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Brooklyn Heights Association

Brooklyn Heights Association

The Brooklyn Heights Association was founded in 1910 to promote the neighborhood’s welfare and interests, including the preservation of its unique architectural character.

Location: 55 Pierrepont Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201  |  Google Maps
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
People: John Cashmore, James Felt, William Fisher, B. Meredith Langstaff, Robert Moses, Otis Pratt Pearsall, Arden Rathkopf
Organizations: Community Conservation & Improvement CouncilMunicipal Art Society, Society of Architectural Historians
Above: Brooklyn Heights, 1975; Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) was founded to promote the welfare and interests of the residential neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights. Today, it works to protect the architectural fabric and visual landscape of the neighborhood through a Design Advisory Council to advise residents on conservation of historic buildings, a plaque program, and conducting historic house tours.

1910: Brooklyn Heights Association founded

1945: The Brooklyn-Queens Expressway is constructed

1950: The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is built

1958-65: The fight to create the Brooklyn Heights Historic District is waged

April 13, 1959: Community Conservation & Improvement Council and Brooklyn Heights Association introduce an "Historic Zoning" resolution for New York City at a City Planning Commission public hearing

1960: The Cadman Plaza Renewal and slum clearance threatens the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights

1965: The New York City Landmarks Law is signed into law

November 23, 1965: Brooklyn Heights becomes New York City's first historic district


The Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA) was founded in 1910, making it the oldest ongoing neighborhood association in the five boroughs.1 Throughout its history BHA has focused on maintaining quality of life and neighborhood character and the organization 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 years).2

Throughout its history, the BHA has been an important force in opposing developments that 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). The BHA successfully combated Moses' plan to bisect the neighborhood with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE) and another iteration of the BQE as a six-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 Brooklyn Heights Promenade.3 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 1960.4

The Cadman Plaza project threatened broad swathes of the neighborhood with demolition, to be replaced by residential buildings with high-cost apartments under the Title One program. The 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 years.5

In the mid-1950s, the 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 the neighborhood with 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 neighborhood.7 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 Structures.8 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 hearing.9 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 resources.10 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.

 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 200.
Meredith B. Langstaff, Brooklyn Heights Yesterday Today Tomorrow (New York: Brooklyn Heights Association, 1937).
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), pages 201-202.
”Cadman Plaza Sponsor Chosen For Family Co-op Apartments,” The New York Times, 10 February 1961.
”Zoning Code Lauded Here,” Brooklyn Heights Press, 22 December 1960.
”New Group Charts Plan For Housing,” Brooklyn Heights Press, 24 December 1958.
Gregory F. Gilmartin, Shaping the City: New York and the Municipal Art Society (Clarkson Potter/Publishers: New York, 1995), page 365.
 Anthony C. Wood, Preserving New York: Winning the Right to Protect A City’s Landmarks (New York: Routledge, 2008), page 214.
 “BHA Pleads for ‘Historic Zoning,'” Brooklyn Heights Press, 16 April 1959.
  10. James Felt, “Zoning for a Better City,” The Brooklyn Heights Association 50th Annual Meeting Minutes, 11 May 1959.