WILLOWTOWN WALKING TOUR GUIDE

The following walking tour by Camilla Flemming, who with her family lived at 51 Joralemon Street for nearly 50 years, and Benjamin Bankson, a resident of 14 Willow Place since 1975, is based on their own research and information gathered from other Willowtown residents.  

The area of Brooklyn that includes Willowtown was initially inhabited by Canarsie Indians, who spoke Algonquin.  They called the area “Ihpetonga,” meaning “long, sandy bank.”  Forty acres of the area became the country estate of Philip Livingston, 1716-78, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  The start in 1836 of ferry service from South Ferry in Manhattan to the foot of Atlantic Avenue spurred what presently exists.  Most of the houses are of the Greek Revival architectural style and were built in groups of two, three or more in the 1840s and 1850s.  The groups often had continuous brick facades.  Most of the apartment buildings are from the Civil War era and later.    

Teunis Joralemon, 1760-1840, a prominent attorney and judge from an old Dutch family, acquired part of the Livingston property including the Livingstons’ house on Hicks Street in 1804.  The next year the road running at an angle along the property’s northern boundary from the East River to Red Hook Lane just beyond Adams Street became known as Joralemon’s Lane.  One historian called it a “wretched, narrow country road.”  Mr. Joralemon regularly took boatloads of vegetables and milk from his farm to a market in Manhattan.  Brooklyn designated the lane a street in 1842. 

Begin the walk at the intersection of Willow Place and Joralemon.

+ The Belgium block surface of Joralemon is one of the few such surviving streets in New York.  The tunnel for the 4 and 5 subway lines runs under Joralemon.  It was constructed in 1904 by a then private company, the Interborough Rapid Transit or IRT.  The tunnel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  It is one of the few such sites that is not a building.  Pairs of the houses stairstep down the hill, each pair 30 inches lower.  Some of the houses’ third-floor windows have been enlarged.

Look directly across Joralemon and to the left.

+ 57, 55, 53 and 45 Joralemon Street were all formerly owned by one of Willowtown’s more eccentric residents, the late Abram O. Jarber, a plumber.  He put the name, “Cozy Nook,” over the doorway to 57, which had lost its stoop, and replaced the cornices at the top of his houses with massive parapets.  He wanted to turn the houses into a “hospital for bruised heels,” a phrase he took from the Bible.  The present owner of 53 had three small windows put in the parapet and restored the cornice at a higher elevation.  

Turn left and walk down the south side of Joralemon.

+ 44, 42 and 40 Joralemon Street are three of Willowtown’s 12 smaller brick and/or clapboarded houses.  This row was the setting for the 2004 psychological thriller, “The Forgotten,” starring Julianne Moore.  The character she played and her family lived at 42.

+ 36 Joralemon Street, among Willowtown’s new contemporary houses, is on the site of a bar that was open for longshoremen from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m.  After the nearby docks ceased to function in the 1960s, the former one-story building was a series of restaurants, the last being Bistro 36.  The restaurant and its surround were used in another of the films set in Willowtown--Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” of 1994.  The contemporary house and its twin at 5 Columbia Place were designed by Manhattan architect Alex Compagno.  The rooftops contain gardens.

Cross to the north side of Joralemon and walk to the left to the end of the block.

+ 25 Joralemon Street was the New York City Fire Department’s former main high-pressure pumping station opened in 1908.  The station pumped both salt water from the East River and fresh water from city mains to fight fires in tall buildings.  One section was lost to the construction in the late 1940s of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway just to the west of it.  The station was phased out in 1954 following the introduction of fire engine super pumpers.  It sat empty until the late 1970s when converted into a six-family co-op called the Heights Mews.

An 1816 map of the then village of Brooklyn shows that the East River came up to this point and that a brewery dating from the second half of the 18th century stood just to the south on the shoreline.  The Joralemons controlled the beach but were generous in letting villagers go fishing there.

