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Brooklyn Heights Association

 

Sometimes listed as BHA.

Description

The Brooklyn Heights Association was founded to promote the welfare and interests of the residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, New York. Today, it works to protect the architectural fabric and visual landscape of the neighborhood.

Key Dates in Preservation Activity

Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, 1945
Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 1950
Brooklyn Heights Historic District, 1958 - 1965
Cadman Plaza Renewal/Slum Clearance, 1960
Mothers’ Protest, Cadman Plaza Co-ops, July 1960
New York City Landmarks Law, 1965
Pierrepont Hotel Conversion, 1975-1976

History

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) was founded in 1910, making it the oldest ongoing neighborhood association in the five boroughs1. The BHA had long focused on maintaining quality of life and neighborhood character and built its constituency by opposing projects that threatened the residential character of the neighborhood and housing issues raised by urban renewal projects and highway construction.
As early as 1937, with the BHA's publication of Brooklyn Heights Yesterday Today Tomorrow by B. Meredith Langstaff, the BHA used the area's distinctive architectural character as a tool to promote preservation of Brooklyn Heights (though the term historic preservation would not be used to describe the goal for another 20-plus years2).

Involvement with Preservation Campaigns

Throughout its history, BHA has been an important force in opposing developments which threatened the character of the Brooklyn Heights community. Beginning in the 1940s BHA’s major tasks came from opposition of Robert Moses (a catalyst for growing preservation constituencies elsewhere). BHA successfully combated Moses' plan to bisect the neighborhood with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) and another iteration of the BQE as a 6-lane, 70 foot wide highway on the west bank of Brooklyn by rallying popular and political opposition (including that of Brooklyn Borough President, John Cashmore) that resulted in the double-decker expressway covered by the now beloved promenade3. The BHA opposed construction of the Jehovah's Witnesses dormitory in Columbia Heights, though this campaign was not a success. The BHA and Moses also clashed over his campaign for “slum clearance” in the Cadman Plaza area in 19604.

This project, threatened broad swath destruction to be replaced by apartment buildings with high-cost apartments under the Title One program. BHA successfully lobbied for more family-sized apartments to be constructed, attracting residents who would be invested in the community. In the 1960s, BHA organized popular and political support against the construction of tall buildings along the Brooklyn Heights waterfront that would block scenic views. BHA eventually gained a 50-foot height limit on new construction on the water and defended the height ordinance against inappropriate development in subsequent years5.

In the mid-1950s BHA was in a precarious position financially and institutionally. Brooklyn Heights had begun to change, as well. New residents, mainly young professionals and their families, moved to the Heights and took an interest in revitalizing the neighborhood. These new residents recognized that the special character of Brooklyn Heights had much to do with the historic, human-scale architecture and infused into the neighborhood enthusiasm, energy, and the idea of maintaining the residential character by preserving its architecture. These new residents started the Community Conservation & Improvement Council, known as CCIC (“kick”)6. CCIC recruited BHA's William Fisher to its early leadership. CCIC introduced the “Bard Act” to Brooklyn Heights and with it, the idea of special zoning to protect the architecture of the neighborhood7. CCIC’s declaration in 1959 that it would introduce a resolution for such an ordinance and the popular support for the idea forced the BHA to recognize this new approach to improving its neighborhood. BHA formed a committee to address the ideas of CCIC and selected Fisher to head the committee.

