A 19th-Century Visionary Creates Novel Tenement With Light and Air for Working Poor in Cobble Hill

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Air, light, affordability and profitability were all part of Victorian civic reformer Alfred Tredway White’s vision of housing for the working poor. In 1879 he undertook his second major housing development, the Tower Buildings, stretching across the full block of Hicks between Warren and Baltic in Cobble Hill. Famous for his motto “philanthropy plus 5 percent,” White believed it was possible for housing to benefit both the residents and developer of a property.

Designed by William Field & Son, the striking-looking complex includes nine red-brick, six-story buildings whose highly original appearance echoes Gothic Revival, Neo-Grec and Romanesque Revival. Thanks to lessons learned from the ills of tenement buildings earlier in the century, air circulation was prioritized with staircases located in brick towers pierced with openings and accessible across the facade via perforated iron balconies.

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Such attention to the comforts of the working class was praised at the time and White’s efforts described as a model tenement. In Constructive and Preventive Philanthropy by Joseph Lee (with a forward by reformer Jacob Riis), the amenities of the building were described as:

The apartments are “self-contained”; rooms are supplied with water, a clothes-press with shelf and hooks, a place for a stove, and a coal-box, holding a quarter of a ton . . . There are closet and shelves in each kitchen to serve as a pantry . . . Children can play in the courtyard, and also in the cellar or covered verandas when it rains. There is a band of eight pieces for two hours on Saturday afternoons in summer.

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Alfred Tredway White’s housing legacy in Brooklyn includes the Home Buildings (1876-77) on Hicks Street, the Warren Place Worker’s Cottages (1878) and the Riverside (1890) on Columbia Place, all designed by William Field & Son. The Tower Buildings, now known as Cobble Hill Towers, were converted to condos in 2010.

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[Photos by Susan De Vries]

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