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Cobble Hill Towers, 431 Hicks Street

Between Warren Street & Baltic Street

77
Carter Horsley
Review by Carter Horsley
Carter Horsley Carter B. Horsley, a former journalist for The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Post. Mr. Horsley is also the editorial director of CityRealty.com.
 

Cobble Hill Towers is a very handsome, landmark nine-building apartment complex at 431 Hicks Street between Warren and Baltic Streets in Brooklyn that was completed in 1879 and was converted to a condominium in 2010.

It was developed by Alfred Tredway Smith and is notable for its private entries off exterior corridors decorated with ornate iron railings and two landscaped courtyards.

The non-eviction conversion is a joint venture partnership of The Hudson Companies and Frank Farella, the long-time owner of the handsome, red-brick complex. It has 188 apartments.

The buildings - with their cross-ventilation, private courtyards and exterior staircases - were an attempt by philanthropist Alfred T. White to create a new model for worker housing. Mr. White was successful in creating other homes for working people in Brooklyn, including the Workingmen s Cottages (adjacent to Cobble Hill Towers on Warren Place), and the Riverside Apartments on Columbia Place in Brooklyn Heights.

Journalist and reformer Jacob Riis referenced these buildings in his 1905 book, "Constructive and Preventive Philanthropy":

"The most famous model tenement enterprises in America are the Home, Tower, and Riverside buildings [now known as Cobble Hill Towers], erected respectively in 1877, 1878, and 1890, by Alfred T. White, of Brooklyn...The buildings, covering about fifty per cent of the lot, are built around three sides of a square, open to the south. They are six stories (sixty feet) high, are almost absolutely fireproof, and have excellent means of egress...Every apartment not only opens outdoors, but has a through draft,...are " self-contained " ; rooms are supplied with water, a clothes-press with shelf and hooks, a place for a stove, and a coal-box, holding a quarter of a ton.... Children can play in the courtyard, and also in the cellar or covered verandas when it rains. There is a band of eight pieces for two hours on Saturday afternoons in summer. The Home building has a reading-room for its own tenants and for those of the Tower building and the general public, which takes daily papers and weekly and monthly magazines, and also has a circulating library of 334 novels. The buildings have open stairways, but the tenants do not seem to object."

In his "Streetscapes" column published in The New York Times October 10, 2008, Chrisoopher Gray wrote that the group of model tenements "were rescued in the 1970s by Frank Farella, a local developer who for years kept the Brooklyn complex as a low-rent paradise."

"The developer of the Tower Buildings was Alfred Tredway White," Mr. Gray wrote, "who was born into wealth and who was asked by his Unitarian pastor to investigate the housing of the poor. Moved by the awful conditions in working-class tenements, in 1877 he finished a nine-building complex, somewhat dour and barracks-like, called the Home Buildings. Two years later, just across the street, Mr. White built a more architecturally pleasing group of nine, fleshing out his ideas for model housing. This second, more imposing group became known as the Tower Buildings because of two picturesque ornamental peaks on either end. To reduce interior corridors and fire hazards in the Tower project, Mr. White and his architect, William Field & Son, used a system of open stairways."

"Compared with the typical sanitary accommodations, Mr. White's were luxurious: a toilet in each apartment, instead of a bank of outhouses outside. There was also a chute on each floor, in which tenants were supposed to place garbage first burnt in the kitchen stove - although in 1887 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that watermelon rinds were unburnable and had to be put out separately. Mr. White provided hoisting tackle, as the coal box in each living room could hold a quarter ton. The 76 three- and four-room apartments in the Tower Buildings each rented for $1.50 to $2 a week....There were usually four or five people to an apartment....Mr. White brought a missionary zeal to housing reform. Selling liquor was prohibited, and in 1876 The New York Times, describing the projects at the outset, said that success would be guaranteed by "a strict moral and police supervision under a faithful janitor."

"Little change came to the Tower Buildings until the 1940s," Mr. Gray continued, "when the White family sold the project, and the 1950s, when the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cut a swath to the west. In the 1970s. Mr. Farella was a real estate broker. 'My fuel oil man told me they were for sale,' he said of the Tower and Home complexes, adding, 'In 1975 no one wanted these buildings, with 11 burnt-out apartments.' In addition, one-third of the apartments were vacant. Mr. Farella paid about $450,000 for both projects, and the architects Maitland, Strauss & Behr began a gut renovation, which was not finished until 1986."

"Unlike much of Cobble Hill," Mr. Gray continued, "the Tower Buildings are not spiffed up. The exterior staircases give them a charming, but still Dickensian air, and there are broken panes of glass. The exterior brick has been long painted a flat red; you can see the original warm orangey-red, rich in natural variation, on the rear walls. The plantings are a bit ragged; the trash bins, though neat, are kept in the courtyard; and lines of bikes are chained to the railings. Still, the garden is a welcome relief from the hurricane of the B.Q.E. on the other side, and it is outsize by normal courtyard standards."