The brewery was owned by Philip Livingston and later sold to Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, 1768-1838, who played a key role in Brooklyn’s development.  Pierrepont converted the brewery to a distillery that made his “Anchor” brand gin.  He sold the distillery in 1819.  Such industries as a spermaceti candle factory and a sugar refinery subsequently operated there. 

Continue west and at the green light cross Furman Street, the western boundary of Willowtown.

+ 334 Furman Street to the right and 360 Furman to the left, also now known as One Brooklyn Bridge Park, were built respectively in 1917 and 1928 by the New York Dock Company.  They were two of the company’s massive loft buildings, warehouses and railway sheds that stretched for two and a-half miles along the then completely industrial Brooklyn waterfront.  No. 334 now houses the offices of the not-yet-complete Brooklyn Bridge Park going from Atlantic Avenue north just beyond the Manhattan Bridge.  The latest incarnation of No. 360 is as a luxury condo.

At the waterfront end of Joralemon Street is the park’s Pier 5.  It has been transformed into three recreation fields covered in artificial turf and has a continuous esplanade around the perimeter for strolling and fishing.  The concession stand there operates on weekends from the spring through the fall.  A picnic peninsula extends to the north.  Also just to the north is the remnant of Pier 4 turned into a protected habitat preserve called Bird Island and adjoined on the upland by a beach and landscaped, manmade, sound-attenuating berm.  Another such berm is coming to the area west and north of 334 Furman.

Cross back across Furman to the south side of Joralemon.

+ The Riverside Houses at 24 and 32 Joralemon Street and 10, 20 and 30 Columbia Place were built in 1889-90 on the site of the brewery/distillery.  Considered “a masterpiece of late Victorian design,” they are an early model of better housing for the urban poor.  The original U-shaped, nine-unit complex had 280 two- to four-room apartments and 19 stores.  In 1890 the rent was $8-$11 a month.  Bathing was communal in the basement.  The bathrooms, a first for a tenement, were described as “nicely fitted up.”  The courtyard’s amenities included a bandstand where concerts were held on weekends, a children’s playground and a fountain.  The west section along Furman Street was lost to the BQE.  However, the courtyard with some fine old trees remains largely intact although neglected by the landlord.  Archaeological remains of the early industries on the site may well be preserved under the garden.

Alfred T. White, 1846-1921, known as “the great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self” and a lifelong resident of Brooklyn Heights, was the figure behind the construction of the Riverside Houses.  He was a founder and major benefactor of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Heights Association, among his many other interests.

Before continuing, walk into the Riverside Houses garden at the entrance next to the BQE to take a look and then circle back to Joralemon and Columbia Place.

+ Apt. E-148 at 24 Joralemon Street was the home of the novelist Raymond Kennedy until his death in February 2008 at age 73.  The latest of his eight novels was “The Romance of Eleanor Gray.”  The New York Times in an obituary noted that “his books were characterized by their bleak settings; baroque, boisterous prose; and grotesquely comic characters, notably the larger-than-life women who charged through his fictional universe like out-of-control trains.”  

+ River Deli at the corner of Joralemon and Columbia Place is a popular Italian restaurant opened in 2010.  The young owners, who are Riverside residents, chose to retain the name of what in recent years was a deli.  Previously in the space was a small department store dating from 1920 that sold, as it advertised, “men’s, ladies’ and children’s wear.”

+ A second-floor apartment at 10 Columbia Place was once the home of another Willowtown eccentric known as “Superman.”  He was a veteran of the Vietnam War exposed to the herbicidal “Agent Orange” chemical used in the war.  When drunk, he would dive out of his open window onto the street—and amazingly come out OK.

Cross to the east side of Columbia Place and walk to the end of the block .  

+ 7, 9, 11 and 13 Columbia Place are survivors of nine such houses known as “Cottage Row” and distinguished for their shallow porches. According to Brooklyn directories from the 1840s, the first residents were, respectively, a painter, a ferry pilot, a milkman and a fur merchant.  All four have been extensively changed inside.

