The proposed Prospect Heights Apartment House District is made up of one hundred and six (106) apartment buildings built between 1909 and 1929. The buildings are of similar design with varied ornamental flourishes giving the district basic design consistency. The district was promoted by the Prospect Park Commissioners with a view to attracting high quality development to complement and be complemented by the Park, Museum, Botanic Garden and Library. It represents a unique period in Brooklyn history when building patterns shifted and a new type of urban dwelling was built for a rising middle class.
The story of the Prospect Heights Apartment House District begins in 1861, when Brooklyn’s city fathers retained civil engineer Egbert Viele to design a grand park in the middle of the city of Brooklyn. Viele’s plan for Prospect Park took in an area that today would include the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, as well as the Mount Prospect Reservoir, which had been completed in 1856 near the site of the Brooklyn Public Library. His plan also included lands extending north between Vanderbilt Avenue and Washington Avenue to what is now Prospect Place.
The newly-formed Parks Commission, chaired by prominent businessman James Stranahan, bought up or condemned the property necessary to build Viele’s design, but before construction could begin, the Civil War broke out. Viele, who was a captain in the Engineer Corps of the Seventh New York Regiment, was called into service.
With work on Prospect Park stalled, Stranahan met with Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, the designers of Manhattan’s Central Park, and asked that they review Viele’s plan. Olmsted and Vaux recommended changes to the design that would not require Prospect Park to be bisected by Flatbush Avenue. The Parks Commission agreed to move forward with the new plan, removing the lands east of Flatbush Avenue and north of Eastern Parkway from the design, and acquiring additional property to the west and south.
The city retained the land surrounding the reservoir, but planned to sell off the rest of the property no longer being considered for Prospect Park. The first sales took place in 1881 and 1888, and resulted in the construction of new row houses on Prospect Place, Park Place, Underhill Avenue and Sterling Place. However, a large area of land between Vanderbilt Avenue, Washington Avenue, St. Johns Place and Eastern Parkway was mired in litigation challenging the city’s use of eminent domain, and remained undeveloped.
Title to the remaining area of the East Side Park Lands was finally cleared in 1892. Those lots had also been intended for the development of row houses. But exciting changes began to come. The Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch was dedicated at Grand Army Plaza in 1892. An iconic pink granite water tower was added at the Mount Prospect Reservoir in 1893. The Brooklyn Museum broke ground in 1895 and was opened to the public in 1897; the Brooklyn Botanic Garden opened in 1910. By 1903, plans for subway service along Eastern Parkway were announced. Developers began consolidating the town house lots in expectation of demand for apartments, with the first four-story multifamily buildings appearing on St. Johns Place in 1909.
The signing of a contract for the Eastern Parkway IRT line in 1913 further spurred development. Subway construction began in 1915. By 1917, fifty-two apartment buildings had been completed in the district. By 1929, another thirty buildings rounded out the new apartment house district.
The architecture of the district is consistent in type and remains remarkably intact since its initial construction. Comprised primarily of apartment buildings ranging from four to fifteen stories, the district also encompasses a series of four three-story mixed use buildings wedged between larger buildings on Underhill Avenue, and an historic synagogue building, whose scale and appearance match the adjacent multi-story apartments fronting Eastern Parkway. The predominant building material throughout is masonry and limestone alongside red and cream-colored brick, with occasional marble, terracotta and wood details. Stylistically, the architecture of the district parallels the major revivalist design trends of the early twentieth century, including Beaux Arts, Renaissance, Tudor, Moorish and Colonial Revival styles. Throughout the proposed district, the majority of apartment house buildings are characterized by narrow front gardens, paved areaways and entry courts. The district's coherence is in its apartment house character, and uniformity of building type and use, despite the variations in expression, materials, footprint, and scale.
Following the landmark 1893 Chicago World's Fair, the exposition's Beaux Arts design was soon emulated in residential construction. Along with Renaissance Revival, these architectural styles were appropriated by developers to appeal to a new class of upwardly mobile urban dwellers. Referencing an aggrandized Greco-Roman past, the district's earliest buildings incorporated many renaissance revival details into their facades. The apartments lining the north side of St. Johns Place (c. 1909-1912) made use of rusticated bases, arched windows, quoining and classical porticos to lend gravitas to four story walk-ups. More elaborate early examples like the Sterling Arms (296 Sterling Place, c. 1910) expanded on the classical language, making use of ornamental cornices and wrought iron balconies. The Martinique (163 Eastern Parkway, c. 1916), with its pediments, swags and corbels, takes cues from the Beaux Arts Brooklyn Museum (1897) just across Eastern Parkway.
With the arrival of the subway in 1920, developers promoted Renaissance Revival Buildings as equal alternatives to the style and amenities of the luxury buildings lining Park Avenue. Large apartment buildings like the Copley Plaza (41 Eastern Parkway,c. 1926), Turner Towers (135 Eastern Parkway, c. 1926) and the Prospect Lane and Plaza Lane, (36 and 50 Plaza Street East, c.1925) sought to complement the neighborhood's grand cultural institutions and monuments.
During the mid-1910s, the Colonial Revival architecture also influenced construction in the district. At 350 and 338 Lincoln Place, architects appropriated the red brick facades, simplified entryways, square pilasters and dentil moldings from this style. And, along Eastern Parkway, developers even named their red brick buildings after Abraham Lincoln, Martha Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, referencing the nation's history during a time of rapid changes in urban development and population growth.
The district had great appeal for a middle class population seeking better housing and a salutary environment. Not only was it close to Prospect Park and Brooklyn’s cultural institutions, ads for new apartments promised a twelve-minute commute by subway to Wall Street, and a twenty-minute commute to Times Square. On Lincoln Place, some buildings used ground floor breezeways to link up to the adjoining building on Eastern Parkway, thereby shortening residents’ walk to the subway! Buildings like Turner Towers offered “Park Avenue Apartments on Eastern Parkway,” positioning the district as a fashionable destination for new tenants. Many apartment houses with their grand entrances and spacious lobbies, had at the ground floors mixed residential and office units for a new professional class, (doctors, dentists), which included a substantial number of first and second generation immigrants. Many such professional spaces remain in use in the district today.