Brooklyn Heights occupies a plateau on a high bluff that rises sharply from the river's edge and gradually recedes on the landward side. Before the Dutch settled on Long Island in the middle of the seventeenth century, this promontory was called Ihpetonga ("the high sandy bank") by the native Lenape American Indians.
The view of New York City from Brooklyn Heights, (1778-c.1880)
Ferries across the East River were running as early as 1642, serving the farms in the area. The most significant of the ferries went between the current Fulton Street and Peck Slip in Manhattan, and was run by Cornelius Dirksen. The ferry service helped the lowland area to thrive, with both farms and some factories along the water, but the higher ground was sparsely used.
The area was heavily fortified prior to the Battle of Long Island in the American Revolutionary War. After British troops landed on Long Island and advanced towards Continental Army lines, General George Washington withdrew his troops here after heavy losses, but was able to make a skillful retreat across the East River to Manhattan without the loss of any troops or his remaining supplies.
After the war, the 160-acre tract of land belonging to John Rapeljie, who was a Loyalist, was confiscated and sold to the Sands brothers, who tried to develop the part of the land on the palisade as a community they called "Olympia", but failed to make it come about, partly because of the difficulty of building there. They later sold part of their land to John Jackson, who created the Vinegar Hill community, much of which later became the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Brooklyn Heights began to develop once Robert Fulton's New York and Brooklyn Steam Ferry Boat Company began regularly scheduled steam ferry service in 1814, with the financial backing of Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, one of the area's major landowners. Pierrepont had accumulated 60 acres of land, including 800 feet which directly overlooked the harbor, all of which he planned to sub-divide. Since his intention was to sell to merchants and bankers who lived in Manhattan, he needed easy access between Brooklyn Heights and New York City, which Fulton's company provided. Pierrepont bought 60 acres (24 ha) – part of the Livingston estate, plus the Benson, De Bevoise and Reemsen farms – on what was then called "Clover Hill", now Brooklyn Heights, and built a mansion there. Pierrepont purchased and expanded Philip Livingston's gin distillery on the East River at what is now Joralemon Street, where he produced Anchor Gin.
Wishing to sub-divide and develop his property, Pierrepont realized the need for regularly scheduled ferry service across the East River, and to this end he became a prominent investor in Robert Fulton's New York and Brooklyn Steam Ferry Boat Company, using his influence on Fulton's behalf; he eventually became a part owner and a director of the company. Fulton's ferry began running in 1814, and Brooklyn received a charter as a village from the state of New York in 1816, thanks to the influence of Pierrepont and other prominent landowners. The city then prepared for the establishment of a street grid, although there were competing plans for the size of the lots. John and Jacob Hicks, who also owned property on Brooklyn Heights, north of Pierrepont's, favored smaller lots, as they were pitching their land to tradesman and artisans already living in Brooklyn, not attempting to lure merchants and bankers from Manhattan as Pierrepont was. To counter the Hickses' proposal, Pierrepont hired a surveyor and submitted an alternative. In the end, the Hickses' plan was adopted north of Clark Street, and Pierrepont's, featuring 25 by 100 foot (8 by 30 meter) lots, south of it.
Thanks to the influence of Pierrepont and other landowners, Brooklyn received a charter from the state as a village in 1816, which led to streets being laid out in a regular grid pattern, sidewalks being laid, water pumps being installed and the institution of a watch. After 1823, farms begin to be sub-divided into 25-by-100-foot (7.6 by 30.5 m) lots, which were advertised as suitable for a "country retreat" for Manhattanites, leading to a building boom that resulted in Brooklyn Heights becoming the "first commuter suburb," since it was easier and faster to get to Manhattan by ferry than it was to commute from upper Manhattan by ground transportation. A resident of the Heights could leave the office at three o'clock, have dinner at home at four o'clock, and still have time for a "leisurely drive to the outskirts of town", a "middle class paradise." The community's development was helped by the yellow fever epidemic of 1822, when many of the rich from the city abandoned it for an area that was advertised as "elevated and perfectly healthy at all seasons ... a select neighborhood and circle of society."
