Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Semi-detached brick houses
Address: 897-901 Herkimer Street
Cross Streets: Buffalo and Ralph avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant (Ocean Hill)
Year Built: Before 1880
Architectural Style: Vernacular Italianate
The story: Brooklyn can be like an archeological dig sometimes. Hidden on side streets, far from modern development and often neglected by progress, are hidden historic gems. Sometimes it’s an old mansion, a church or school, or sometimes it’s just an interesting building that has been passed over in time. Sometimes they are big, but like here, often they are quite small. The great thing is that these buildings are still there, the sad thing is that there is often little or no information about them. But they are a fascinating look at what life was like in Brooklyn for many people. These houses are a mystery, and I like mysteries.
Nos. 897 and 901 Herkimer Street are located in the part of Bedford Stuyvesant called Ocean Hill. The name’s been around a long time, since 1890. When it was settled, this part of Bedford had hills, and being very, very central Brooklyn, perhaps someone stood on this landlocked piece of town and joked about seeing the ocean. The hills made a good dividing line between the community of Stuyvesant Heights and Ocean Hill. Some parts of Ocean Hill, a bit farther north, were developed in the 1890s and early 1900s with attractive middle class row houses, some one-family, but mostly two-family houses. Here, a working man could buy a house, and have rental income, as well, to help him afford it.
Herkimer Street is an anomaly to this neighborhood history, in a lot of ways. Geographically, Fulton, Herkimer and Atlantic Avenue branch off sideways, off the rest of the neighborhood grid. Herkimer is a residential street, sandwiched between two commercial streets, and is often forgotten or overlooked. This is true all along its length, but never as true as in Ocean Hill.
There are no records for these two houses, but they are early, and predate the development in the neighborhood by decades. The 1880 city map is the earliest map I have access to, and the two houses are the only masonry houses on this side of the block, surrounded by a couple of wood framed buildings, and a lot of empty space. So they were built, perhaps, in the 1870s. Over on Fulton Street, the Catholic Church had already been established, as this would be a very Catholic neighborhood, with German and Irish Catholics, later to be supplanted by Italians. The trolley lines also extended here on Fulton Street and you can see the LIRR tracks on Atlantic Avenue, on the bottom of the picture. Many of the street names have been changed, but Buffalo Street remains.
So what were these buildings? Were they always one-story houses? Were they originally stables? Were they built, perhaps, for workers in the neighborhood, maybe for the church, or were they just humble homes built sturdily out of brick? The one at 897 had a half story with a dormer added, or perhaps both looked like this at one time. We’ll never know. It sits on a footprint of 20 by 25 feet, and has a living space of 625 square feet. That’s the size of a small one-bedroom apartment. The one at 901 is 18 by 25 feet, and is only 540 square feet. Tiny cottages for us today, but many people live in small quarters; it’s only today that we complain about space.
Both houses have garages or outbuildings in the back, but fencing obscures the details. The cornice on 901 looks like the simple cornice of many a Brooklyn stable, but both houses have been altered so much over the years, with stone facing on and off, brick exposed and painted over, it’s hard to tell anything. No. 901, in the 1980s tax photo, was brick then, and looked great. These little houses have had more work done to them than most buildings ever see.
This part of Brooklyn was the tail end of the Lefferts family holdings. Not that far from here, within easy walking distance, the African American communities of Weeksville and Carrville were established in the early 1840s, built on land bought from the Lefferts. Researchers are only now beginning to realize how large this community was, and how far out people who considered themselves in Weeksville lived. Perhaps even as far as here. We don’t know. Even if this block was not a part of those communities, there were people here before Ocean Hill became a neighborhood. These little houses have so much to tell about those rural days in Central Brooklyn. I hope more can be found out about them. I do love a mystery. GMAP
(Photograph: Christopher Bride for PropertyShark)