All About Wallabout

THERE’S A BLOCK in west Clinton Hill, or maybe it’s north Fort Greene, though most people would have just called it “near the Navy Yard.” Now the neighborhood’s got a proper name, or rather, gone back to its original cool name — Wallabout, from the Dutch waal-bogt or ‘bend in the harbor.’ Anyway, it’s a block I’ve always admired, an amazing hodgepodge of 19th century styles, with a preponderance of wood frame houses and porches that are rare in Brooklyn.

Last summer and fall, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and City Council recognized this one block — Vanderbilt Avenue between Myrle and Park Avenues — as the “Wallabout Historic District” and what that will mean I don’t rightly know, except I hope it means the houses that are about to fall down are propped back up.

For not only is the block a mishmash of styles, it runs the gamut of conditions, from spiffily fixed up to near-collapse and even condemned, with the huge red Xs the Buildings Department uses to indicate “Don’t go in here at any cost.”

I took my car for an oil change at a garage on the corner of Vanderbilt and Myrtle, and took advantage of the opportunity to walk the block and record a few of my favorite buildings.

This group of three at the far end of the block, hard by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, incorporates the grande dame of the block (1820s, maybe?) and a pair of smaller buildings, below, one in seemingly fine repair and the other on the verge of extinction.

To see what these same two houses looked like in September 2009, go here.  

Above, a house I seriously considered buying in 2000 for $330,000 and rather wish I had. I was daunted by three feet of standing water in the basement. Someone else took the challenge, renovated, and painted it an outstanding sunflower yellow.

See below for more about Wallabout, from the Historic Districts Council website:

Wallabout, a neighborhood in Northwestern Brooklyn near the former Brooklyn Naval Yards, is noted for having the largest concentration of pre-Civil War frame houses in the city. In addition to Greek and Gothic Revival wood homes with original or early porches, cornices and other details, brick and stone row houses in Italianate and Neo-Grec styles along with masonry tenements line the streets between Myrtle and Park Avenues. James Marston Fitch, founder of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, described the buildings in 1973 as an “outdoor architectural museum in themselves.” The homes were built as working-class and middle-class housing, and designation of this area would complement the Fort Greene and Clinton Historic Districts to the south built primarily for more affluent households.

Dutch settlers named this area Waal-bogt, meaning a bend in the harbor. Walloons (French-speaking Protestants from what is now Belgium) settled here as early as 1624. Through the 18th century, the area remained rural. During the Revolution, dozens of infamous British prison ships docked in the nearby Wallabout Bay. An estimated 11,000 American soldiers died there and were buried in shallow graves along the waterfront. In 1801 the federal government opened the Brooklyn Naval Yard nearby. The yards operated for more than a century and a half until its 1966 decommission. Over the decades, many of the homes in the district were built for employees of the yards.

Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the city of Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill. As the century progressed, industrialism spread through the East River waterfront including DUMBO, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Wallabout. Neighborhood industries included Consumers’ Biscuit and Manufacturing Company, the Drake Brothers Bakery, Rockwood Chocolate Company (whose factory is now listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places), Giddings & Enos (manufacturers of gas fixtures), and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. The Wallabout produce market operated from 1890 until World War II.

In a neighborhood full of wonderful homes, there are a few residences deserving special note. Some of the area’s earliest homes dating back to the 1830’s can be found on Vanderbilt Avenue. In 1878 the wealthy Pratt family built five neo-Grec style brownstones on this block, the first of their many speculative ventures. No. 99 Ryerson Street is believed to be the only surviving New York City home of poet Walt Whitman. Rudophe L. Daus, one of Brooklyn’s leading late 19th-century architects, designed the Queen Anne style red brick tenement at 93 Clermont. The building retains its ornamental terracotta trim as well as its entrance hood and iron railings. Only one structure in the district is presently designated a New York City Landmark, the Lefferts-Laidlaw House at 136 Clinton Avenue. This impressive, temple-fronted Greek Revival Style house was built c.1836-1840.

In the 1970’s the area was twice proposed as a historic district, by the Fort Greene Landmarks Committee as part of the Fort Greene HD and by the Landmark Commission’s staff as part of a Brooklyn survey. Like much of western Brooklyn, the general low-rise density of Wallabout has recently begun to feel the brunt of new, over-scaled development. In addition, decades of poor maintenance have resulted in the loss of character in some of the buildings, as well as enticingly open lots prime for development. The Myrtle Avenue Revitalization Project has, with funding from the Preservation League of New York State, sponsored a cultural resources survey and has helped establish a residents’ association – the Historic Wallabout Association – with the goal of preserving this neighborhood. The first step, re-zoning the area to better fit the existing built fabric and encourage appropriately scaled development, is currently moving forward. The next step to preserving this special neighborhood would be to designate part of the area as a historic district.

For more information, visit:

About cara

I blog for fun here at casaCARA, and write about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites. My recently published posts and articles can be found here: https://casacara.wordpress.com/recent-articles/
This entry was posted in ARCHITECTURE, BROOKLYN, HISTORIC PRESERVATION and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to All About Wallabout

  1. Jenny M says:

    One can only hope that the title of ‘Historic District’ will be enough to save these houses. (and of course some people dedicated to some hard work) Thanks for the photos and history lesson.

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