Building of the Day: 1281 President Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Private house, now parsonage of Cornerstone Baptist Church
Address: 1281 President Street
Cross Streets: New York and Brooklyn avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights South
Year Built: 1900
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: President Street between New York and Troy avenues was once a quiet enclave for some of Brooklyn’s really well-to-do citizens in the early decades of the 20th century. In an article from 1912, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide states that these four blocks were set aside for private houses only, with the value of the land ranging from $9,000 to $50,000, depending on the size of the plot. Land only a block outside this enclave was valued at merely $2,500 to $5,000 per plot. Large suburban style houses, almost all of which were sturdy brick or limestone, were built before the early 1920s and became home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Today, this is one of the many “doctors row” streets that pop up in many cities, not just ours. Large houses and doctors, along with their offices, just seem to go together. Frustratingly, this part of Crown Heights South is one of the most difficult to investigate, as there are very few mentions of the blocks or the people who lived on them in the usual on-line sources. The Brooklyn Eagle has not been digitized past 1902, and most of these houses were not even built then. Very little information comes up in the Builders’ Guide either, which is actually rather surprising, and the early owners never did anything, good or bad, to make the New York Times. It was truly a quiet enclave.

What we do have are several long blocks of interesting architecture: large houses, many of which say “new money” in the architectural vernacular of the time. Yes, some of these were definitely the McMansions of their day, letting everyone know how much money people had. We know who designed a few of these houses, and they were some of the same architects designing large homes in Flatbush and Long Island. William Debus, who was responsible for the elegant limestone townhouses on Stuyvesant Avenue, designed here, as did the Cohn Brothers, who built many of the large apartment buildings on Ocean Avenue in Flatbush, on St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights, and elsewhere.

I don’t know who designed this house, although I have my suspicions, but it is one of the more elegant homes on the block between New York and Brooklyn avenues, arguably the best of the blocks, with the most architectural variety. The AIA Guide says that “a squat round tower with a conical tiles cupola makes this ordinary house into something special.” True enough, as does the house’s place on the street, with an elegant raised walkway leading up to the front entrance and a large porch in brick and limestone. Windows large and small give this house a lot of light, and make it much less ponderous than some of its neighbors. The spacious grounds lead to a large garage in the back of the property. Who wouldn’t want to live here?

Well, since the post-World War II years, a lot of people no longer wanted to live here, as money moved out of once posh neighborhoods and out into the new suburbs. Crown Heights was becoming a West Indian neighborhood, and on the eastern end of these four special blocks, the Lubavitcher Jewish community was also growing, making this neighborhood the world headquarters of the sect. They now own a majority of the buildings on these four blocks of properties.

In 1956, Cornerstone Baptist Church, one of the largest and most influential of Bedford Stuyvesant’s black churches, purchased this house as the pastor’s residence, which it remains to this day. The first pastor from Cornerstone to live here was the Rev. Dr. Sandy F. Ray, Cornerstone’s most famous and influential minister, who led the church from 1944 to 1979. Cornerstone’s pastors have always had to commute; the church is on Madison Street and Lewis Avenue, far more than a long walk from here. GMAP

(Photograph: Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark)

1281 President Street, on far left, and neighbors.