+ The four-part, four-story tenement at 15, 17, 19 and 21 Columbia Place dating from the 1880s replaced the other five cottages.  Each part has eight apartments.  The ground-floor spaces were formerly all businesses.  The small department store once across the street at the corner of Joralemon first opened for business at this location.

+ 25 and 27 Columbia Place was called Chapel House when built in 1905 to provide more space for the school in the former Willow Place Chapel to which it was connected.  The cost, $20,000, was paid in total by Alfred T. White and his sisters.  Christened Columbia House a decade later, the addition also served as a clubhouse for the children who lived in the Riverside Houses.  In the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 it became a call center for medical help, food and other relief.  One of the epidemic’s victims was White’s daughter Katharine Van Sinderen.  The Roosa School of Music, founded as a teacher cooperative in Brooklyn Heights in 1940, made its home here in 1963 when the chapel had become the A.T. White Community Center.  When the school was dissolved in 1989 because of financial problems, its replacement became the S.E.M. Ensemble that was already using the center for rehearsals.

+ Even though it looks like a garage, 39 Columbia Place is actually a private residence that two previous occupants, both artists, developed as a studio.  One was Christian Thee, a leading practitioner of the trompe l’oeil style of painting—literally “deceiving the eye.”  He is also a stage designer and author of such books as “Behind the Curtain.”  In 1981 he was commissioned to paint a portrait of Prince Andrew, Duke of York, on the occasion of his 21st birthday.  The other artist was a sculptor.

+ 47 Columbia Place is the second of the three contemporary houses on the block.  It was built in 1998.  Its core is actually the one-story machine shop previously on the site.  The architect was Joseph Eisner of Manhattan.  The new façade is of brick and panelized glass.  In the rear is a spectacular walled-in garden featuring a waterfall that cascade down a three-tiered landscape.

+ The Willowtown Community Garden toward the southwest end of the block is overseen by the Willowtown Association.  It and the adjoining dog run came about when what was called the Atlantic Playground was redesigned and rebuilt in 1999 by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

+ Where Columbia Place meets State Street was once filled with houses on Columbia Plalce that went through to Atlantic Avenue and on State Street through to the waterfront docks.  Formerly on the four corners here were a grocery store, a saloon, a fruit store and a vegetable store.  All the structures were demolished for the BQE.  In 1947 the cleared area opened as the Atlantic Playground.  When redeveloped in ’99, the parks commissioner at the time renamed it the Palmetto Playground.  His rationale was that the palmetto is the official tree of a “State” that borders on the “Atlantic” whose capital is “Columbia”–the names of the three bordering streets.  In 2013 the playground was renamed Adam Yauch Park for the hip-hop pioneer of the influential band, the Beastie Boys.  Adam grew up on State Street and used to play basketball here.  He died in May 2012 at age 47.

+ The park is on the site of the South Ferry Flint Glass Works founded in 1823 and later called the Brooklyn Flint Glass Works.  Rebuilt after being destroyed by a fire in 1866, the company relocated only two years later upstate to Corning, N.Y.  It was renamed Corning Glass Works for the city and became widely known for its high quality products.

Walk through Adam Yauch Park to Atlantic Avenue and then left to Hicks Street.

 + Montero Bar and Grill at 73 Atlantic Avenue is the last remnant of 50 years ago when bars and restaurants lined both sides of the avenue and this corner of Willowtown was all Spanish. Montero’s is more or less as it was when it opened in 1947 and is still run by a member of the Montero family.  The inside is decorated with ship models and paintings of Spain.

Turn left onto to Hicks Street and walk to Joralemon.

+ 324 and 322 Hicks Street, a recently completed six-family condo, is distinguished by its V-shaped facade and triangular bay windows that were intended by the architect, Nikolai Katz, to echo the proportions of facades typical of the neighborhood but especially the row, 315 to 303 Hicks.

