Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2011 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
By the 1880s, Clinton Hill was experiencing its largest growth spurt as one of the best neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Its two main showcase streets, Clinton and Washington avenues, were being built and rebuilt upon by some of the city’s most successful entrepreneurs and businessmen. Freestanding mansions, semi-detached, and attached row houses line both of these streets, each one larger and finer than the next.
These three houses at 400-404 Washington Avenue are designed to look like one very large mansion, yet each separate house has its own personality and design elements that are unique unto itself. There was no attempt to cookie-cutter build here.
The architect, Mercein Thomas, was responsible for quite a few buildings in Clinton Hill, many for people of more modest means, but he could build them grandly, when needed, even for speculative housing.
Thomas was a hard working architect whose name pops up in much of brownstone Brooklyn. He was very busy in Clinton Hill from between 1878 and the early 20th century. He also is on record for factories in the DUMBO area, as well as his largest work, the Methodist Home for the Aged, on Park Place in Crown Heights North. Thomas and his wife lived not far from the Washington Avenue houses, on Cumberland Street, in Fort Greene.
The buildings were built in 1885 for developer George Harvey, who had very successful people in mind as buyers. The massing of shapes, the ornament and materials, as well as the gravitas of these houses all announce success, and a worthiness of living on this grand street.
These houses have all the details that I love about Romanesque and Queen Anne houses: the mixture of materials, the turrets, bays, porticos and balconies, the masterful use of arches, fine brickwork, and the liberal use of ornament.
Thomas freely decorated these houses with terra-cotta, as well as carved stone ornament. The corner house especially near the entrance, has Byzantine Leaf carved ornament, with faces and animals, (a boar) peeking out of the leaves.
The first house, No. 400, has a spectacular, and rather scary, terra-cotta frieze of a wild, horned spirit, flanked by two demonic animals, with tiny dragons popping out of the buds in the foliage. After years of neglect, these buildings are finally getting a new lease on life. They remain some of the best later rowhouses in Clinton Hill.
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