhood is filled with block after block of picturesque old cobbled streets, over 600 pre-civil war houses and a few mansions that look like they’re come straight off the set of Gone with the Wind. Despite its name, there are very few high-rise buildings in Brooklyn Heights and very few modern eyesores to spoil the view of a perfect promenade in what is often called America’s first suburb.
To find Brooklyn Heights, you leave Manhattan, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, then simply turn left and walk up the river. While the chief draw here is the iconic promenade (the riverside pedestrian walkway running offering the finest views of the Manhattan skyline) you would be mad not to discover what awaits in the streets behind you. Take a left inland towards the end of the pier (5) onto Joralemon Street and enter the two hundred year-old enclave of Brooklyn Heights…
At the River Deli, begin your zig-zagging discovery of the beautiful back streets of Brooklyn Heights, first with Columbia Place, then Willow Place and Hicks Street after that.
Don’t miss number 43 Willow Place, a mansion set slightly back from the pavement. Frozen in time, it could almost be a ruined plantation home from the Antebellum South. We plan to knock on the door one of these days and find out whats inside. Maybe you’ll beat us to it..
Crumbling columns, worn shutters, peeling paint and overgrown with ivy, this magical mansion is made all the remarkable by its identical twin across the street, kept in pristine condition.
Back on Joralemon Street, at number 58, you’ll also find our favourite mysterious townhouse. Despite its impeccable brickwork, this is not like the other houses and deserves a second look. Behind its blacked out windows, no one is at home; no one has been at home for more than 100 years. In fact, number 58 is not a home at all, but a secret subway exit and ventilation point disguised as a Greek Revival brownstone.
Further up Joralemon, take a left onto Henry Street and disappear down an alley called Hunts Lane on your right. This one is lined exclusively with carriage houses; an original true mews where horses were kept. These stables that once catered to the homes of Joralemon Street have now been converted into multi-million dollar residences themselves. There are plenty more photogenic alleys just like this to be explored if you care to find them.
At the corner of Henry Street and Remsen Street, take a moment to notice the doors of a church, Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral, which has perhaps the grandest doors to be found anywhere in New York. For they were, quite fantastically, once the opulent doors of the dining hall from the doomed luxury liner, the SS Normandie. In 1935, she was the fastest ship afloat, and perhaps the most elegant. The dining room was longer the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and every inch as grandiose. She caught fire in 1942, capsizing in New York Harbour. Many of the Art Deco treasures which decorated the stricken ship were sold off, and the doors which graced the dining room found their way to a church in Brooklyn Heights.
From preserved rows of the iconic Brooklyn brownstones and stoops, to Victorian Gothic mansions, to some of the oldest surviving wooden townhouses left in the city, exploring every street and alleyway will present breathtaking architectural gems. If we could just take all the cars away, it would be as if we’d stepped back in time to the 19th century…
Contrary to its name, “Brooklyn Heights”, scarcely any buildings here have ever been higher than five stories, but it was the native Lenape people who named it so, being that the area was perched on elevated land by the river. They called the area Ihpetonga, meaning “the high sandy bank,” a moniker that was also adopted by early settlers. The district swiftly grew in popularity as an early, commuter’s suburb, and in the early 1800s, the rocky outcrop was already home to several farms and half a dozen families. When the Brooklyn Steam Ferry Boat Company began offering regularly scheduled crossings in 1814 to and from Lower Manhattan, many affluent New Yorkers moved across the East River.
Over six hundred new homes had sprung up by the Civil War, the high farm land overlooking the water proving a far healthier living environment. Much of Brooklyn Heights’ charm lies in the fact that almost all of them are still thriving, family homes.
Over on Pierrepont Street, you can get your historical bearings with a stop at the Brooklyn Historical Society, a beautiful library (often chosen for weddings) open to the public, along with its museum, Wednesdays to Saturdays from 1:00 – 5:00 pm.
Turn back up Pierrepont Street towards the river and find Willow Street. At number 151, you’ll find one of Arthur Miller’sfour Brooklyn residences, a beautifully preserved old carriage house. He lived here in the 50s until he left to marry Marilyn Monroe, and wrote ‘Death of a Salesman’ at 31, Grace Court, before moving over to Willow Street. Famous Brooklyn Heights residents over the years have included Truman Capote, Bob Dylan, W.H. Auden, Mary Tyler Moore, Walt Whitman and Thomas Wolfe and plenty more.
At number 70, Willow Street, you’ll see an eye-catching, pale yellow Greek Revival house. That’s where Truman Capote wrote ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s‘ and ‘In Cold Blood‘. Historians say there’s a tunnel that once ran underground from No. 159 to a nearby stable. You’ll find a glass skylight embedded in the pavement near No. 157. Remember this when we come to a certain church with an underground secret a few streets over, because the treasures of Brooklyn Heights don’t just lie above ground…
Hidden in the tunnels and crypts of Plymouth Church on Orange Street, awaits one of the city’s most remarkable secrets. Founded in 1847, this church has perhaps the most important history of any in Brooklyn. Among its collections is a piece of the original Plymouth Rock as well as the pew where Abraham Lincoln sat in his only visit to a New York church. But behind the organ, hidden at the bottom of the stairway lies what must have been one of the most dangerous and secret places in all of New York: a key stop on the Civil War’s legendary Underground Railroad.
“I will both shelter them (fugitive slaves), conceal them or speed their flight” once said the church’s preacher Henry Ward Beecher, an ardent abolitionist. “While under my shelter, or under my convoy, they shall be to me as my own flesh and blood.” Plymouth Church’s early history was dominated by its preacher, Henry Ward Beecher.
True to his word, escaping slaves landing in Brooklyn Heights at the East River, were hidden in tunnels and crypts underneath Plymouth Church, before they could be moved on northwards and to freedom. The costs of being caught hiding slaves were hazardous. Incredibly, these hiding places are still there and the church offers a fascinating tour of them.
Much of Brooklyn Height’s charm comes from having hardly any tall buildings. There is however one, large and quite spectacular building; the old Hotel St. George on Clark Street. Currently in use as student accommodation, in the early 1900s the Hotel St. George was the largest hotel in all of New York. It occupied an entire city block, and was home to the largest salt water swimming pool in America. Archival photographs show it to be also, one of the most beautiful. Today, the pool has sadly long gone, replaced with a modern gym. But remnants, including some lovely tile work can still be seen by those adventurous enough to look inside.
Can you believe there was a time when a so-called “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City, Robert Moses, plotted to tear down much of this historic district, to replace it with modern concrete buildings? Thankfully, in 1965, the entire neighbourhood became the first protected historic district in New York by the Landmarks Preservation Law.
In the mid-1950’s, a new generation of property owners had already began moving into the Heights, pioneering the Brownstone Revival, buying and renovating pre-civil war period houses. The consolidated opposition against Robert Moses’s clearance plan for luxury rental housing led to a veritable middle income movement known as the Cadman Plaza. Their story has created an especially neighbourly atmosphere that remains palpable even today.
After exploring this endlessly charming neighbourhood overlooking the Manhattan skyline, some refreshment is in order. You won’t find many commercial businesses throughout Brooklyn Heights’ residential streets, with almost all the shops being concentrated on Montague Street down its centre. But tucked away on the corner of Hicks and Cranberry Streets, we recommend the Jack the Horse Tavern, a cosy, neighbourhood spot, perfectly matched with its historic surroundings. There’s also a delightful, small oyster bar attached next door; a pretty ideal way to celebrate your discovery of Brooklyn Heights.