In a January 24, 2003 article in The New York Times, Wendell Jamieson wrote about the complex, noting that when Mr. Farella first visited it "Of 244 apartments, nearly 100 were vacant; 11 had had fires and were boarded up. The courtyard was piled high with garbage."

'''You would walk into the courtyard, and you wouldn't know who's who,'' Mr. Farella said. 'You'd find a gang of people in the corner who'd moved into a vacant apartment, squatters, undesirable people, dope peddlers, you name it. It was a mess over here.' Not to mention visits by shrieking classes of fifth graders from Brooklyn Friends School. The buildings had declined along with the fortunes of much of the Brooklyn waterfront. The oil crisis of the 70's made it nearly impossible to turn a profit from renting the apartments."

'''It was the first project in New York City, to my knowledge, that created a semipublic courtyard, a communal space,''' said Carmi Bee, a partner at Rothzeid Kaiserman Thomson & Bee Architects in Chelsea who teaches at the City College School of Architecture. He takes his classes regularly to White's project. The breezeways, he said, diminished privacy but eliminated depressing interior stairways, improved safety by putting more eyes on the street and 'animated' the façades of the buildings. For children, he added, 'they're like a jungle gym.'"

"The little decorative details that White envisioned - the repetitive patterns of bricks that look like miniature upside-down ziggurats, the bay windows, the arches over the doorways, the little tower with a base of tiles with wave designs - engaged and intrigued the minds of the people who lived there, and made their lives better," the article continued.

"The restoration, designed by the architect Richard Henry Behr, began in 1978. The tenants played musical chairs: they were first moved out of the Home Buildings...into vacant apartments in the Tower Buildings, and then moved back when their original places were done. Mr. Farella had to adhere to strict city guidelines because, he said, 'it's a landmark situation.' It was impossible to install elevators. The biggest job was restoring the apartments to their original design: during World War II, with the waterfront economy booming and apartments near the docks in short supply, they had been subdivided, eliminating cross-ventilation. Mr. Farella brought the number of apartments down to 188, all with sunlight and air on both sides," the article said.

A May 6, 2001 article in The New York Times by Aaron Donovan provided a good introduction to the Cobble Hill neighborhood:

"The name conjures up images of peaceful 19th-century residential streets, which in many ways are still present. But the only cobblestones near the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn - one of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the borough - can be found in a largely industrial area just west of the neighborhood on a street named Tiffany Place. The neighborhood was given its name in the 1950's by a real estate agent who sought to increase the market potential of the brownstone-lined streets, which were then included in a larger area known as South Brooklyn.

''Somebody ran across an old map of New York in which this area was called Cobleshill,'' said Dennis Holt, a senior editor of The Brooklyn Heights Press and Cobble Hill News, who recently wrote a series of articles about life in Cobble Hill during the 1880's. ''Everyone has forgotten who that person was.''

"The Dutch name for the area, Cobleshill, referred to a hill centered around the area where Court Street meets Atlantic Avenue. The hill was leveled during the Revolutionary War by the British, who wanted to keep George Washington, who had occupied the hill with his troops in the summer of 1776 during the Battle of Long Island, from having a strategic vantage point over their headquarters in Brooklyn Heights.

"Major development began in 1836 with ferry service between the Battery and the foot of Atlantic Avenue. It started at the waterfront and spread inland as a street grid was planned. Eventually, the most desirable houses were along the main north-south routes: Hicks, Clinton and Court Streets. ''You can see a dropoff in the quality of architecture the closer you get to the water,'' Mr. Holt said. ''Those that survived were working-class houses for people who worked on the waterfront or in factories.'' The waterfront now is industrial and inaccessible.

"For much of its history, Cobble Hill has existed in the shadow of Brooklyn's premier residential neighborhood, Brooklyn Heights, just north of Cobble Hill across Atlantic Avenue....But real estate agents say that in recent years Cobble Hill's attractiveness has increased....Because most of the neighborhood is within Brooklyn's second-oldest landmark district (after the Brooklyn Heights district) and because the neighborhood is also subject to a 50-foot height ceiling, it has retained a 19th-century feel. Most buildings in the neighborhood are four-story brownstone or brick town houses built more than a century ago....

"Cobble Hill Park is a half-acre park at the center of the neighborhood....The neighborhood's other long-standing park, Van Voorhees Park, is at the area's periphery. In 1953 the park was divided in two by construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Recently, an eight-story parking garage was built for the Long Island College Hospital on one piece of the park, while the tennis and basketball courts on the other half are being renovated. The main commercial streets are Court Street, usually considered the neighborhood's eastern border, and Atlantic Avenue, the northern border. Atlantic Avenue is known for its Middle Eastern restaurants and is the hub of an Arab commercial district. The area's commercial streets, which also include Smith Street, a block east of Court, have been revitalized in recent years with a large number of new mom-and-pop stores and restaurants."

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