Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Former St. Benedict’s Parochial School, now Head Start program of Mt. Sinai Church of God in Christ
Address: 933 Herkimer Street
Cross Streets: Buffalo and Ralph Avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant (Ocean Hill)
Year Built: 1894
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Architect: F. J. Berlenbach, Jr.
Other buildings by architect: Berlenbach house and Convent of St. Dominic and Annunciation School, Williamsburg; St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Prospect Heights.
The story: The neighborhood of Ocean Hill was established as long ago as 1890, and became a micro-neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant. Named for its hilly terrain, it was always a modest middle class neighborhood, unlike more upscale Stuyvesant Heights, with blocks of smaller homes, most dating from around the time the neighborhood got its name. Over on Herkimer Street, where part of the neighborhood is located next to the end of Crown Heights, the village of Weeksville, and out to Brownsville, the neighborhood is even more modest, with blocks of wood framed houses and small brick buildings. This whole neighborhood was predominantly Italian by the beginning of the 20th century, and well into the first half of the century.
St. Benedict the Moor Catholic Church was built for a predominantly German Catholic parish in 1874. In 1894, the church hired German-American architect and builder Franz Joseph Berlenbach, Jr. to design a large new school for the growing church. The Berlenbachs, father and son, were very active in Williamsburg as builders, their most famous building being their own home, a Queen Anne confection on Meserole Street. F.J. Jr. was very active as an architect for the Catholic Church, and was the architect for the beautiful St. Joseph’s on Pacific Street in Prospect Heights.
This school is reminiscent of his Romanesque Revival-style Annunciation School on Havermeyer Street in Williamsburg, built for the Dominican order. The upper stories have great arched windows, with thick brick voussoirs capped with limestone “eyebrows.” The carved Byzantine leaf ornament, another hallmark of the Romanesque style, is used sparingly, but to great effect, especially in the elaborately carved name of the school in the frieze over the door.
Today, this neighborhood is very different than when the school was built. By the 1960s, the neighborhood was lumped together with Brownsville, and became a catch phrase for poverty and urban unrest. St. Benedict’s Church and School closed in 1974, and were eventually sold to the Mt. Sinai Church of God In Christ. They operate a Head Start school program and day care center here, and also have some housing in the building.
There has been a lot of new construction in the area, with blocks of new two- and three-family houses replacing the run-down wood framed houses that once stood here. The buildings of St. Benedict’s Church and School remain a constant, and stand out as a community anchor in this neighborhood that is struggling to come back. GMAP