+ 314 Hicks Street is a brand new brownstone completed in 2013 on one of the last empty lots in Willowtown.  The Manhattan architectural firm, Gordon Kahn & Associates, designed this 4,500-square-foot, single-family house to look like it had always been there.  As the brass plaque on the side wall state, it was inspired by “the simple elegance of Brooklyn Heights early Greek Revival houses.”

+ 290 Hicks Street was where the Lebanese-American philosophical poet, writer and artist Khalil Gibran, 1883-1931, lived when he wrote his best-known work, “The Prophet,” composed of 26 poetic essays.  The book has been translated into more than 20 languages.  In September 2007 New York City opened a new public academy on Dean Street near Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn named after him.  The academy has an international theme and includes the study of the Arabic language.   

+ Originally on the lot on the east side of the street, the address being 295 Hicks Street,   was a house bought in 1902 for the start of a Lebanese Maronite Catholic church called Our Lady of Lebanon.  The name is a title for St. Mary the Virgin used in Lebanon.  The church constructed a one-story worship facility on the next lot to the south that was empty.  The church also used the facilities for a parochial school named St. Mary’s.  Following 1944, when the Maronites bought the former Church of the Pilgrims at Remsen and Henry streets and relocated there, the Hicks Street facilities were demolished.  Formerly owned by Catholic Charities, the lot was used for parking until late in 2012 when a developer bought it at an auction.  Three single-family, four-story townhouses also designed by architect Nikolai Katz are to be built there. 

+ The winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Rudolph A. Marcus, lived at 286 Hicks Street during 1958-64 when he was on the faculty of the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.  He received the Nobel for the “Marcus theory” of electron transfer, doing most of this research whenin this brownstone.  He has been at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena since 1978.

+ 293 and 291 Hicks Street on the east side and 284, 282, 280, 278 and 276 Hicks Street on the west side are seven of a cluster of a dozen carriage houses built in Willowtown between 1870 and 1887.  All but two survive as private residences.  The five on the west side are backed up by three on Willow Place.  The three-story No. 282 was the home of the American painter Albert J. Pucci, 1920-2005, who did striking still lifes, landscapes and portraiture.  His widow Gora continues to live there.  No. 278 was the former carriage house of Alfred T. White.  No. 276 was the former studio of William Zorach, 1887-1966, a Lithuanian-American sculptor, painter and watercolorist.  His wife Marguerite Thompson, 1887-1968, was also an artist.  The head of a woman on the dormer was placed there by Zorach.    

+ Engine Co. 224 of the New York City Fire Department was built in 1903 with Renaissance Revival details and copper dormers.  The building is a favorite of neighborhood children and visitors.  The company went to the World Trade Center on 9/11/01 but thankfully suffered no loss of personnel.

+ Early in the 1900s the two brownstones at 283 and 281 Hicks Street became St. Christopher’s Hospital for Babies.  Alfred T. White was also a benefactor of this institution to the tune of $30,000.  Originally at 277 Hicks Street stood the two lost carriage houses. They were demolished in 1916 for a new building for the hospital.  No. 275 served as the nurses’ quarters.  In 1923 St. Christopher’s was transferred to the Brooklyn Hospital at DeKalb and Flatbush avenues.  The Hicks Street facilities then became St. Charles Orthopedic Hospital, a Roman Catholic institution that closed in the 1980s.  Then the present 277 and 275 were redeveloped together as an 18-unit co-op. 

The house of the Livingstons that the Joralemons bought was located approximately at No. 277.  Following the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776, and the defeat by the British of the Continental Army under George Washington, he and his officers met in this house to decide to evacuate across the East River to Manhattan.  The victorious British used the house as a hospital.  The next street to the east, Garden Place, was named for the fact that the garden behind the house extended to that point.  The original structure wasdestroyed by a fire in the 1840s.

