Building of the Day: 75 Henry Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Whitman Close Townhouses
Address: 75 Henry Street
Cross Streets: Clark and Middagh Streets
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1967-1973
Architectural Style: Post-World War II Modernist
Architect: William Conklin
Other Works by Architect: Butterfield House, W. 12th St. Manhattan; as well as many other modern apartment buildings.
Landmarked: No

The story: If it had been left up to Robert Moses, the housing component of Cadman Plaza would look very different than what we have now. His original plan was for a 400 foot long, 20 story apartment building that would have stretched across the length of the plaza, filled mostly with luxury studio, and one bedroom apartments. Imagine if you will, a building much larger than the Supreme Court building, only in 1960s Upper East Side white brick, plopped where the present day Cadman Plaza housing is. It almost makes you want to go out and hug one of the present towers.

The phrase of the day in the late 1950s, early 60s, was “slum clearance”, but in order to rebuild with federal funds, an area had to be declared blighted, and hopelessly beyond rebuilding. Moses wanted those funds, and in his opinion, the neighborhood that sat near the Brooklyn Bridge was all of that and more. This was some of Brooklyn’s oldest working class housing, with businesses and shops that catered to the neighborhood and much of it could have done with an influx of renovation funding, but was hardly a hopeless slum. It was also a neighborhood steeped in Brooklyn’s history.

Moses was also still miffed that he had been stood up to by those upstart Heights people in the BQE project, and was determined to get the Cadman Plaza project through. The demolition would proceed. Fortunately for the rest of us, those Heights activists organized the Community Conservation and Improvement Committee, or CCIC, (“Kick”) which proposed an alternative which had an emphasis on family sized apartments, so that the new buildings in the Heights would become home to stable families who would be committed to putting down roots, not living in “dormitories for transients”, which was how they described Moses’ studio apartments.

There were many other details to this long and often complicated story, and in the end Moses got out of the urban renewal business in the early 60s. The city approved the new plans in 1961. The new buildings would be a mixture of tall apartment towers and smaller two story townhouses, all Mitchell-Lama middle income co-op housing. The architect for the townhouses and the nearby Cadman Towers was William Conklin of L. William Glass and Whittlesey and Conklin. The Whitman Close Townhouses added a human scale, and alluded to the brownstone neighborhood across the street, softening the blow of the gigantic towers rising over the neighborhood.

75 Henry St. is used as a catch-all address here by Property Shark, which is the address of the tall tower building. Some of the townhouses built near 75 Henry Street actually stand where the Rome Brothers Print Shop stood in 1855, when it was Fulton and Cranberry Streets, where Walt Whitman set the type for the first printing of his “Leaves of Grass.” There is a plaque there now, and bricks from the building are said to be set into a planter in the plaza near the subway entrance.

The townhouses are an odd mix of public and private space, with the entrances and backyards right on public walkways always crowded with commuters and tourists, especially for the houses that face Cadman Plaza West. The houses themselves seem very small, and there are only around 16 of them. Next to 75 Henry Street, the 33 story tower with 370 units, this is a drop in the bucket, when it comes to providing housing, but these are very desirable units, which have sold for over a million dollars, on the rare occasion they come up for sale. Today they are an integral part of the Heights, a reminder that you win some, lose some, and often compromise for the greater good. GMAP

Model of Robert Moses’ original plans for housing at Cadman Plaza. Photograph: Brooklyn Heights Blog.

21 Comment

  • I have to say, I kinda like these buildings. I’ve never been inside a unit, so I have no idea what they are like, but the scale and materials seem OK for the time. They remind me of the mid-20th century, mid-block infill housing in Center City Philadelphia.

  • When I was a little girl, I always imagined myself living in one of these

  • My friends lived in one of these units for several years. They are great on the inside- 2 bedrooms upstairs, a full basement, a small outdoor space and a parking spot! Not suburban by any stretch, but the perfect little house in Brooklyn. Yes, I was quite jealous.

  • Perfect modern little urban houses. much more modern than the crap being built today over at the “Carlton Mews” or whatever. This is the way to do it. Not faux brownstones.

  • On the prior comments board regarding the 919 building, Francis Morrone noticed that “comodorestephendecatur” deleted his post regarding Mabel Bull. A tad sensitive.

  • On the prior comments board regarding the 919 building, Francis Morrone noticed that “comodorestephendecatur” deleted his post regarding Mabel Bull. A tad sensitive.

