Cobble Hill has undergone an incredible transformation. Old time residents of this once working class neighborhood, inhabited by longshoremen, were stunned when a brownstone row house on Congress Street sold for more than a million dollars in 1997. “New” millionaires have discovered this quaint neighborhood, which combines proximity to Wall Street with a quiet life one cannot find in the City. Residents love the one way streets and historic mansions that make them feel as if they are living in another time.
Originally named Ponkiesbergh by the Dutch farmers who settled the cobblestoned area in the 1600’s, the neighborhood gained its present name from a variation of the English translation, Cobles Hill.
In 1776, during the Battle of Long Island, the Continental Army called the area “Cobble Hill” after a similar hill they had recently fortified during the Siege of Boston. The redoubt at Cobble Hill was actually named “Smith’s Barbette” after the army engineer, Captain William Smith, who supervised its construction. The fort was part of a line of defense running from Gowanus Bay’s Fort Defiance to Wallabout Bay, site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During the battle, General George Washington used its high ground to view the fighting as far away as the Old Stone House in Gowanus, sight of an epic and legendary skirmish. The grand Independence Bank Building now stands on the spot with an impressive oversized historical placque featuring George Washington, now housing a Trader Joe’s food store. During the War of 1812, the location was again fortified and temporarily renamed “Fort Swift,” but the name Cobble Hill remained associated with the area. Court Street was so named in 1835, replacing the original name of George Street, as the corridor leading to downtown Brooklyn’s actual courthouses.
The neighborhood features stunning Gothic churches, many predating the Civil War. Three of the most remarkable are Christ Church (1842), St. Francis Cabrini Chapel (1852) and St. Peter’s Our Lady of Pilar Roman Catholic Church (1859). During your visit to Cobble Hill, watch for two interesting things – the number of former churches and school houses that have been converted to housing.
Christ Church at the corner of Clinton and Kane Streets was designed by Richard Upjohn, who also designed Trinity Church in lower Manhattan and the stately gates of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Considered one of the greatest Brownstone churches, an interior renovation in 1916 brought the church even more historical significance when Louis Comfort Tiffany completed his final personal commission, redesigning the nave and installing new stained glass windows.
In February 1939, the church suffered its first major disaster, when all but six of the Tiffany windows were destroyed in an early morning fire. According to the church website:
“One of the windows not lost in the fire, the window depicting the Annunciation, had originally been in the side splays of the windows above the High Altar. Tiffany had moved that window and placed it behind the Baptistery to make way for his new Adoration of the Magi window, which, sadly, was destroyed in the fire. The Annunciation window remains behind the Baptistery and dates to the origin of the building. The basic interior is still Tiffany’s, especially evident in the sanctuary, High Altar, Pulpit, and Lectern, where his use of uncut semi-precious stones and iridescent tile treats the eye to a variety of colors from different angles, the magnificent Wheel of Elijah executed in mother of pearl in the wall above and High Altar, and the High Altar Cross and Candlesticks.”
BROOKLYN PHOTOGRAPHS by MARK D PHILLIPS
GOWANUS CANAL PHOTOGRAPHS by MARK D PHILLIPS
The rebuilt structure was granted landmark status in 1969. With its numerous programs for children, its annual “Blessing of the Animals” and Saint Nicholas Medieval Christmas Faire, the church has served as a mainstay of the Cobble Hill community.
In July 2005, the Sopranos took over the landmark church to film a wedding for the sixth season of the HBO series featuring the marriage of Mob boss Johnny “Sack” Sacramoni’s daughter. The entire cast of the show appeared on the Clinton Street and gave the church a rock star feel.
On Thursday, July 26, 2012, Christ Church suffered a devastating lightning strike during a violent thunderstorm. One whole spire of the bell tower came crashing down, tearing a large hole in the sanctuary roof and killing local resident Richard Schwartz as he passed beneath the scaffolding, just blocks from his home.
“After lightning struck Christ Church last summer, the community was faced with its potential loss. Neighbors have come together to support and restore the church through the formation of Friends of Christ Church Cobble Hill (FCCCH),” explained Gary Ravert, a founding board member of FCCCH. “We hope this event will serve to inform and involve the many people in brownstone Brooklyn who have expressed concern for this vital historical institution and want it to remain an integral part of the community for another 175 years.”
The building is undergoing repairs in compliance with the NYC Department of Buildings statutes and code. It has been stabilized in a safe manner and interior and exterior scaffolding has been erected. Its iconic bell tower has been dismantled.
“Christ Church is one of the handsomest pieces of architecture I know, much admired by many of us,” said Ben Baxt, an architect and board member of FCCCH. “But the displacement of the more than 40 community groups who use the church is the true indication of how important Christ Church is to the community as a cultural and social resource, as well as a place for inspiration.”
