TOGETHER! Annual Potluck Dinner & 2010 Annual Meeting of the Willowtown Association

Wednesday, November 17Alfred T. White Community Center on Willow Place

6:30 - Happy Hour - Complimentary wine & hors d’oeuvres 7:30 - Dinner - Bring a favorite dish to share 8:30 - Annual Meeting - Election of 2011 board of directors

Featured guest speaker - Assemblywoman Joan Millman Presentation of the association’s first Alfred Awards

Any Willowtown resident can make nominations for the association’s 12-member board made up of the president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and eight directors.

Nominations are to be submitted by Monday, November 1, to the secretary–Stephanie Zancolli,, or 21 State Street, Brooklyn NY 11201.  For each nominee please include (1) name and for which board position, (2) address, (3) hometown, (4) how long a Willowtown resident, and (5) occupation.

Role Models for All Seasons

The following talk was given by historic preservationist Otis Pratt Pearsall at the rally opening the 2010 Spring Fair of the Willowtown Association on Saturday, May 15:

Otis Pearsal speaks about Joe and May Merz

I ask you, what could be finer on this gorgeous day than to be right here in beautiful Willowtown–this wellspring of preservation where the fervor is still palpable, thank God–to celebrate Mary and Joe Merz, my preservationist running mates of literally 50 years, who in various combinations together and with others have done it all.

In sum, what they’ve done is no less than secure amidst the swirling turbulence of New York this tranquil node of sheer architectural beauty that as a living, breathing, vibrant community is just about as perfect as it gets, anywhere. How’s that for a legacy!

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the early contributions of other Willowtowners, such as Malcolm Chesney of 8 Willow Place, one of the organizers and treasurer of CCIC, the Community Conservation and Improvement Council, which kicked off the whole movement; Arthur Hooker, the first head of our statutory drafting effort, who lived just beyond the powerhouse; and Joe Maggio of 11 Willow Place.

By 1960 Joe had assumed his place as a member of the Brooklyn Height Association’s Preservation Committee. He and Mary, both graduates of Edward Larrabee Barnes’ architectural office, were just setting up their own practice in their carriage house home on Grace Court. And it wouldn’t be long before Mary and Joe, as natural-born idealists bent on neighborhood improvement and not al all as money-grabbing developers, began eyeing the empty lots on a very fragile Willow Place.

But meanwhile, the Heights had a problem. Four years after attempting to jump-start preservation for the very first time in New York, its initiative was stymied and appeared likely to remain so while unsympathetic renovations hostile to the neighborhood’s historic fabric accelerated along with its popularity. Something had to be done to hold the fort. And so, when the BHA in 1962 sponsored establishment of the Design Advisory Council to provide free architectural guidance to property owners, Joe and a tiny band of colleagues volunteered and over the next five years worked unceasingly in more than 100 separate cases to safeguard our architectural heritage.

This was an absolutely invaluable service to the cause of preservation, now, of course, lost in the mists of time. But fate had in store for Mary and Joe a singular preservation contribution more important by magnitudes–the rescue of Willow Place and, by extension, the rescue of Willowtown, which was then under the baleful eye of the Housing and Redevelopment Board and facing the imminent threat of a fateful "Urban Renewal Study."

I hope that Mary and Joe will write up and document the dramatic story of how, along with another former Edward Larrabee Barnes colleague, they were able to purchase the vacant lots on Willow Place at city auction and with help along the way from Mrs. Darwin James to complete in 1965 their meticulously scaled, award-winning houses in a startlingly appropriate modern idiom.

Willow Place was already an architecturally conspicuous block, boasting multiple houses on the Municipal Art Society’s 1957 listing of buildings that should be preserved. But construction of the Merz houses, with far less bulk than zoning allowed, and handsomely designed for their specific sites, was the crucial vote of confidence.

And what’s more, their Modernist idiom directly inspired the BHA philosophy, welcomed by the early landmarks commissions, that continues contributing to the treasure trove of Heights architecture–each new building should represent the finest architecture contemporary with its date of construction. So it was that the influence of the Merz houses was specifically responsible for the Modernist architecture of the first new building in an historic district, Ulrich Franzen’s well-received Watchtower building at the corner of Pineapple Street and Columbia Heights.

While, of course, all of this took place quite some time ago, Mary and Joe are hardly ones (unlike some today) to take the ongoing preservation of our historic architecture for granted. Far from complacent, they have recognized all along that vigilance and the community’s tenacious readiness to push back, not a gentle reliance on big brother, is the only practical way to defend the integrity of our historic district. And so, at the sound of the bugle, they spring to the barricades, just as comfortable, for example, defending the Candy factory sculpture garden in the northeast corner of the Heights as rising to the defense of the Riverside courtyard here at home.

Mary and Joe are indeed role models for all seasons, and we are both humbled and inspired by their example.

Annual Willowtown Spring Fair

Join us this Saturday, May 15th for our annual spring fair dedicated to Willowtown visionaires Joe & Mary Merz for 50 years of serving our community.

