Researching a Cobble Hill Alley


Verandah Place in the 1930s

A COUPLE OF HOURS SPENT IN THE STACKS of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library goes a long way toward understanding what Brooklyn was really like in the days when our brownstone neighborhoods were first carved out of farmland into building lots — who lived here, and just how it all came to be.

Last Saturday, I took part in the BHS’s ‘Research Your Old House’ workshop, an introduction to the resources of this venerable institution. It’s now open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 1-5 without appointment, to use books, periodicals, atlases, scrapbooks, directories, files of newspaper clippings, and a database of digitized images and oral histories.

For the two dozen who attended the workshop, there’s probably nothing more thrilling than sitting in a balconied Victorian-era chamber and being handed a stack of brittle papers with 19th century drawings and notes detailing the conveyance, or transfer, of property over the decades. You almost can’t believe you’re being allowed to handle them at all. These documents are called  Land Conveyances, and they show the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) in every real estate exchange going back to 1699, and provide leads for follow-up research — original deeds and such — at the Brooklyn Hall of Records a few blocks away.


Verandah Place today

There’s lots more, but I didn’t get past the Land Conveyance documents, as the sheaf of papers pertaining to the Cobble Hill block I was researching —  bounded by Warren (formerly John), Henry, Congress, and Clinton Streets, that includes today’s Cobble Hill Park, and Verandah Place, a mews alley on which my family has owned a house since 1986 — was at least 3 inches high. It took me the whole two hours to go through the stack, in the course of which I discovered, among other things, that:

  • A 170’x245′ plot of land that later was to include our house was conveyed in 1838 by Conklin Brush (mayor of Brooklyn 1851-2) to George S. Howland, along with an “alley 20 feet wide lying immediately north thereof as laid down on said map”
  • By 1853, the land had passed to Edward W. Dunham, and the unnamed alley of 20 feet “is to be kept and used in common to all lots between Henry and Clinton Streets”
  • In May 1854, a plot of land — whether with or without a house is not clear from these papers, but measuring the exact dimensions of our lot (21’x65′), and the correct distance from the corner of Henry Street, was granted to Stephen B. Harriman by Edward W. Dunham. [If you go to the BHS library to research a house, you need to know the distance of the house in question from the nearest street corner, as there are no lot numbers or addresses, and the surveyors’ pencil sketches that accompany the Land Conveyances are not to scale]. The alley is now written as Veranda Place (no final “h”). I believe this was the first sale of the new house, which I’ve long known dates from the 1850s. It seems that Stephen B. Harriman was the first owner. But did Dunham build it?
  • Ten years later, in October 1864, the house passed from Harriman to Eliza A. Denham (not Dunham?) and then, in 1868, from Amanda P. Harriman (the notation ‘….of Stephen B’ – wife? mother? daughter? – is illegible) to Charles A. Eckert (what happened to Eliza?), a wine merchant who had a business at 123 Atlantic Avenue
  • Eckert owned the property (and many others in the area) for 24 years, until he died in 1892. His executors sold the house to Ann Burns, wife of Michael Burns (why all the women’s names on these documents?)

It only got more interesting when I got home. As it turns out, there’s plenty that can be discovered without leaving your house at all, particularly the online database of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published from 1855 until the 1960s. It’s been archived by the Brooklyn Public Library in its entirety and is searchable by keyword. What a goldmine! I can’t believe I didn’t know about it before.

Reading through the Eagle‘s ads and articles, and searching on the names of the various people in the Land Conveyances — learning about the death of one early owner’s 2-year-old, for instance, and seeing the ‘Situation Wanted’ ads for laundress and housecleaning positions run by residents of our address — finally began to make the abstract real for me.

One priceless article, from Dec. 2, 1900, below, reveals that Verandah Place at the turn of the 20th century was so rowdy the neighbors on Warren Street tried to wall it off. They had to put up with “riotous conduct,” “maudlin songs,” and “language more forcible than polite float[ing] out of the rear windows of the tenements, across the sodded lawns and into the dining rooms of the Warren Street residents,” not to mention the “decaying fruit and vegetable matter cast daily into their scrupulousy clean backyards.”

Another clipping with the same date, below, actually shows a picture of the board fences erected by the irate Warren Street neighbors, and describes the tenants as “poor people, whites and blacks.”


