Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, has a past colored by the waves of immigrants who landed on America’s shores during its first century. The neighborhood’s legacy lives on through remarkable surviving structures1, many of them unrecognized or unaccounted for, representing the Norwegian, Hispanic and Italian immigrants who lived here. Many of these buildings are worth preserving.
We are requesting expeditious historic landmark designation for two such buildings, the “Brooklyn Deaconess Home and Training School of the Methodist Episcopal Church” and the “Hans S Christian Memorial,” located at 236 and 238 President Street.
These structures, the buildings at 238 and 236 President Street, built in 1853 and 1897, represent an unusual pairing that reflects the architectural diversity and multi-ethnic social fabric and history of Brooklyn and New York City. Until 1974, when the land parcel was subdivided for sale to the current owners, the two structures comprised a compound that had been used for residential, religious and educational purposes for over a century. Today, these two dwellings attract attention from historians, neighborhood residents and passersby, who regularly stop to admire them. Their visual and historic appeal has been documented in books and blogs about local Brooklyn and New York City life2.
History: 1853-1897 (238 President alone)
The building at 238 President preceded the one at 236 by at least 45 years. 238 was built as a private home completed in 1853 in the Anglo-Italian style, representing a departure from the Greek Revival style of older buildings.
The building’s facade is brownstone-faced on the basement floor and pressed brick above. The house stands approximately 38 feet wide and 50 feet tall, consisting of a basement set half below grade and four stories above that. The entry way has iron pilasters alongside the original entry door and a decorative pediment above, and each window is topped with a florid cast-iron molding. Characteristic of Carroll Gardens homes, the house is set back 18 feet from the sidewalk (28 feet from the street) behind a trellised gate and front garden from which a grand stoop rises between cast-iron balusters and newel posts. On the trellis, one can see reference to the Methodist Episcopal mission, one of several religious and social institutions that occupied the property.
|Map (1854) of President Street, showing 238 on a 75’x100’ lot. It is the only remaining structure from that date on the south side of President Street.|
238 President occupied a 75 x 100 foot lot between Court and Clinton Streets until the lot was divided in 1974. Adjoining 238 President and just west of the residence on the same lot was the owner’s carriage house, which in 1897 was replaced by the current structure, built to house one of Brooklyn’s first public kindergartens. The map above, published in 1854, shows 238 President as one of only three houses on the South side of this block of President Street. It is the only survivor of the three. The house, described in an 1877 “For Sale” advertisement in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle as “one of the most comfortable in Brooklyn,” was purchased in February 1897 by Mrs. Elmira Christian, who resided nearby. Mrs. Christian deeded 238 President in April of that year to the Brooklyn Church Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in memory of her Norwegian-born husband Hans S. Christian, a prominent mercantile and philanthropic figure among the Norwegians who dominated the neighborhood at the time. Mr. Christian had died suddenly on December 26, 1894 on his way home from the Wednesday prayer meeting of the First Place Methodist Episcopal Church (Henry Street and First Place)3.
Mrs. Christian had long been interested in kindergartens. She had started Brooklyn’s first free kindergarten, operating in the Warren Street Methodist Episcopal Church, then located at 303 Warren Street. Determined to create a memorial to her husband, she gave $10,000 to the Brooklyn Free Kindergarten Society (now the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society4) the income from which was to support a kindergarten in the First Place Methodist Episcopal Church, where her late husband had been one of the original incorporators and President of the Board of Trustees and had taught Sunday school for many years.
She then decided to give the kindergarten its own home and purchased the house at 238 President for that purpose in February of 18975. The parlor floors housed her kindergarten, but the upper floors were not needed for the kindergarten and when the needs of the Church’s Deaconesses (social workers) were brought to her attention she agreed to allow the use of the upper floors of the house as a residence for the Deaconesses.
The building was known as the “Brooklyn Deaconess Home and Training School of the Methodist Episcopal Church.” The New York Times announced the formal opening on November 10, 1897. Church records that are available online record the continuing charitable activities of the Deaconesses, who were in effect social workers serving the needs of immigrant families. Until allowed the use of 238 President, the Deaconess Training School (founded in June of 1892), operated in a rented house on Bedford Avenue6. The original archway above the cast-iron gates of the house today still carries the name “Factor’s Home of the Methodist Episcopal Church” lettered on a cast-iron scroll.
The agreement between Mrs. Christian and the Church provided that Mrs. Christian could erect another building on the lot to house a free-standing kindergarten school in memory of her husband, to be administered by the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society until such time as the then-City of Brooklyn provided free kindergarten schools to the public, at which time the right to use the school building would revert to the Church.
