24 Hicks Street (circa 1808)

3-storied clapboarded frame house with attic; curb roof; arched dormer windows. Demolished early 1950s to make way for Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

24 Hicks Street was one of the first houses to have been built on the Heights once the old estates started to be broken up for development in the first decade of the 19th century. Located at the corner of the newly opened Poplar Street, one block up the hill from the Old Ferry Road, the Hicks brothers sold this lot in early 1807 to James Stephens, who quickly flipped it to Alexander Birkbeck later that fall.  Birkbeck built the house on the lot as early as when the spring building season began in 1808, because he is listed living at the property in the 1810 census and Longworth’s 1811 Brooklyn directory.

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Birkbeck was a blacksmith who manufactured iron chain cables for ships, originally in the rear of this lot and then later out of expanded shops in the rear of adjoining properties he purchased over the next several years. These workshops fronted the little lane behind the first block of Hicks Street (running south from Doughty Street to the eastern corner of the Ludlow estate). Before Poplar Street was opened through the Ludlow estate, this lane was a dead end and not much more than an alley, and simply called “Back Lane” at the time. In the 1820s, after the Ludlow estate was subdivided and Poplar Street extended, the name was changed to McKenney Lane after John McKenney, a coachmaker with a shop nearby on the Old Ferry Road. Still later, McKenney Lane was widened and the name changed to McKenney Street.

Birkbeck died before 1820; his son (also Alexander) continued the business.  Several blacksmiths living in the houses on Hicks Street, in front of the workshops on McKenney Lane, are noted in the 1820 census and the first village directory from 1822. The younger Birkbeck soon opened Brooklyn’s first iron foundry at a property he purchased along Water Street near Dock Street, down the hill and across the Old Ferry Road from his residence.

Later in the nineteenth century, the shops behind 24 Hicks Street and its neighbors (along McKenney Street) were torn down and replaced by apartment tenements. The upper floors of 24 Hicks Street became a boarding house and the ground floor was turned into retail, with a series of candy stores occupying the building for many years, as shown in pictures from the 1910s through 1930s. (A classified ad from the Brooklyn Eagle in 1910 advertises the sale of the candy store, noting its location opposite Public School 8 and guaranteeing a “good living for a family,” evidently the elementary school kids and their sweet-tooths a valuable demographic. In 1925, during Prohibition, the Eagle reported a fire that raged through 24 Hicks and the rear tenement building, requiring the evacuation of 50 residents, allegedly caused by an illegal still operating in the candy store.) The entire block was razed in the early 1950s to make way for the Fulton Street off-ramp from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. 24 Hicks Street stood where today the Poplar Street Community Garden sits.

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38 Hicks Street (circa 1810) and 40 Hicks Street (circa 1810)

These two houses, 38 Hicks Street and 40 Hicks Street, built very close in time together, are the oldest houses still standing on Brooklyn Heights (albeit with the “Roger Maris Award” for oldest-house-record-holder-with-an-asterisk going to 13 Pineapple Street, which was built earlier but at a different location down the hill, before being moved to its present location).

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Peter Van Cleef bought the lot for Number 38 from the Hicks brothers in 1810 and he appears in the census for that same year living at the property, as well as in Longworth’s 1811 directory. The same story applies to Number 40, with Michael Vanderhoof as the owner.   Both continue to appear in the first village directory from 1822 and subsequent directories at these houses.

Van Cleef is described in the directories as a cartman; Vanderhoof (sometimes rendered Vanderhoef) as either a cartman or waterman. Van Cleef is probably related to the “sisters Van Cleef” who according to Stiles ran a shop down the hill on the Old Ferry Road (perhaps their brother); they’re described as the daughters of “Old Rulof Van Cleef, the ferryman.”

The two houses, together with their owners, might have been regarded by contemporaries as completely typical and without special note, but as the oldest surviving examples in Brooklyn (and probably all of New York City) of laboring-class residences, they’ve come into their own as a special pair.