Where there had been only seven houses in the Heights in 1807, by 1860 there were over six hundred of them, and by 1890 the area was almost completely developed. The buildings were designed in a wide variety of styles; development started in the northern part, and moved southward, so the architecture general changes in that direction as the preferred style of the time changed over the decades. Throughout the 19th century, Brooklyn Heights remained an elegant neighborhood, and became Brooklyn's cultural and financial center. Its development gave rise to offshoots such as Cobble Hill and, later, Carroll Gardens.
Prior to the Civil War, Brooklyn Heights was a locus of the Abolitionist movement, due to the speeches and activities of Henry Ward Beecher, the pastor of Plymouth Church, now the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. Beecher was a nationally known figure famous on the lecture circuit for his novel oratorical style, in which he employed humor, dialect, and slang. Under Beecher, so many slaves passed through Plymouth Church on their way to freedom in Canada that later generations have referred to the church as the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad." To dramatize the plight of those held in captivity, Beecher once brought a female slave to the church and held an auction, with the highest bidder purchasing not the slave, but her freedom. Beecher also raised money to buy other slaves out of captivity, and shipped rifles to abolitionists in Kansas and Nebraska in crates labelled "Bibles", which gave the rifles the nickname "Beecher's Bibles".
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade
The completion of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, the Brooklyn end of which was near Brooklyn Heights' eastern boundary, began the process of making the neighborhood more accessible from places such as Manhattan. The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT)'s Lexington Avenue subway line, which reached Brooklyn Heights in 1908, was an even more powerful catalyst in the neighborhood's development. The resulting ease of transportation into the neighborhood and the perceived loss of the specialness and "quality" began to drive out the merchants and patricians who lived there; in time their mansions were divided to become apartment houses and boarding houses. Artists began to move into the neighborhood, as well as writers, and a number of large hotels – the St. George (1885), the Margaret (1889), the Bossert (1909), Leverich Towers (1928), and the Pierrepont (1928), among others – were constructed. By the beginning of the Depression, most of the middle class had left the area. Boarding houses had become rooming houses, and the neighborhood began to have the appearance of a slum.
During the 1940s and '50s, the building of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) badly affected the neighborhood, as it took away the neighborhood's northwest corner, destroying whole rows of brownstones. At about the same time, plans began to be developed by New York's "master builder", Robert Moses, wielding the Housing Act of 1949, to replace brownstone row houses which were the typical building form in the neighborhood with large luxury apartment buildings. A prominent example of the intended outcome is the Cadman Plaza development of housing cooperatives in the northern part of the neighborhood, located on the site where the Brooklyn Bridge trolley terminal once stood. In 1959, the North Heights Community Group was formed to oppose destroying cheap low-rise housing in order to build the high-rise Cadman Plaza towers. Architect Percival Goodman presented an alternate plan to maintain all sound structures, which garnered 25,000 supporters. In early 1961, a compromise proposal came from City Hall calling for two 22 story towers with over 1,200 luxury and middle income units. The Brooklyn Heights Association fully supported the compromise plan despite strong opposition from the preservation community, including the North Heights Community Group. As a result, 1,200 residents were removed from their houses and apartments in late 1961/early 1962 as construction began on the modified plan.
One positive development came about when community groups – prominently the Brooklyn Heights Association, founded in 1910 – joined with Moses in the creation of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, also called the Esplanade, which was cantilevered over the BQE. It became a favorite spot among locals, offering magnificent vistas of the Statue of Liberty, the Manhattan skyline across the East River, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and spectacular fireworks displays over the East River. Moses originally proposed to build the BQE through the heart of Brooklyn Heights. Opposition to this plan led to the re-routing of the expressway to the side of the bluff, allowing creation of the Promenade.
By the mid-1950s, a new generation of property owners had begun moving into the Heights, pioneering the "Brownstone Revival" by buying and renovating pre-Civil War period houses, which became part of the preservationist movement which culminated in the passage in 1965 of the Landmarks Preservation Law. In 1965, community groups which later became the Brooklyn Heights Association, succeeded in having the neighborhood designated the Brooklyn Heights Historic District by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, the first such district in the city. This was followed in the following decades by the further gentrification of the neighborhood into a firmly middle-class area, which became "one of New York City's most pleasant and attractive neighborhoods."
The Brooklyn Historical Society
, 128 Pierrepont Street on the corner of Clinton Street, founded by Henry Pierrepont in 1863 as the "Long Island Historical Society". The building was constructed in 1878-81 and was designed by George B. Post