+ The row of houses from 272 through 262 Hicks Street was built in 1887 in the short-lived, busy Queen Anne style by Mrs. Harriet Packer, 1820-92.  Her husband William Satterlee Packer, who made a fortune in the fur trading business and died in 1850 at age 49, founded in 1845 the Brooklyn Female Academy on Joralemon Street eventually renamed the Packer Collegiate Institute.  Mrs. Packer used some of her fortune to rebuild the school when it burned to the ground in 1853. 

+ 273 Hicks Street is the example of a house for which the stoop, entrance and parlor windows were recently restored to their original form.  Like that of a number of other houses in Willowtown, No. 273 suffered the removal of the stoop, the replacement of the entrance on the first floor by a window, the shortening of the other two windows and the entrance lowered to the basement. 

+ The front of 260 Hicks Street on the northwest corner at Joralemon originally faced Joralemon.  The house was enlarged at the same time as Mrs. Packer built her row and a new facade done on Hicks having Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival details, including a bay window on the corner and a scroll pediment doorway supported by clustered colonnettes.  The recent removal of the paint from the brick facade and its pointing clearly reveals the addition of the top floor to the original house.

At Joralemon turn left and walk down the hill.

+ 75, 73 and 71 Joralemon Street on the north side were necessarily given new brick facing and metal bracketed cornices because of the construction of the subway tunnel under the street.  The longtime former resident of No. 71, Pearl Bowser, was a filmmaker who collected historical and contemporary films documenting black film history.  Her collection has become part of the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.  The interiors of both Nos. 73 and 71 have recently undergone major renovations.

+ 63 Joralemon Street also on the north side was the home for 14 years until recently of the American biographer Ron Chernow, born in Brooklyn in 1949.  He was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography for his “George Washington:  A Life.”  Other works by him are “the House of Morgan:  An American Banking Dynasty and the Rise of Modern Finance,” “The Warburgs,” “Titan:  The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr.” and “Alexander Hamilton.”

+ 62 Joralemon Street was built in 1890 as a gymnasium and reading room serving boys of the neighborhood by William Gilman Low, whose family’s wealth came from the importing of silk and tea from China.  His uncle, Seth Low, was mayor in 1881-85 of the still separate Brooklyn and mayor in 1902-03 of the consolidated New York City.  Next the building was the South Brooklyn Settlement House until 1970, the Brooklyn Central Branch of the YMCA of Greater New York until 1985, and a redeveloped four-family co-op since.    

+ 58 Joralemon Street has been described as “the world’s only Greek Revival subway ventilator,” a former private house from 1847.  It contains an emergency evacuation stairway for the subway below and is guarded full-time when the national threat advisory is at the higher levels.   

At the corner of Willow Place turn left and walk down the east side of the block to the end. 

+ 15 Willow Place has a casting just behind the hedge of a girl on a dog’s back by the sculptor William Zorach.  His son Tessim, 1919-95, who oversawthe donation of his parents’ works to many American museums and to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, formerly lived in the house. A journalist couple–Seth Lipsky, who was editor-in-chief of the former New York Sun, and Amity Shlaes, a best-selling author and senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute—are the latest residents.

+ 17, 19 & 21 Willow Place complete the group of Willowtown’s former carriage houses. Around 1920 the three were converted into commercial garages and apartments.  In the 1930s the second floor of No. 17 was a club that could hold up to 50 people.  Among the tenants of the apartment at No. 19 was the actor Malcolm Jamal Warner, who at the time was playing the son Theo in the Huxtable family of the TV sitcom “The Cosby Show.”  All three houses have been redeveloped as grand single-family residences

+ After more than four decades of being unoccupied and neglected, 25 Willow Place was finally sold in 2009 by descendants of the last residents.  The new owner, Jonathan Marvel, is an architect who completed a major renovation the next year.  His projects include the 1 Hotel and Pierhouse condos in Brooklyn Bridge Park.     

