Building of the Day: 182-188 Duffield Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Duffield St. Houses, formerly Johnson St. Houses
Address: 182-188 Duffield Street
Cross Streets: Willoughby Street and Myrtle Avenue
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: Houses built between 1835 and 1845, moved to present location in 1990.
Architectural Style: 184-186: Greek Revival, 188: Remodeled in the 1880’s with Queen Anne and Second Empire elements.
Architect: (Builders) – Samuel Johnson and Francis Chichester
Landmarked: Yes, as a group (2001)

The story: During the 1820’s, the area around Johnson Street, in what is now Downtown Brooklyn, evolved as an upper middle-class enclave, surrounded by Brooklyn’s civic and business district and the working class district near the Navy Yard. The land was part of the old Johnson estate, founded by Berent Johnson, a Dutch farmer, who bought about 40 acres of land in 1755, between what is now Fulton Street and the Wallabout Creek, where present day Navy Street now runs. Berent Johnson died in the Revolutionary War, and his land was held in trust for his nine year old son. That son, John Berent Johnson, grew up and became a minister. He and his wife had three children, and then both of them died quite suddenly, leaving their young children to be raised by another relative, also a minister. Two of the sons eventually became Episcopalian ministers themselves, and the daughter married one. Ironically, his name was Johnson, too; Evan Johnson.

At adulthood, all of the Johnson children decided to develop the land their grandfather had left them. Brother-in-law Evan Johnson joined the team as well, intending to develop the street named after their grandfather as an upper middle-class enclave, with gracious homes set off from the street. The Johnson’s also gave the city right of way to build Adams and Tillary streets, thinking that the development of Downtown would help insure this plan.

Samuel Johnson, the youngest sibling, began building houses on the lots, with at least eight houses on Johnson Street to his name by 1850. Of the four surviving houses, three were built by him, between 1835 and 1845, and the fourth, number 184, was built as an investment property by a wealthy merchant named Francis Chichester, in 1847. The homes were occupied by many respectable people over the years: bankers, a civil engineer, teachers, an undertaker, bookkeeper and physician, all in keeping with the gentility wanted by the Johnson’s. The area maintained that gentility far longer than other parts of the neighborhoods surrounding it.

By 1915, however, all of the houses were now being used as rooming houses and multiple family dwellings. By 1925, most of the area of Johnson Street was comprised of working class Italian families. In the 1950’s, the construction of Cadman Plaza helped isolate the block, and many of the houses on Johnson Street were abandoned or underutilized. The construction of the Fulton Mall in 1977, and then Metro Tech in the early 1980’s spelled the doom of Johnson Street and these houses. In 1990, all four houses were moved from their original locations on Johnson Street, and placed here, to join St. Boniface Church. They were rescued because they represent some of the best examples of the fine architecture that made that part of Brooklyn so desirable to the middle class. The houses were restored, and now house a number of agencies, business offices, and non-profits. GMAP

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