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As was typical for the early 19th century in Brooklyn, each house was almost certainly built with a gabled roof (ridge parallel to the street), and most likely just two stories tall.  (Carefully examine Francis Guy’s “Winter Scene in Brooklyn, 1820” which accurately represents the houses and streets around the ferry landing – not one flat-pitched roof in the bunch.) Given the shallow depth of each building, the roof would’ve been a single pitch and unlikely to have an attic tall enough to be suitable for anything other than storage. By the second half of the 19th century, “fire districts” outlawed the construction of new frame buildings across much of the city, but certain enlargements were still possible for grandfathered structures and it became fashionable to create one or more additional stories by raising the pitched roof, eliminating the attics and creating buildings that have essentially flat roofs. Number 38 ended up at four stories and Number 40 with three. Evidence for these original gabled roofs has been found in many of the frame houses in the Heights that have undergone renovations. The heavy bracketed cornice on Number 38 is a typical late 19th century style, added after the roof was raised; the smaller dentiled cornice on Number 40 is more in keeping with the early 19th century facade but is no less of a later alteration than its neighbor’s cornice.

40 Hicks Street presents a rare opportunity to peek through the front fence and look down the narrow alley between the two houses at the rear buildings on the lot. Many frame houses in the Heights had various rear sheds, workshops or back houses, sometimes attached at right angles like the frame rear house here (with its wooden porch), or sometimes detached (which is also present on this property in the form of the brick building). These rear-lot structures were accessed by side alleyways (such as is the case for Number 40) or sometimes by “horsewalks” – extremely narrow passages built right into the basement of the house allowing even a horse (supposedly) to walk directly from the street to stables or other rear-lot workshops.  Side alleys were quite typical for the early Brooklyn Heights houses, especially the wood-frame ones, because the owners would often run their businesses (cooper shops, blacksmith shops, etc.) on the same property.  But true horsewalk passages (as distinguished from side alleys) are rare on the Heights, being more associated with the Federal brick houses in Greenwich Village and other downtown areas of Manhattan.

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68 Hicks Street (circa 1818)

68 Hicks Street is another surviving frame house built before 1820.  Lucky many of the earliest houses in the north Heights, the original deed transferring ownership of the lot from the Hicks brothers was not recorded. The first mention of the lot in land records is a spring 1819 transfer to Elijah Raynor, for the relatively high sum of $1,000, which must have reflected the fact that the conveyance included both the lot “and the buildings thereon” (a fortunate notation in the documentary record, because normally the early land transfers did not definitively state whether or not a piece of property had already been improved). A transfer in that early season of 1819 implies that the house on this lot was built no later than 1818.

Elijah Raynor was a grocer who ran his original store, connected to a tavern, on Fulton Street, according to the 1822 village directory.  A certain Jacob Hubbs is shown operating a grocery at 68 Hicks Street in 1822, but presumably under contract to Raynor, who then shows up himself as the grocer of 68 Hicks Street in the 1825 directory.  A brother, Ezekiel Raynor, ran a grocery one corner down the hill on Hicks Street, at the corner of Middagh (in a wood-frame building, since replaced by a brick building, located at 46 Hicks Street).

The Dutch-style double-gabled roof is easily visible on this corner house, and like 24 Middagh Street, typifies the building form of many of the houses constructed in the first 10 to 15 years of development on the Heights.

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Happy 200th Birthday!

…to 38 Hicks Street and 40 Hicks Street…each built 200 years ago in 1810.  The oldest surviving houses in Brooklyn Heights!

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58 Hicks Street, as it appeared c.1940

58 Hicks Street tax photo c.1940

(Above is the “tax photo” of the house, taken around 1940 by the city’s finance department.  From The City of New York Municipal Archives.)

