Three cheers for the developers of yesteryear who constructed beautiful, beautiful rowhouses in Sunset Park for waves of immigrants to live in. They used aristocratic architectural styles to create working-class housing stock.
The builders deployed Renaissance Revival and Romanesque Revival design aesthetics — with some Queen Anne and neo-Grec flourishes thrown in for good measure — like you’d find in rich Brooklyn neighborhoods.
But they made Sunset Park’s brownstone, limestone and brick rowhouses smaller and set them up as more economical two-family homes.
Those builders from bygone days are on my mind because present-day Sunset Park residents finally won a long battle, led in recent years by the Sunset Park Landmarks Committee, to get those beautiful homes landmarked.
Three decades of perseverance paid off when the city Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously voted last month to create four small historic districts in their neighborhood.
Why not celebrate the grassroots activists’ victory by spending the day in Sunset Park and strolling around the newly landmarked areas?
A picnic in the park and tea time in Chinatown
Of course, when you’re done with your self-guided house tour, you’ll want to pick up lunch from one of the Mexican, Dominican or Peruvian restaurants on Fifth Avenue and have a picnic on the hilltop in the park that’s called Sunset Park.
Later, there are a zillion places to have dinner in Sunset Park’s Chinatown on nearby Eighth Avenue. Or at the very least, you should have boba tea at Ten Ren, a highly regarded seller of Chinese tea and ginseng.
By the way, the LPC’s creation of the Sunset Park historic districts means people can’t tear down buildings in them without the preservation agency’s permission. This gives the residents a measure of protection against the proliferation of finger buildings.
You know what finger buildings are. You’ve seen them on non-landmarked low-rise blocks in numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods.
These skinny, newly constructed mid-block edifices are considerably taller than the homes on either side of them. This makes the block look like a hand that’s flipping the bird.
The Sunset Park South Historic District
A good place to start a landmarked Sunset Park stroll is in the Sunset Park South Historic District at 59th Street and Fourth Avenue. There’s an N and R subway station on the corner and the NYC Ferry’s Sunset Park dock is a few blocks away.
Walk up and down each side street between Fourth and Fifth avenues from 59th through 54th streets. The corner buildings you’ll see are not part of the landmarked area.
The historic district consists of more than 280 buildings constructed between 1892 and 1906. Nearly all of them are rowhouses that are two stories tall above basements.
Just look at them. Such eye candy.
On blocks including the even-numbered side of 58th Street and the odd-numbered side of 55th Street, the brownstones are chocolate, coffee and vanilla-colored, like ice cream. On the even-numbered side of 55th Street, one rowhouse is the color of strawberry gelato.
The LPC’s designation report about this district says many early residents of these blocks were immigrants from Germany, England, Scotland and Ireland. Some worked on the waterfront as ship brokers, ship carpenters and iron-foundry foremen. Some were skilled laborers in other types of businesses. Some did office work or owned small businesses.
Later waves of immigrants turned the area into a Scandinavian-American stronghold.
Houses in the Sunset Park South Historic District were constructed by speculative developers such as Charles and Alfred Hamilton, a pair of brothers who owned a barge and steamboat company before getting into the real estate business.
Various architect-builders in the area were immigrants, such as William Hassan, who was born in Ireland. Another architect-builder, Thomas Edwards, was the son of an Irish immigrant.
As you stroll around these streets admiring the builders’ work, you’ll notice gardens and stoops lined with pots of flowers.
The Sunset Park 50th Street Historic District
A short walk away from the Sunset Park South Historic District, you’ll find the beautiful brownstones of the Sunset Park 50th Street Historic District, which is between Fourth and Fifth avenues.
Once again, buildings on the corners of the two avenues are not part of the landmarked area.
The 50 rowhouses in the 50th Street district — is there an echo in here? — were constructed between 1897 and 1899. LPC’s designation report about the Sunset Park 50th Street Historic District calls it “one of the neighborhood’s finest historic blocks.”
There was some drama during the development of this block. The Waldron Brothers, who were builders, constructed 10 houses and then went broke and fled to Canada, the designation report says.
The Hamilton Brothers, whom I mentioned up above, built the other 40 houses.
The Central Sunset Park Historic District
A few blocks away, 47th Street and 48th Street blocks between Fifth and Sixth avenues comprise the Central Sunset Park Historic District.
A stretch of Sixth Avenue from 47th Street to nearly 49th Street is also part of the district.
Neo-Gothic-style Iglesia Presbiteriana Sion, which is on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 48th Street, is the only house of worship in Sunset Park’s four historic districts. It was built in 1921 and was originally called the Park Presbyterian Church.
The LPC’s designation report about this new historic district says Eastern European Jewish families and immigrants from Italy, Germany, England, Scandinavia and Syria were the early inhabitants of its 140-plus, two-story rowhouses and small multifamily buildings. They were constructed between 1897 and 1907.
Later, Norwegians became the area’s biggest ethnic group. And there was a large group of Syrian residents, “with many involved in the importing and retailing of lace, linens, kimonos and rugs,” the designation report notes.
The Sunset Park North Historic District
In 1908, Thomas Bennett designed a row of limestone houses with rounded bays and brownstone basements on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues. It’s a prime location — because the hilly recreation area that’s named Sunset Park is right across the street.
These two-story homes are now part of the Sunset Park North Historic District.
They’re dignified but not pretentious, beautiful but not intimidating the way really large limestone homes in rich people’s neighborhoods can be.
The Sunset Park North Historic District also includes low-rise apartment buildings on the corners of Sixth Avenue. They were built between 1910 and 1914.
These construction dates and lots of other helpful info can be found in a Landmarks Preservation Commission designation report.
Brick rowhouses with flat façades on the 44th Street block between Sixth and Seventh avenues are also part of this historic district. Developer William Kay constructed them in 1903.
In total, there are more than 50 buildings in the Sunset Park North Historic District.