CCIC’s energy and ideas soon began to transform the more established, complacent BHA. Though they remained two groups with different approaches to the same set of issues, the leadership of the two organizations overlapped considerably. William Fisher, Otis Pratt Pearsall, and Arden Rathkopf were extremely active and shaped policy in both organizations. CCIC and BHA began to work in tandem to determine new ways to preserve Brooklyn Heights. Aided by a growing constituency in Brooklyn Heights and citywide for preservation, BHA stocked its arsenal with the Bard Act and the list of “Buildings on Brooklyn Heights” included within the Municipal Art Society and Society of Architectural Historians’ Index of Architecturally Notable Structures8. CCIC and BHA were enmeshed by the time they jointly introduced a 'Historic Zoning' resolution for the city, drafted by Arden Rathkopf, at the April 13, 1959 City Planning Commission public hearing9. BHA would follow Rathkopf’s advice and support the ordinance for the entire city as opposed to CCIC’s preference to push application of the 'historic zoning' only to Brooklyn Heights. Zoning would remain at the forefront of BHA’s agenda. At the group's May 1959 annual meeting, Planning Commissioner James Felt spoke on zoning and the use of the Bard Act to bring about protection for historic and architectural resources10. Though, Felt encouraged Brooklyn Heights to join city-wide efforts for legislation to protect historic resources rather than the singular district sought by one group of Brooklyn Heights residents.

Though BHA and CCIC’s resolution was not adopted by the City Planning Commission as part of the 1961 zoning resolution, the terms brought forth by BHA and CCIC connected the dots between the raw materials: the Bard Act, and the desire to preserve architectural character of an entire neighborhood. Rathkopf's zoning resolution bore strong resemblance to the Landmarks Law that would eventually be adopted in 1965 to make Brooklyn Heights New York City's first historic district.

Archives, Personal files, and Ephemera

“Discover New York” Brooklyn Walking Tour, organized by Henry Hope Reed, Jr., published in the New York Herald Tribune, 6 May 1962.
The BHA established a Design Advisory Council run by architects who lived in Brooklyn Heights to advise residents on conservation of historic buildings.
The Design Advisory committee also gave plaques to Brooklyn Heights' homeowners to publicize the houses' construction dates.
Historic House Tours, 1985 - present

Archival Materials
Brooklyn Heights Association Archive
Brooklyn Heights Association
55 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
718-858-9193
[email protected]

Otis Pratt Pearsall Archive, contact NYPAP for more information.
174 East 80th Street
New York, NY 10075
212-988-8379
[email protected]

New York Public Library:
Brooklyn Heights Press for Apr. 28-May 5, 19, 1939-Oct. 9, 1942, Aug. 27, 1943-Jan. 7 1944 on microfilm.
Brooklyn Heights Press and Cobble Hill News February 4, 1965 - to Present in print.
Brooklyn Public Library:
Brooklyn Heights Press, November 17, 1939-December 31, 1959 on microfilm.
Brooklyn Heights Press and Cobble Hill News, February 4, 1965-Present in print.
Interviews
"Otis Pratt Pearsall's Reminiscences of the Nine Year Effort to Designate Brooklyn Heights as New York City's First Historic District and Its First Limited Heights District," Village Views 7, no. 2 (1995):29-48.
Charles B. Hosmer, Jr., "Interview with Otis Pratt Pearsall," June 25, 1982, Eastern National Park and Monument Association, Charles Bridgeham Hosmer, Jr. Papers, National Trust for Historic Preservation Library Collection and Archives, University of Maryland at College Park Libraries.

  • 1. Wood, Anthony C. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. New York: Routledge, 2007. 200.
  • 2. Langstaff, Meredith B. Brooklyn Heights Yesterday Today Tomorrow. New York: Brooklyn Heights Association, 1937.
  • 3. Wood.
  • 4. "Cadman Plaza Sponsor Chosen For Family CO-Op Apartments." New York Times. 10 Feb 1961.
  • 5. "Zoning Code Lauded Here." Brooklyn Heights Press. 22 Dec 1960.
  • 6. "New Group Charts Plan For Housing." Brooklyn Heights Press. 24 Dec 1958.
  • 7. Gregory F. Gilmartin. Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society. (Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995) Page 365.
  • 8. Anthony C. Wood. Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City's Landmarks. (New York: Routledge, 2007).
  • 9. "BHA Pleads for 'Historic Zoning.'" Brooklyn Heights Press. April 16, 1959.
  • 10. James Felt, "Zoning for a Better City." The Brooklyn Heights Association 50th Annual Meeting Minutes. May 11, 1959.