Father Ron T. Lau, Rector of Christ Church, said he has been heartened by the outpouring of support from the community including the FCCCH and the clergy and congregants of the Kane Street Synagogue and Sacred Hearts, St. Stephens Church.
The area has a strong history of coming together for the benefit of the community. An earlier example can be told through the grassroots campaign of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s to build a park on the site of three abandoned properties and the battle by the neighborhood to maintain its character.
In the late 1940s, a corporation purchased three buildings – the Weber and Whitten mansions and an abandoned Unitarian Church, the Church of the Turtle – located on a plot of land bordered by Vernadah Place, Clinton Street and Congress Street. When the residents learned of plans to build a grocery store on the site, the fight for a park in its stead began. The grocery store backed out, but other developers came forth with plans for apartment buildings instead. The neighborhood wanted a park and the battle for the and continued throughout the 50’s and early 60’s. By 1958, the individuals fighting the various developers’ plans, coalesced into the Cobble Hill Association, joining a trend of neighborhood groups dedicated to maintaining the character that drew so many residents to the Brownstone areas of Brooklyn. The Cobble Hill Association, West Brooklyn Independent Democrats, and residents of Cobble Hill led a grassroots campaign gathering signatures and support. Convincing the City Planning Commission and the Parks Department, as well as the Budget and Mayors Office, the plot of land was deeded to the city on March 7, 1963.
Cobble Hill Park quickly became one of the jewels of the neighborhood. The bordering streets – Verandah Place to the south, which features an entire block of carriage houses, and Congress Street to the north, lined with some of the most beautiful Brownstones in the area – have become the heart of Cobble Hill. Reconstructed by the Parks Department in 1989 and winning the Parks Council’s first Philip Winslow Award for Public Projects in 1990, the Cobble Hill Parks’ neighborhood Assocation sponsors a summer music festival, pot luck dinners, and the annual Halloween Parade – an event not to be missed. It has become an integral community gathering point for people of all ages, with stone picnic tables, cobblestone walkways and a unique sand box featuring a jumping dolphin that every local child wants to sit atop.
Both the eastern and western borders of Cobble Hill have murky bounderies. The BQE always served as the western boundary of the neighborhood. With the renewed interest in the waterfront, Columbia Street (on the water side of the BQE) is becoming a hot new destination street with restaurants, art galleries, and new homes appearing at an amazing pace. Some Realtors have begun calling it “Cobble Hill West,” while others say the waterfront along Columbia Street is its own neighborhood, the Columbia Street Waterfront District. Prior to the building of the BQE, the waterfront was the defining aspect of the neighborhoods. The docks provided the jobs and the river was where kids went to play. The Red Hook Container Terminal is the last vestige of large shipping in the Columbia Street Waterfront District. With natural 40-foot depths and up-to-date facilities, the terminal accommodates fully loaded ships with deep drafts. Its existence is the source of major debate on nearly every level of government and local residents. In negotiations with the city, American Stevedoring, which operated the container port for over 40 years, was unable to receive a long term lease in 2005 and plans by the city included the expansion of cruise docks to the location. In 2012, American Stevedoring was out and the operation of the container port was passed to a new company, Red Hook Container Terminal LLC, on a temporary basis. The last shipping on the docks could become a piece of history.
In the late 1800s, the Brooklyn waterfront teemed with longshoreman. Italian and German immigrants called the area home. Many worked on the docks. Cobble Hill Towers on Hicks Street is an iconic and beloved architectural Landmark. With exterior staircases and private courtyards, the nine-building complex, built in 1879 by philanthropist Alfred T. White, was modeled after worker housing he saw on a trip to London. He felt that the longshoremen deserved better living conditions and is responsible for the construction of the hidden jewel of Warren Place with its Workingmen’s Cottages. In 2011, the “poor man’s housing” became a part of the gentrification of the area, going from rent stabilized rentals to condominiums.
Places of historical interest:
• Cobble Hill was the 1854 birthplace of Winston Churchill’s mother, Jenny Jerome. Don’t be confused by a plaque at 426 Henry Street claiming to be the location of her birth. The woman later known as Lady Randolph Churchill, was born at 197 Amity Street. The plaque marks her uncle’s home where her parents lived prior to her birth.
BROOKLYN PHOTOGRAPHS by MARK D PHILLIPS
GOWANUS CANAL PHOTOGRAPHS by MARK D PHILLIPS
All photos are available on markdphillips.com for framed artwork, website usage, and licensing. Or you can contact Mark directly by email: mark (AT) south brooklyn.net