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A History of 183 Columbia Heights by Montrose Morris

Montrose Morris, our resident architectural historian, brings us the ins and outs of 183 Columbia Heights, the property we’re imagining as spacious three-bedrooms with great views in a stellar location. You can download the complete history here, or have a look below.

Brooklyn Heights was New York City’s first suburb, settled by wealthy bankers and merchants who did business in Manhattan, their farmlands becoming the streets of houses and businesses that would take their names – Pierrepont, Remsen, Livingston, Middagh and Hicks.  Robert Fulton’s steamboat, invented in 1814, enabled people to have quick passage between Fulton St. piers in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it wasn’t long after, starting in the 1820’s, that Brooklyn Heights started to grow, and grow quickly. Most of Brooklyn Heights was subdivided into large 25×100 foot lots, which give this part of Brooklyn the stately grandeur and wealthy grace the neighborhood carries to this day. By the mid 1900’s, the streets that overlooked the water, such as Columbia Heights, were among the most desired streets in Brooklyn Heights. They afforded residents a spectacular view of the harbor and lower Manhattan, while being high enough to avoid unpleasant sights or odors from the shore. In the days before the Promenade, the houses on the north side of the street had grounds that swept down the hill, and stairs and a small bridge, called the Penny Bridge, for the toll charged for crossing, enabled people to reach the lower grounds from Montague Street.

As the homes for the wealthy grew by the mid-19th century, so too did the need for service establishments. For many years, 183 Columbia Heights was a stable, with rooms to let on its upper floors, usually to local servants, or those looking for work as such, in the area. In 1872, the stable belonged to Mr. John T. Martin. He boarded people as well as horses, offering two rooms to let, and several advertisements in the Brooklyn Eagle were posted by people looking for work as domestics, who were boarding, or at least getting messages, at the stable.  In 1880, an ad is posted specifically for two rooms to let for boarders, while also advertising the services of the stable.

By the late 1890’s, most of Brooklyn Heights had been built up, and the Heights was still one of the wealthiest parts of Brooklyn, still home to Brooklyn’s “old money”. Newer  fashionable sections of Brooklyn, like Park Slope, Clinton Hill and St. Marks were expanding with mansions and expensive homes, but the Heights was still home to the most influential and important people in the city. Nearby Montague Street was a microcosm of the growth of the area. The southern part of the street was dotted with successful banks and trusts, housed in magnificent and impressive buildings. Their boards of directors lived in the neighborhood. Further up Montague were the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Mercantile Library, as well as the exclusive Crescent Athletic Club, and the Casino Club. Heights residents could worship at several magnificent churches in the area, including Holy Trinity on Montague. The Long Island Historical Society, in its terra-cotta grandeur stood on nearby Pierrepont St, and the Packer Collegiate School was home to elite Brooklyn’s young ladies.  So too, was something new: the luxury hotel and apartment building.

In 1885, the architectural firm, Parfitt Brothers, built the Montague, Grosvenor and Berkeley apartment buildings on Montague Street.  Two years later, Montrose Morris built the Arlington at the end of the street.  All of these buildings were to accommodate the large numbers of people who desired to live in Brooklyn Heights, but could not find, or did not desire an entire house. Although popular in the capitals of Europe for centuries, apartment living was not approved of by the American middle and upper classes of the late 1800’s. The apartment was too reminiscent of a tenement dwelling, and a societal taboo about living too close to strangers made apartment buildings a tough sell. In order to combat this, the new upper class apartment boasted the finest features and materials, the newest modern conveniences, and large, spacious layouts.   These apartments were huge by today’s standards, usually at least seven rooms, with reception areas, parlors, library and dining rooms, several bedrooms, modern bathrooms, a serving kitchen, and maid’s room. The Montague offered rooms for live-in staff in the attic of the building, and, like most high class buildings, had laundry rooms and large kitchen facilities in the basement. Food was prepared and brought to the apartment by dumbwaiter, and served from a small butler’s pantry kitchen. Along with the luxury apartment building, the luxury residential hotel also became popular, and by the late 1890’s, Brooklyn Heights saw many new buildings rising on Hicks and Pierrepont Streets,  Clark and the other streets near the St. George Hotel.  The grand Hotel Margaret, at 93 Columbia Heights, designed by Frank Freeman, and built in 1889, was the tallest building in Brooklyn Heights, and was an elegant and popular venue, with dining and entertainment high on the roof, with an excellent view of Manhattan.