1897-Present: 236 and 238 President
When the upper-floor space available for the deaconesses at 238 President proved to be insufficient, Mrs. Christian gave them the use of the entire building and built her separate kindergarten building where the carriage house of 238 had stood. The kindergarten building, now known as 236 President Street, was built by the firm of Hough & Duell and completed in 1897, the year emblazoned on the huge and ornate projecting black cornice of the building. The building — formally designated the “Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten” — still carries the shadow of the words “Christian Memorial” on the stone lintel above its front entry.
That Christian Memorial school was described in the April 1900 issue of “Kindergarten Review” as “providing ample accommodations for nearly sixty children. On the south side of the room is a large bay window, the upper part of which is stained glass; and on the opposite side is a visitors gallery [still extant], from which the work may be observed. The house is heated by steam, with the best systems of ventilation and plumbing. There is at the rear a plot of ground where the children may plant seeds, observe their development and care for the plants. The architectural style of the building is in the French renaissance of the Louis XV period.”7
In fact, the building can be classified as an unusual example of French Renaissance architecture in Carroll Gardens, with its classical ornamentation concentrated around the window and door openings and the pedimented cornice centered on the entry. It is particularly significant in that it is free-standing and reminiscent of a small version of some of the old Upper East Side mansions. Despite an unsympathetic garage addition, which appears to be reversible, the façade of 236 is otherwise intact.
A memento from the Brook lyn Deaconess Home, this small vessel (approximately 3/4 in diameter by 1/4 in tall) was a collection receptacle for penny donations.
As early as 1901, the kindergarten building doubled as a church building on weekends. A 1901 article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle advises that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, also known as the English Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, would begin to worship at the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten Building, 236 President Street, noting that “The building is in every way well adapted for the holding of church services, the exterior especially having a churchly appearance.”8
When free public kindergartens came to Brooklyn (after Brooklyn became a borough of New York City), the Church demanded the property back, as had been provided in the agreement with Mrs. Christian. The Society refused to return the property to the Church until a 1914 court decision in the Church’s favor.9
Thereafter the buildings at 236 and 238 President Street were used by a variety of religious denominations by permission of the Church. During the period from approximately 1950 to 1966, 238 President Street was occupied by the Reverend Alberto Baez (grandfather of the folk singer Joan Baez). He arrived from Mexico in 1917 and in 1920 established Brooklyn’s first Spanish-speaking congregation at First Methodist Episcopal Church. This congregation became the First Spanish Methodist Church in Brooklyn, with its sanctuary at 236 President until the congregation merged with Immanuel Methodist Church in 1966 and moved from President Street. Photographs online10 show the interior and exterior of 236 President in that period and what appears to be a Sunday school class on the steps of 238 President.
In January 1974, community opposition to a drug treatment center (planned for 238 President by the Church) resulted in a fire set on the second floor of the then-vacant building, which cost a firefighter his life. The Church decided to sell and within months separated the lot into the present 238 President Street and the present 236 President, and both were bought by Italian-born purchasers who turned the buildings into owner-occupied residences. The buyer of 238 President still resides there, although he converted the building to co-operative ownership in 1984.
In 2009, during a period of neighborhood rezoning, then Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz recommended that 236 President be considered for designation as a city landmark in August 200911 but no action was taken by the owner.
1 Described in Lockwood, Charles, Bricks and Brownstone, The New York Row House, 1783-1929, An Architectural Social History (McGraw Hill:1972), p. 96.
2 Pardon Me For Asking Blog and Lost New York City Blog
3 The Brook lyn Daily Eagle, January 19, 1894; p.1
4 Brooklyn Kindergarten Society website: www.bksny.org
5 Reference the Kindergarten Review (1897), volume 8, page 446 See here.
6 Golder, Christian. History of the Deaconess Movement in the Christian Church (1903), pages 367-370. See here.
7 Kindergarten Review, Volume 10, April 1900, pp. 464-466. See here.
8 The Brook lyn Daily Eagle, June 1, 1901; p.3
9 Brooklyn Church Society of Methodist Episcopal Church v. Brooklyn Free Kindergarten Society (152 NYS 41), Supreme Court, Trial Term, Kings County. December 31, 1914.
10 See here.
11 Brooklyn Borough President Recommendation for the Proposed Amendment of the Zoning Map, Application #090462 ZMK; August 12, 2009, p.4.