The wood-frame house at 58 Hicks Street was probably built in 1814.  There is no record of a deed transferring ownership to the property from Jacob Middagh Hicks and John Middagh Hicks after the brothers started subdividing their Brooklyn Heights farmland into lots in the first decade of the 19th century, but deeds to the lots on either side of the property were each granted in 1814.  The owner of one of those adjoining lots (Hugh Carlin) granted a mortgage in favor of Jacob Hicks on the 58 Hicks Street property in 1816 and therefore Carlin is assumed to be the property’s first owner, possibly buying it in 1814 along with his other lot but for whatever reason failing to record the deed.  The house on the other adjoining lot that was sold by the Hicks brothers in 1814 (now known as 60 Hicks Street) is believed to have been built  that same year based on various documentary evidence.  That house was recently discovered to have been built up against the original clapboard siding of 58 Hicks Street, indicating that 58 Hicks Street was built first, or not later than 1814.

Little is known about Hugh Carlin other than he was a cartman, according to 1820s Brooklyn village directories.  Carlin appears to have sold the house in 1820 to Michael  Trappal, a butcher and tanner who later became a prominent warehouse owner on Furman Street and importer of hides.  The 1820 federal census and the first Brooklyn village directory in 1822 show Trappal living in the house, but his tenure there was short.  From 1823 to 1864, the house was owned by Winant Johnson and his family.  Johnson was a blacksmith who likely operated his shop from an outbuilding in the rear of the property.  He was married to Hester Birkbeck, daughter of Alexander Birkbeck, who manufactured chain cables for ships out of a shop at the northwest corner of Hicks and Poplar Streets.  (Hester’s brother Alexander started Brooklyn’s first iron foundry on Water Street.)  From 1864 to 1921, the house was owned by Diedrich Sanneman and his family.  Sanneman, a founding member of the Society of Old Brooklynites, was a ship captain who built the brick townhouse next door (54 Hicks Street) in the 1850s. Sanneman’s son Jonathan lived at 58 Hicks Street for several years; at other times, the Sanneman family appears to have rented it out.  From 1923 to 1952, the house was owned by Fredericka Loew Coussirat, a divorced teacher who lived next door (60 Hicks Street) and rented out the house.  From 1953 to 1960, the house was owned by Conrad Ten Eyck Beardsley, a mining engineer who substantially renovated the facade and interior of the house.  From 1960 to 2007, the house was owned by Martin James, an art historian, professor of art at Brooklyn College, and former BHA governor.  Since 2007, the house has been owned by Jeremy Lechtzin and Amy Klein.

Old maps and blueprints, and examination of the framing and foundation uncovered during recent construction, show that the original building was 22 feet wide by 16 feet deep and two stories tall over a high brick basement, with a single-pitched roof.  (The mortise and tenon joints and hand-hewn beams of the wood frame structure corroborate the 1814 construction date suggested by documentary evidence.) The front door was on the first story and accessed by a wooden stoop laid out parallel to the sidewalk and street.  The building’s footprint, tiny even for the era, suggests it was built as a store or workshop and not as a house – there was only one room per floor, and the attic was too low to have been used for anything other than storage. An attached rear structure started out as a wood-frame lean-to just several feet deep, but has been altered several times, successively adding depth until it became as large as the front building.  The front and rear buildings are oriented perpendicular to one another, with a 4 foot alley located at the north of the front house originally leading to a wider side yard next to the narrower rear house.  The two buildings appear to have been connected by an interior passage almost from the beginning, which backs up evidence that the combined structure was converted to a residential use from a very early time, with commercial uses relegated to outbuildings on the property.  In the late 19th century, the attic was raised to a full third story by converting the pitched roof to flat, and soon thereafter an extension to the second and third stories of the front house was built over the alley.  In the 1950s, part of the basement was removed and the alley was widened by several feet to create a driveway into the side yard.  At the same time, the clapboard siding was replaced with asbestos shingles and the front facade composition was altered, including the removal of the front door and stoop in favor of a rear entry accessed through the driveway.  At present, the house is being renovated to restore many of the original front facade elements including clapboard siding, traditional window composition, and front entry with stoop.  The Belgian blocks that cover the driveway and rear yard are not original to the house, having been installed in the 1950s renovation; however, they have historical significance – they were salvaged from Fulton Street when the elevated train was demolished!

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Coming Very Soon!

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