All that really paints a picture. My fond imaginings that our house was lovingly occupied and cared for in earlier years have been dashed. But I can’t help identifying a little with the ‘obstreperous’ residents of Verandah Place. We had a few wild parties ourselves over the years. Fortunately, our neighbors on Warren never got quite that pissed off.


About cara

I blog for fun at, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here:
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14 Responses to Researching a Cobble Hill Alley

  1. astor C says:

    Really fascinating post. I can’t help but wonder what the “maudlin songs” were. A 1900’s version of hip-hop? Peggy Lee? Wayne Newton? Those newspaper stories make Verandah Place seem like something out of Dickens. Imagine what the “poor people, whites and blacks” would think today of people paying $2.5 million for their homes??? I betcha a lot more rotting fruit would get tossed…

    What was the earliest reference you found to the block?

  2. cara says:

    1699. Not to the block, but to a town meeting someone in the area that became the block. The minutes of the town meeting might exist somewhere; it all bears further, time-consuming research. I overheard someone at the BHS workshop saying they’d been researching their house for 15 years!!

  3. Mary-Liz says:

    What a wonderful mid winter project!!!

  4. Terry says:

    ‘“riotous conduct,” “maudlin songs,”…’ Rock and roll, like human nature has no history.

  5. Cher@NR says:

    Thanks for the reference to the Eagle link! Very cool! And I was able to find a lot of Newburgh related articles! Your street is gorgeous!

  6. lindab says:

    We sold the house on Verandah Place in 1986. We were told that the house was backwards with the front facing Warren and the rear on Verandah. Now, it seems it is not so. Great house anyway.

  7. cara says:

    Hi, Linda, yes, you sold it to us! Thank you very much for that:-) I’ve always wondered about the truth of that backwards business and hoped I would find something to that effect at the BHS, but haven’t yet. It certainly *looks* backwards — the rear facade is much more attractive than the front. Great to hear from you! How did you find my blog?

  8. lindab says:

    Hi Cara, Found your blog on the Brownstoner. We moved back to Brooklyn (Carroll Gardens) Loved to read about the history; will try to get info on our current house. Regards Linda

  9. MC says:

    I live on VP and heard that at one point in the past 12 families lived in my house, which was a 2-storey house at the time! That would inspire some riotous conduct. Also, check this link for a story about a bad fire in one of the houses:

    This house is currently undergoing a gut renovation and sure enough extensive fire damage was found.

  10. cara says:

    Yes, MC, thanks. Here’s that link:
    It’s from April 1863. The clearer the picture becomes about what life was like on Verandah Place in the 19th century, the more glad I am I didn’t get there until the late 20th!

  11. Anonymous says:

    I assumed that the carriage houses had been stables for the houses on Warren Street, but this clearly shows they were not.

    The building around the corner, on Warren and Henry, which is now the restaurant Bocca Lupo, looks like it was once a very large stable. I wonder if this area had an unusual number of stables, or if this was common.

    Thanks for this Cara — I’ve enjoy your pieces. You introduced me to Mid-Century Modern with your pioneering book. I never imagined you lived near me in Brownstone Brooklyn.

  12. cara says:

    hi Anonymous neighbor and longtime fan! Since Atlantic Avenue was a big thoroughfare for horsecars in the 19th century, taking people from the ferry landing at the foot of the avenue further up into Brooklyn, it seems there were a lot of stables and carriage houses on the side streets near the avenue. Same goes for Flatbush Avenue. Don’t be a stranger! Keep commenting when the spirit moves you, and happy new year!

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thomas Wolfe lived at 40 Verandah Place in 1931 (at the time of the top photo). Evidently, it was still a depressing place then:

    He says the area stank from the Gowanus Canal — is that possible, or just poetic license?

    Wolfe’s Verandah Place landlady, Marjorie Dorman, sued him for libel because of his portrayal of her in “”No Door: A Story of Time and the Wanderer.”

  14. Anonymous says:

    That makes perfect sense. Also enjoyed your post on carriage houses, of course. Don’t you wonder what daily life was like when everything was horse drawn (the many bookscrapers embedded into stoop banisters are an indicator that manure was an issue)?

    I didn’t mean to be anonymous — will try to figure out how to post this so I can be identified.

    I live on Congress near Henry, so am very close. I am also a fan of the Brooklyn Library’s online archive of the Brooklyn Eagle. Journalism in the 19 C was more like story telling, complete with wild speculations. I found a great story about a cobbler who lived on my street who was convinced his wife was trying to poison him.

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