Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Richard Upjohn House
Address: 296 Clinton Street
Cross Streets: Corner Baltic Street
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill
Year Built: 1842-43, alterations and additions: between 1860 and 1893
Architectural Style: Greek Revival. 1893 addition is Romanesque Revival
Architect: Richard Upjohn, alterations and additions by Richard M. Upjohn
Other Work by Architect: Christ Church, Cobble Hill, Grace Church, Church of the Pilgrims, now our Lady of Lebanon, Brooklyn Heights, Trinity Church, Manhattan, (father) St. George Episcopal, Bed Stuy, St. Paul’s Church, Cobble Hill, CT State Capitol, Hartford, (son) gates of Green-Wood Cemetery (both).
Landmarked: Yes, part of Cobble Hill HD (1969)
The story: One would not necessarily think that behind this rather humble and plain façade lived one of the most important architects of the mid-19th century and his very talented son. Richard Upjohn, Sr. was one of this country’s most influential architects of his day, the leader of the American Gothic Revival movement, and the designer of some of the most beautiful and important examples of Gothic Revival church architecture in the country. Most people may not know him by name, but for many, Broadway’s Trinity Church, in Lower Manhattan, is the quintessential New York church, made even more iconic by 9/11. That was Richard Upjohn.
He was born in England, only twenty miles from Salisbury Cathedral, and grew up with the Gothic churches and medieval keeps that would influence his work. Trained as a carpenter, surveyor, and draftsman, he came to the United States in 1829 at the age of 27. He lived in Boston, and began his career as an architect there; introducing Gothic principals to churches he designed in Massachusetts and Maine. Catching the attention of Rev. Jonathan Wainwright of Manhattan’s Trinity Church, the oldest Episcopal church in the city, he was brought to NYC to consult on repairs to the church. The church, the second to stand at that location, needed too many repairs, so he ended up designing a brand new church, and was able for the first time to implement many of his ideas about Gothic into this church. It remains a masterpiece.
While the designs for Trinity were percolating, Upjohn was called to design a Gothic style church for the Christ Church parish in Cobble Hill, and while he was here, fell in love with the neighborhood. He bought the land for this house in 1842, just days after Christ Church was finished, and designed a large three story house here on the corner of Clinton and Baltic. The family moved in in 1843, while Trinity was still being constructed, and Upjohn lived here for many years.
Richard Michell Upjohn, his son, had also been born in England, and was only a year old when the family sailed to Boston in 1829. He lived in this house from the age of fifteen, and at eighteen, joined his father in the family firm. His first solo commission was Madison Square Presbyterian Church, in Manhattan, designed in 1853, when young Richard Jr. was twenty-four. He is perhaps best known for his design of the State Capitol building in Hartford, Connecticut. Together, father and son would collaborate on many designs, the most famous of which are the wonderfully Gothic brownstone gates of Green-Wood Cemetery.
Both men designed buildings other than churches, and worked on commissions well outside of New York. In 1857 both Upjohns, along with twelve other architects, founded the American Institute of Architects. Papa Upjohn was the organization’s first president, and much later, his son would also become president of the organization. After a long career, too long to go into here, but certainly rich in architectural goodies, Richard Upjohn retired to Garrison NY, where he died in 1878.
The house that Richard Upjohn designed for himself and his family is deceptively plain. Like many people, perhaps he just didn’t want to take his work home with him. His original house was three stories tall, and the original cornice and roofline can easily be seen. It originally had a bay window in the front. When Richard M. took over, he made significant changes to the building. Between 1860 and 1893, he got rid of the bay window and instead swelled the façade outward, creating a bow front. He replaced the windows with the tripartite windows now there and added another floor, capping the new story with a new roofline with a cornice that references the original, making both a distinctive part of the design.
Upjohn and his moved to nearby Woodhull Street in the 1870s, and this was now a rental property and was already divided up into smaller units. In 1893, he added a large five story Romanesque Revival annex on the back Baltic Street side of the property. It takes up the entire rest of the lot, so there is no outdoor space on this property at all. It has a separate doorway, and is generally regarded as 203 Baltic Street. Today, the entire property has 13 units. The house is listed in numerous guides to Cobble Hill, but one could walk by this house every day for years, and never realize that the great architect who designed Christ Church, only a block away, and the son who gave us the great gates at Green-wood, where he’s now interred, once called this building home. GMAP
Editor’s note: This post has been updated.
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