Fifty years ago this past summer–on June 8, 1962–a group of 36 Brooklynites held a testimonial dinner in the house at 16 Willow Place to celebrate their accomplishment in giving to “the people of Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill a place for their individual and community projects and programs.” That place was 26 Willow Place where we are now gathered. Six months later–on December 16, 1962–what was called the Brooklyn Heights Community Building officially opened.
The hosts for the dinner were Arthur Hooker and his wife Joan, who next lived at 33 Willow Place. An attorney, he was a founder in 1953 of the Willowtown Association even as later in that decade he was part of the group that brought about in 1965 the designation of Brooklyn Heights as the city’s first historic district.
A notable Willow Place feature since 1876 was this lovely structure called the Willow Place Chapel. It was built by First Unitarian Church on Pierrepont Street to house the so-called “settlement school” the church began in 1865. The church bought the lot running through to Columbia Place from New York City’s Board of Education. The chapel was designed by an architect who belonged to the church, Holland C. Anthony of the Russell Sturgis architectural firm, and cost $20,000. Alfred T. White also belonged to the church and taught in the school. Once in its own building, the school that White now headed became a leader in preschool education. He also started settlement clubs for neighborhood children. In 1906 these activities could expand with the addition that came to be called Columbia House with its own entrance on Columbia Place. The addition also cost $20,000 and was paid for entirely by White and his sisters. The chapel was a very busy place also having an interdenominational ministry focused on immigrant families with a Sunday school and worship services on Sunday evenings.
White died tragically by drowning in an ice-skating accident in 1921 at age 74. Two years later the NYC Board of Education took over the school and in 1927 when First Unitarian Church ended the ministry here bought the building. The stained glass windows were removed and taken to the church on Pierrepont Street. The school continued to 1942. With the advent of World War II, the nearby waterfront was a beehive of activity with many workers and in-port sailors. The person to whom the city first leased the building ran a brothel in it from 1942 to 1947. The next leaseholder was a furniture manufacturer. In 1956 the city sold the building to the A.J. Burrows Metal Fabricating Co. Its work when here included the gilded aluminum bald eagle having a 35-foot wingspan by the sculptor Theodore Roszak on top of the American Embassy in London.
When the Burrows company moved elsewhere and put up for sale what had become an eyesore, the Willowtown Association in June of 1961 formed the Committee for a Community Building. Over the coming months the committee raised $82,000 toward the $125,000 cost to buy and renovate the structure and reclaim it as a neighborhood treasure. The committee members celebrated their success at that dinner at the Hookers. The center was set up as a separate nonprofit entity with its own board of directors. In 1967 the board named the center after A.T. White.
The Committee for a Community Building realized that it needed to be self-sustaining and came up with the scheme of having rent-paying tenants. The committee did not look far since at the very time both the Brooklyn Heights Community Nursery School and the Heights Players were seeking permanent homes. The nursery school was a parent cooperative founded in 1959 in rooms at First Unitarian Church. The Heights Players started in 1956 and initially had rehearsal and performance space at Plymouth Church on Orange Street. The next year First Unitarian also became the troupe’s home followed by the “65 Room” nightclub in the Bossert Hotel. The opening production here in January 1963 was “As You Like It.” The third tenant became the Roosa School of Music, a teachers’ cooperative. It was begun in 1940 by John King Roosa, a cellist and educator who ran the school until his retirement in 1955. It previously had crowded quarters above a store at 145 Montague Street.
Both those associated with the Nursery School and the Heights Players got involved in raising money for the center. This involvement continued in the first years with annual galas at which the Players performed.
The Heights Players troupe has been the mainstay among the tenants. In 1982 the Community Nursery School closed and was replaced by a preschool begun by Saint Ann’s School on Pierrepont Street. In 1989 the Roosa School was dissolved because of financial problems. Its replacement became Petr Kotik and his S.E.M. Ensemble, dedicated to the performance of contemporary classical music. The ensemble was already using the center for rehearsals.
Kotik, who is a composer and flutist, came to the United States from his native Prague in 1969 and began the ensemble the next year. He has been a resident of Park Slope in Brooklyn since 1973. He has just survived holding a major two-week festival, “Beyond Cage,” in the midst of Hurricane Sandy and the Noreaster. The festival marked the centennial of the birth of the American composer John Cage, who died two decades ago a month shy of 80.
Over these 50 years many people have had a hand in making the Alfred.T. White Center what we know today. Here are just a few:
+ Carolyn Lucretia Pile Davis Avins (she had three husbands) and Covington Hardee were the linchpins of the Committee for a Community Building and the honorees at the dinner at the Hookers 50 years ago. Lucretia was a community activist who lived at 15 Willow Place followed by 32 Willow Place, where she combined two co-op units on the top floor. She chaired the first board’s users committee and reportedly loved “to cook, eat, talk and sing, always in collaboration with others.” Her son John remembered “lots of long phone conversations and probably a few martinis.” Mr. Hardee of 14 Remsen Street was the board’s first president. An attorney who once taught at Harvard Law School, he was the CEO of the Lincoln Savings Bank of New York.
+ Gladys Underwood James, Underwood Typewriter Co. heiress of 2 Pierrepont Place, was an unsung Heights preservationist. Six months after the center opened, in order to make up the difference between what the community raised and the cost of the project and to provide a necessary operating budget, she signed on as one of the seven neighbors who guaranteed with their assets a $50,000 bank loan. She was born and grew up in Brooklyn but in her marriage with a family of five children lived on Long Island. In 1948 she moved to the Heights where she had a critical role in blocking developers and contractors greedily eyeing property here prior to our becoming a historic district.
+ Joe and Mary Merz, architects of 48 Willow Place and also beneficiaries of the generosity of Gladys James, were present at the dinner at the Hookers 50 years ago. From the beginning they had a hand in the improvements made here. They designed the seating walls and landscaping in the front.
+ Gary Vander Putten of 28 Old Fulton Street has been the president of the center’s board and the treasurer since 1998, bringing peace and order to what he found was a contentious and chaotic situation. Among problems he resolved was a $175,000 water bill, $100,000 of which was finance charges. His association with the center came about through his wife Jan and her being a member of the Heights Players. Gary is an independent management consultant for the banking sector. His oversight of the center, he says, has been “a most rewarding form of community service.”
+ And Noel Collado. For 27 years he has given loving care to the center and each morning welcomed the preschoolers and their parents and in the afternoon seen them off. The Willowtown Association is pleased to make Noel, a native of Puerto Rico, the 2012 recipient of our Alfred Award for his faithful stewardship that extends into the neighborhood.
A program printed for that testimonial dinner in 1962 had on the cover a verse by the 14th-century English poet Geoffrey Chaucer. I have translated the old English as, “He that nothing gives, nothing achieves.” Those who are part of the story of the A.T. White Center certainly practiced this verse. Let us go and do likewise.