Dyker Heights, one of the southernmost sections of Brooklyn, was developed as an upscale suburb. It was the vision of one family, the Johnson family. Patriarch Frederick Johnson bought the land that would become Dyker Heights in 1888.
This was the DeRussy estate, established by Brigadier General René Edward DeRussy of the United States Army. He was a military engineer, responsible for the building of many fortifications and fortresses during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. DeRussy’s estate overlooked Fort Hamilton, which had been built to his specifications.
Frederick Johnson realized that this bucolic location, with its hills overlooking the harbor, the clean, cooling ocean breezes, and the vast amount of land, was ripe for development. By 1888, Brooklyn’s population was already moving further and further out from its central core downtown.
Johnson knew it was only a matter of time, and he was sitting on a potential goldmine. His estate was part of the greater town of New Utrecht, one of the six founding towns that make up Kings County.
He petitioned hard to have New Utrecht annexed to the City of Brooklyn, but died in 1892, two years before that happened. It would be up to his son Walter to take up the challenge.
As mentioned in our first chapter, Walter was up for the challenge. He decided to put his toes in the water slowly, and at first only built three houses; one for himself, one for Walter Parfitt, his architect, and one for Arthur S. Tuttle, the Assistant Engineer of The Water Supply of The City Works Department of The City of Brooklyn.
All three houses were designed by Parfitt, the eldest of the well-known Parfitt Brothers architectural firm of Brooklyn. The houses were greeted with great admiration and enthusiasm, and so Walter dove in, and started the first thirty houses in his new Dyker Heights neighborhood.
Johnson did it right, he still hadn’t quit his day job yet. But he did gather his team together, and got the infrastructure of his development established. They extended the street grid, paved roads, graded the land, laid the sewers, electric, telephone and gas lines, and paved the streets.
He had the sidewalks landscaped with maple trees, and Walter Parfitt got to work designing the houses. By 1897, he had quit his job and was immersed in his real estate venture full time.
The houses began coming on the market in 1896 and ’97. In 1897, the Brooklyn Eagle wrote, “Mr. Johnson has met with great success in the development of Dyker Heights and had probably done more business and made more sales during the past year than all the rest of the surrounding settlements combined.” Johnson did so with a combination of good product and great advertising.
He flooded the papers, especially the Brooklyn Eagle, with ads. He figured correctly that the location, with its high ground and magnificent ocean view, along with the snob appeal of a restricted community would sell the houses. He was right. The first thirty houses flew off the shelf.
The Wall Street Journal penned in 1899 that they recommended Dyker Heights to “the busy man of Wall Street.” He could get to his desk from home in 45 minutes, by taking the ferry at 39th Street across the river to Manhattan.
He could easily get to the ferry from the Nassau Line elevated train at 86th Street. The paper said the trip was “as invigorating as the Dyker Heights climate was healthy.”
The Journal wrote several different articles espousing the virtues of living in Dyker Heights. They talked about the houses themselves and the building restrictions that would be in effect until 1915.
These restrictions assured that the houses would be set back from the street a certain distance, and that the houses had to conform to certain standards of style and size. (They had to be large, of course.)
But the biggest draw was the location and the view. You just couldn’t do better than that view of the ocean that enabled one to see from the Narrows to Sandy Hook, and out into the Atlantic.
His friend Walter Parfitt really didn’t want a second career as a developer at this point in his life. He was getting older, had already lost one of his brothers, and had a large family that he wanted to be with. He would be content with his own firm’s work, and his involvement in the community as one of its leading citizens.
He got his brother Albert to design the Dyker Heights Club, the exclusive men’s club for the neighborhood’s exclusive residents. It opened in 1898. Walter Johnson liked the club so much, he moved his real estate office there, and started to plan Phase Two of his development.
He needed a full time architect, since Walter or Albert Parfitt weren’t available, and found the right man in Constantine Schubert. He was a local man with a thriving career, designing buildings primarily in Coney Island, Gravesend, Borough Park, Bath Beach and Bay Ridge. Schubert moved to Dyker Heights and bought a home.
After he was hired as the chief architect, he moved his own offices into the Dyker Heights Clubhouse, as well. He and Walter Johnson would have a very long and mutually beneficial business relationship.
As Walter was developing the rest of the plots from his family’s property, he started to buy up adjoining farmland.
Dyker Heights would expand far beyond the borders of the old DeRussy estate. Johnson’s Dyker Heights stretched from 79th Street in the north, 86th Street in the south, 10th Avenue in the west and around 300 feet east of 13th Avenue in the east. Constantine Schubert designed practically all of the rest of the houses outside of the first 33 Parfitt houses.
J. Constantine Schubert became very active in the Dyker Heights community. Of course, he was a member of the Dyker Heights Club, but he also became president of the Improvement League of what was the city’s 30th Ward.
The league was like a combination modern-day block association and community board. It was supposed to be non-partisan, and was composed of smaller micro-districts within the community. Anyone who wanted to be a part of this had to be a homeowner or taxpayer, and they paid dues to belong.
In 1903, that was $3. The smaller groups sent delegates to the League, which in turn elected a central committee. That central committee had officers, and in 1903, Constantine Schubert was the President.
Walter Parfitt was one of the directors of the League as well. The League concerned itself with many of the everyday matters of living in Dyker Heights. They had committees for Post Office concerns, transportation, land use, the harbor, telephone service, libraries, etc.
They were constantly petitioning Borough President Swanstrom for city services like sewers, paved streets and for improved transportation. It was an ongoing war, as even after being annexed to the rest of New York City, Brooklyn was still growing, especially in the outer wards.
By 1905, Walter L. Johnson had pretty much finished the neighborhood. Schubert had designed hundreds of houses. Churches, schools, clubs and commercial streets had been added and developed. It was time to look for new projects. Walter Johnson and C. Schubert still had more ideas, and other neighborhoods to build. We’ll conclude this story, next time.
(Constantine Schubert House, Dyker Heights. Porch has been bricked in and enclosed, and is not original to the house. Photo: Wikipedia)