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.