  • I agree. when I visited Pittsburgh I noticed that the feel of new construction/ infill housing was less uptight than nyc. Here it’s either glass box, Hasidirific pink brick, or browstone replica. These buildings are a reminder that it’s okay to go modern.

  • Oh please – if someone tried to build this today (or equivalent) all you people singing its praises would go batshit crazy about ugly, out of context and awful they were.
    As for these – they were built in true 70′s style i.e. cheap. simple brick and sheetrock with cheap baseboard heat and finished with cheap windows, fixtures, lighting and floors. Stuff being built today is equal to or often far exceeds this stuff.
    The only reason why 95% of you people like them, is because they are older than your memory. Which is exactly what will happen with 95% of the stuff going up today when it too gets old enough that its construction/existence exceeds most people’s memory.

  • Oh please – if someone tried to build this today (or equivalent) all you people singing its praises would go batshit crazy about ugly, out of context and awful they were.
    As for these – they were built in true 70′s style i.e. cheap. simple brick and sheetrock with cheap baseboard heat and finished with cheap windows, fixtures, lighting and floors. Stuff being built today is equal to or often far exceeds this stuff.
    The only reason why 95% of you people like them, is because they are older than your memory. Which is exactly what will happen with 95% of the stuff going up today when it too gets old enough that its construction/existence exceeds most people’s memory.

  • brklynmind, get a grip on yourself.
    we are not saying we like these houses merely because they were built several decades ago but rather because they were designed with a certain level of competence and self-confidence. They were also built solidly. Take a look at those massive brick piers. No artificial pre-fab stucco panels or thin stainless steel cladding but rather good solid materials. I also like that they were built for modern families so they include a parking space for the family car. Anathema today, when modern families are supposed to deal with life with a bike and scooter.
    They were products of a more adult time. A time when grownups had different sensibilities than their children.
    I just like these houses and I like the apartments in the towers too. Good solid units with balconies and views affordable by normal families. Teachers, cashiers, longshoremen. You did not have to be a corporate lawyer married to hedge fund manager to afford a beautiful two-bedroom, two-bath apartment with stunning views of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan skyline.

  • Agree with the naysayers. The quality of the interior construction is quite poor, like a motel. (I’ve been inside, looking to buy.) Worse, a major design deficiency is te size. Really too small to outweigh the downsides of single family homes (individual maintenance and costs etc). My preference would’ve been more imaginative reuse of the existing stock, but as long as they razed it, 2 or 3 denser medium rise apt bldgs might have been better.

  • Agree with the naysayers. The quality of the interior construction is quite poor, like a motel. (I’ve been inside, looking to buy.) Worse, a major design deficiency is te size. Really too small to outweigh the downsides of single family homes (individual maintenance and costs etc). My preference would’ve been more imaginative reuse of the existing stock, but as long as they razed it, 2 or 3 denser medium rise apt bldgs might have been better.

  • I think they are great. Just an FYI though — they do not come with a parking space. The outide lot as well as the lowest level of the garage at 75 Henry are reserved spots for cooperators (including those in the townhouses). There is a wait list to get a spot – no apartment or townhouse comes with one. The waitlist is about 2 years long and the spots cost cooperators about $150 per month.

  • These are very similar in style to much of the re-development that went up in the 60s & 70s in South West Washington, DC:
    Tiber Island is a prime example:
    http://tiberisland.com/tiberisland/communityHistory.shtml
    And for fans of Brutalism, enjoy these:
    http://swdcheritage.omeka.net/items/index/page/3
    &
    http://www.iconicphoto.com/bw-brutalist-architecture.htm

  • The surrounding playgrounds never worked. The fountain outside the entrance to the High Street subway worked for a year or two and is now a planter. The playground just the the south is now a depressed semi-planted area. The steps up just north of that fountain were part of an overpass to 140 Cadman Plaza, over Middagh Street, which was torn down 10-15 years ago and make no sense now. All of the buildings were designed to turn their back on Henry Street and make believe it never works. The 75 Henry tower has its back entrance on Henry, and the garbage pickup for the building is there.

    If you look at the buildings that were torn down, they included an Art Deco apt building at the corner of Clark and Henry which could by no reasoning be termed blighted. The rest of the buildings south of Middagh looked just like the rest of BH.