Monday, August 19, 2013

The Sights a Girl Can See From Brooklyn Heights

About a year ago I discovered "Friendly Native New Yorker Walking Tours" when I was looking to expand on my own self-guided tours of the city. Over late spring through October, our guide Linda offers a range of  topics for her Saturday afternoon/evening walking tours for a mere $15 each, and believe me you get more than your money's worth. You'll walk and learn for at least 2 1/2 hours (usually running over 3 hours), as Linda fills you in on the people, buildings, and events of the tour topic. So on Saturday, I did not hesitate to show up at Brooklyn Borough Hall for Linda's Twilight Tour of Brooklyn Heights SOUTH: War, Churches, and Real Estate!

Yes, I actually crossed the East River and ventured off the Isle de Manhattan  to lovely Brooklyn Heights! I'd been there for a Brooklyn Symphony concert in April, got a taste of the historic area, and really wanted to learn more. Our group met on the steps of Borough Hall, a lovely Greek Revival edifice built in 1848. The building was Brooklyn City Hall until 1898, when the City of Brooklyn was merged with the City of New York and transformed from a city to a borough. (Brooklynites are still bitter about that, by the way.)

We covered the early Dutch history of the area, the British take-over, and Brooklyn's place in the American Revolution, which included a humiliating loss as well as a daring retreat across the East River to Manhattan under the cover of darkness to escape the Red Coats. We learned of movers, shakers, and real estate entrepreneurs like Hezekiah Pierrepont, whose good friend Robert Fulton made it possible to corner the mechanized ferry boat market, easily linking bucolic Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan.

Almost every famous American architect left his fingerprints on the southern end of Brooklyn Heights, with the most obvious examples being the beautiful old churches. St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church (now one congregation, but old St. Ann is still standing as part of Packer Collegiate Institute), Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral (with great bronze doors rescued from the French liner SS Normandie), Spencer Memorial Presbyterian Church (now deconsecrated and a luxury residence building), the St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church on quiet Sidney Place, and Grace Episcopal (Brooklyn cousin of Manhattan's Grace Church) all have interesting histories and spectacular architecture. Don't look for high steeple on these churches.
The buildings pre-date the subway system and once had glorious steeples, which had to be brought down as dynamiting began for subway construction in the early part of the 20th century. And I learned a new architectural term: ashlar masonry, which I shall now try to work into conversations occasionally. (Be prepared.)

The shady streets, brownstone and brick row houses, gated gardens, and trendy restaurants along Montague street afford for easy (on the feet and on the eyes) exploring. But it all culminates on the Promenade. What a view! The Statue of Liberty, Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge are spread out before you on this wide, tree-lined walkway. We were there just as the city lights were coming on, and, wow!

Yes, you Manhattan babies must hop one of the 2/3/4/5 trains, get off at Borough Hall, and strike out on your own. Or look for Linda to offer another tour next summer. You won't even have to slink back to Manhattan under cover of darkness to avoid the Red Coats.


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