+ Transforming Power Substation 21 of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was built in 1908 in conjunction with the start of subway service to Brooklyn.  It was the first of an eventual 75 substations that converted alternating current to the 600-volt direct current needed to power the subway.  It used to be manned around the clock, but this became unnecessary with the introduction of silicon rectifier substations controlled electronically from a central command station.

+ 43, 45, 47 and 49 Willow Place are known as “Colonnade Row” for their unique continuous portico of tall wooden columns.  The interiors of all but one have undergone extensive renovations in recent years.  The resident of No. 43, Mary Ricciardi, a widow in her 90s, has lived her entire life in Willowtown.  She was born in the Riverside Houses and next lived in a house on Furman Street.  Its being razed for the BQE brought about her move to No. 43. 

+ 51 Willow Place was once a Spanish-American grocery store and then the home of the French mime Claude Kipnis, 1938-1981, founder of a mime company and author of “The Mime Book.” His son Joel continues to own the house but is an absentee landlord.

+ The parking garage at the intersection of Willow Place and State Street was originally the powerhouse for the Brooklyn Heights Railroad.  From 1891 until 1909 it operated a cable line that ran on Montague Street between the Wall Street ferry landing on the East River and Brooklyn’s Borough Hall on Court Street.  The cable reached Montague by a long blind conduit on Hicks Street.  The line continued to operate using electricity from 1909 to 1924.   

Cross to the west side of the block and return to Joralemon and the end of the tour.

+ 48, 44 & 40 Willow Place are Willowtown’s oldest modern houses.  Designed by Joe Merz and his late wife Mary, both architects, the cement-block houses replaced the original structures taken over and torn down by the city and the lots put up for auction.  The new houses were praised for “giving new life to Willow Place while respecting the nature and scale of the older Heights.”  The attorney Leonard Garment, 1924-2013, who served in Washington as President Nixon’s special counsel, and his family were the first residents of the largest of the three, No. 40.  His book, “In Search of Deep Throat: The Greatest Political Mystery of Our Time,” was published in 2000.  A recent renovation included the addition of a glass atrium and garden on the roof.  The Merz family has lived at No. 48 since its completion in 1965.

+ 46 Willow Place is one of two survivors of four that mirrored the “Colonnade Row” across the street.  The other survivor is not easily recognized because of the addition of a modern front. Can you guess the house?  It’s No. 42.

+ 30 & 32 Willow Place was a two-part tenement put up in the 1890s as residential falts having crown moldings, pocket sliding doors and shafts for dumbwaiters and interior ventilation.  Since 1962 the building has been a 15-unit co-op.  The steel sliding fence in front of the co-op’s adjoining parking lot was designed by Joe and Mary Merz.

+ 26 Willow Place honors Alfred T. White in its name, the A.T. White Community Center. Dating from 1876, the center was originally a chapel of the First Unitarian Church on Pierrepont Street at Monroe Place.  Its architect, Holland C. Anthony, was a member of the church as was White.  He founded and was the superintendent of a kindergarten there.  The chapel was also used for an interdenominational ministry focused on immigrant families with a Sunday school and worship services Sunday evenings.  During 1928-42 the building was a public school whose students included Mary Ricciardi of 43 Willow Place.  For the remaining years of World War II when the waterfront was teeming with port workers and sailors, it was a brothel; during 1947-56, a furniture factory; and after 1956, a metal fabricating shop.  During 1961-62 residents of Willowtown and greater Brooklyn Heights raised the funds needed to purchase and renovate the building as a community center.  Principal users are the Heights Players, the St. Ann’s Preschool and the S.E.M. Ensemble. 

+ 24, 22, 20, 18 & 16 Willow Place complete Willowtown’s group of smaller houses.

+ 8, 6, 4 & 2 Willow Place are unique to Willowtown for their Gothic Revival architectural style, their coupled entrance porches with clustered colonnettes supporting Tudor arches, their diamond-paned transoms and side lights, and their vertical recessed “Davisean” panels unifying the second- and third-story windows.  Because of the angle of Joralemon Street, No. 2 is narrower at the back.