A rare and fine engraving from 1847 depicting the spectacular view northeast from what was then called Washington Park. The image may indeed have been made to commemorate the establishment of the park, which occurred in that year, as it appears to depict landscape work in the foreground. Whitman was in the second and final year of his editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at this time, and had been instrumental in generating public support and legislative momentum for the park. Wallabout Bay is named for the Walloons, French speaking Protestants known for their tolerance and liberality, who left Holland for New Netherland, later “Breuckelen.” Wallabout translates roughly as “Bay of the Walloons” and is today the site of the former Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The first settlers arrived in the bay area in 1624, farming and raising cattle on the lowlands and mud flats that were similar to their native Holland. Growth was slow even after the British took over the area in 1664. By the start of the Revolutionary War, there were only about 3,500 people in Brooklyn. General Washington’s defeat and evacuation of the area after the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776 resulted in the British ordering all citizens to swear their allegiance to the King. Those who refused or were captured in fighting were mostly put on about nineteen old British ships outfitted for prison use for the duration of the war. By 1783, over 11,000 men had died onboard of disease and starvation. The most notorious of these prison ships was the HMS Jersey, which was moored in Wallabout Bay.
Residential development of the area in the 1830’s, 40’s, and 50’s coincided with the rapid population increase in the Brooklyn. Being part of the flatlands along the East River, Wallabout Village was not looked upon with the prestige allotted to neighboring Fort Greene or Clinton Hill, and so was settled by the laborers, many of whom worked in the adjacent Navy Yard. By the early 1850s, Whitman had purchased a house here, at 99 Ryerson Street just north of Myrtle Avenue. The three-and-a-half-story frame house is the only remaining Whitman residence in Brooklyn, and today wears cream vinyl siding and sports six doorbells.
One of the advantages of the less-desirable neighborhoods in Brooklyn, if they have not been sacrificed to industry and commerce, is that they offer rare glimpses of the working-class homes of the early and mid-nineteenth century. The Wallabout neighborhood today is noted for having the largest concentration of pre-Civil War frame houses in New York City. In addition to Greek and Gothic Revival wood-frame houses with original or early porches, cornices and other details, brick and stone row houses in Italianate and Neo-Grec styles line the streets between Myrtle and Park Avenues. James Marston Fitch, founder of Columbia University’s Historic Preservation Program, described the area in 1973 as an “outdoor architectural museum.”
The neighborhood has been evaluated by preservationists in a detailed report (get a PDF download of the Wallabout Cultural Resource Survey here) and submitted to the New York City Landmarks Commission for Historic District designation, but has yet to be designated or even calendared. To help support the historic designation efforts, visit the Historic Districts Council’s page on Wallabout.
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