FAIR SCHEDULE 11:30 - Opening rally at Joralemon & Willow Place
12 to 5 - Food by Iris Café, flea market tables, silent auction, book table, plants, standing games
12 to 4 - Jumpy Castle
12:30 to 3:30 - Caricatures
1 & 1:30 - Sneak preview tours of Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park
1 to 3 - Pony rides
1 to 4 - Music by Johnny Sheppard & Billy Swing
1 to 4 - Face painting
2:30 to 3:30 - Running, potato sack and three-legged races with medals
4:30 - Raffle drawing & close of silent auction

Borough President Markowitz Designates Willowtown Association Celebration Day

Following is the text of a proclamation issued by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz: Whereas, it is a time-honored Brooklyn tradition to recognize those outstanding individuals and organizations dedicated to the betterment of the neighborhoods they serve and the great Borough of Brooklyn; and

Whereas, President Craig Bickerstaff and the officers and members of the Willowtown Association–a 56-year-old neighborhood-based organization whose mission is to address the issues that impact the quality of life for residents–have gathered to once again host a spring fair to take note of the organization’s ongoing efforts to ensure the economic vitality, safety, maintenance and sense of community in southwest Brooklyn, and featuring entertainment, food and fun, all in support of the organization’s ongoing endeavors; and

Whereas, on behalf of all Brooklynites, I salute President Craig Bickerstaff, spring fair Coordinator Ben Bankson and Linda De Rosa, the officers and members of the Willowtown Association as they host this festive and exciting event that pays tribute to the ‘great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self,’ Alfred T. White, on the 120th anniversary of the construction of his progressive Riverside Houses, I commend them for their ongoing dedication to improving the quality of life for so many of our residents, and I thank all those present for helping to make Brooklyn a better place to live, work and raise a family.

Now, therefore, I, Marty Markowitz, President of the Borough of Brooklyn, do hereby proclaim Saturday, May 16, 2009, Willowtown Association Celebration Day in Brooklyn, USA."

Feasible Ideas and Ideals for Our Time

The following talk about Willowtown’s "saint," Alfred T. White, 1846-1921, was given by Bradley Smith, a resident of White’s progressive Riverside Apartments in Willowtown for nearly 50 years, at a rally opening Willowtown’s annual spring fair May 16, 2009. My friends, we are here today to honor Alfred Tredway White and to take a look at his life and legacy.

What was the world like when Alfred White was born in 1846? Our United States was scarcely 60 years old. Still America offered the prospect of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the poverty stricken and to the persecuted. In the cities of Brooklyn and New York entrepreneurs were pursuing their particular brand of happiness with a vengeance. The rich got richer, while the poor....

Well, the Whites were rich. Alfred White’s childhood home, a palatial mansion, still stands at No. 2 Pierrepont Place in Brooklyn Heights.

There were those individuals and families like the Whites who firmly believed that with wealth comes responsibility. These Unitarians took to heart the biblical admonition that from those to whom much is given, much is required.

We’ll only mention in passing White’s work with the Children’s Aid Society, the Brooklyn Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We’ll also only mention in passing White’s putting up the Willow Place Chapel in 1876 and its Columbia House addition in 1906.

We will focus on White’s pioneering work in the field of housing for the working poor. There were settlement houses, settlement schools, sanitariums and hospitals set up specifically for the poor. The poor desperately needed some sort of schooling and training for some sort of work, some place to live and some place to die. And die they did–of cholera, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and yellow fever.

The filthy, feckless poor were crammed together in filthy, rate-infested tenements. We do well to recall that it was not until 1901 that a New York City law was passed mandating one indoor water closet for every two families in any given tenement building. The constitutionality of this law was questioned by unscrupulous building owners who insisted they were entitled to a minimum 40 percent return on their investments. Hopefully they could collect an exorbitant 100 percent return or even more to be squeezed out of the unfortunate, unwashed, unworthy, underclass tenants.

But Alfred T. White, buttressed by his firm religious convictions and his direct contacts with the hard-working, hard-pressed poor, realized there simply had to be decent housing provided for them.

There were model tenements in London, England. White reasoned that there could and should also be model tenements in Brooklyn. White invested his own money, anticipating a reasonable return of 5 percent–philanthropy plus 5 percent.

In 1877 White’s Home Buildings opened in Cobble Hill. In 1878 and 1879 White’s Tower Buildings were erected, also in Cobble Hill. And in 1890 White’s Riverside Buildings were completed in Brooklyn Heights. Philanthropy plus 5 percent proved entirely feasible.

These sturdy brick buildings had outside, fireproof staircases. Inside each apartment had its own sink, its own wash tray and its own water closet. And the innovative idea that sunlight, fresh air, green trees and park space should be incorporated into the very fabric of tenements was nothing short of shocking to some.

More than 100 years later we all realize the tremendous importance of sensible civic planning–planning for affordable public as well as private housing, housing projects with park space and playgrounds, such as were pioneered by Alfred T. White.

Today we ask ourselves how in our time we can preserve and promote the ideas and ideals initiated in his time by Alfred T. White.

2009 Willowtown Annual Spring Fair Announced!

The Willowtown annual street fair has been announced and will take place on Saturday May 16th. The fair will be dedicated to the "great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self," Alfred T. White. This is the 120th anniversary of the construction of his progressive Riverside Houses on Columbia Place. We’ll hear about his impact on our neighborhood at an opening rally at noon and the dedication to him of a tree in Riverside’s historic garden. Willowtown Spring Fair 2009