To all of this development and change in Brooklyn Heights comes a determined and entrepreneurial developer named Louis J. Horowitz, of Manhattan. In October of 1899, he pays twelve thousand dollars to the estate of stable master John Martin, for 183 Columbia Heights, with the intention of erecting a seven story luxury apartment building on the site. The building would be the first single seven story apartment building with an elevator to be built in Brooklyn. Each floor would contain one nine room apartment, with two bathrooms. The Brooklyn Eagle notes on October 15, 1899, that the news of this apartment building would cause “considerable perturbation among the society circles of Columbia Heights”, as it was also the first apartment building to be built on that street, at that time. Through negotiations with his broker, Venette F. Pelletreau of Remsen Street, Louis Horowitz was able to persuade his neighbors that the building would be of the highest quality, with the highest quality occupants. The good folk of Columbia Heights were satisfied with the new plans, and building permits were issued within five days, and building began in 1889.

On June 3rd, 1900, the first advertisement for the building appears in the Brooklyn Eagle. The Riverview, at 183 Columbia Heights, is called the “most aristocratic apartment house in Brooklyn.” The copy goes on to read

New apartments, consisting of eight rooms, bath butler’s pantry, separate servant’s toilet. Situated in the most select section of Brooklyn (Brooklyn Heights), new seven-story apartment house, arranged for one family on a floor, within 6 minutes from Wall Street, and ten minutes from City Hall, Manhattan. Convenient to all theaters, trolley lines, ferries and the Bridge. Electric elevator, electric light, liveried hall and elevator boys in attendance, both day and night. Steam heat, hot water supply, cabinet trim, latest open sanitary plumbing, hardwood floored tiled bathroom floors and walls, long distance telephone in each separate apartment; gas ranges, glass lined refrigerators, gas grates and superb decorations. Rents $900 to $1,200 per annum.

Louis Horowitz was a developer and builder, not a landlord, and no sooner had the building been finished, than he sold it for $75,000 to William C. Bolton of the Bolton Drug Company in 1900. The Bolton Drug Company had been founded in 1886, and had retail branches across Brooklyn, as well as large warehouse and factory space. William Bolton would soon be in the news for other reasons than his real estate holdings. He was the subject of a huge public court case and scandal when he abandoned his wife and married another woman. He was accused of bigamy, and lost a much publicized court case, and ended up paying a large alimony in stocks and cash to his first wife.

In spite of the scandal, Horowitz and Bolton, along with other investors, form a syndicate to invest in properties in Brooklyn Heights, specifically apartment buildings. In 1902, they buy the Montague, the grand old apartment building on Montague Street. They convert it from luxury apartments into forty bachelor’s apartments of one, two and three rooms and a bath, with a restaurant, café and rathskeller. In 1902, an ad in the Eagle advertises the properties the group has at that time: Florence Court, a huge apartment hotel on the corner of Pierrepont and Hicks, The Montague, the Baltusrol at 87 Hicks, near Orange Street, and at 183 Columbia Heights, the Riverview.

The Riverview is a success, and the “right” kind of tenants move in, causing a collective sigh of relief for the neighbors. The census of 1910 lists five families in residence at that time. The occupations are wholesalers, manufacturers and two tenants with private incomes. By 1920, the census again has those with private income, a banker, a retired gentleman, two lawyers, an engineer, and the resident janitor. By 1930, the occupants are several teachers, brokerage clerks, a retired lawyer, a practicing attorney and an engineer.

Over the years, the property changed hands several times. In 1986, 183 Columbia Heights was purchased by the Watchtower Bible Society, aka the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which own many properties on Columbia Heights and in the surrounding area. The apartments were subdivided from seven to thirteen units. In the past few years,  the  Watchtower Society has decided to sell many of its prime Heights properties, as their publishing facilities move upstate. Today, the building is still one of the tallest on the street, and is in excellent condition. Although the record of who designed this elegant Renaissance Revival building has been lost in the byzantine depths of the Department of Buildings, this limestone and brick structure stands as an elegant reminder of Brooklyn Heights’ past, and will be home to those who will shape Brooklyn’s future.

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