By Bart Boehlert
One of the most desirable neighborhoods in New York City now is Fort Greene, Brooklyn, located between downtown Brooklyn and Clinton Hill. With its wide avenues lined by tall trees, rows of statuesque nineteenth century townhouses, cool restaurants and bars, and open sky, it offers a lovely version of city living. While Fort Greene is popular and au courant, it has evolved through many changes with roots that go back to the American Revolutionary War.
The neighborhood is named after a fort built by General Nathaniel Greene who aided George Washington during the Revolutionary War. The general built a fort on the highest point in the area, which later became known as Fort Greene Park. During the Battle of Long Island in 1776, Americans retreated from the fort and the British took thousands of captives on prison ships anchored in the East River where 11,500 men and women died.
The fort fell into disrepair but the City of Brooklyn designated the location the first public park in 1845 with none other than Walt Whitman, who was then a newspaper editor, rallying support for the cause. Landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park, were enlisted in 1867 to create a plan for the hilly site with new trees, paths and lawns. Later, the 11,500 Americans who died aboard British prison ships were commemorated in 1908 with the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument at the top of the Park, which was conceived by the renowned architectural firm McKim, Mead and White and dedicated by President Taft. For the monument, Stanford White erected a majestic Doric column capped with a bronze lantern. The Park continues to be the focal point of the neighborhood -- the site of countless weddings, picnics and ball games.
Blocks of brick and brownstone row houses were built in the 1850s and 60s, and today the area is one of the best-preserved nineteenth century residential districts in the city. Many were designed in the Italianate style, which is inspired by sixteenth century Italian farmhouses and villas. A classic example is 259 Carlton Avenue, located one block off the park and currently offered by Brown Harris Stevens listing agents John Caraccioli and Harlan Simon. This handsome four-floor brownstone features Italianate signatures including impressive brackets under an overhanging cornice and tall, narrow, hooded windows. Inside, the house has a two-bedroom owner’s duplex plus a garden on the first two floors, and two two-bedroom rental units on the top two floors. “The home has been totally renovated,” reports John Caraccioli, “complete with new floors, new windows, new kitchens, bathrooms and laundry, and HVAC technology. It’s like a brand new home but it doesn’t feel brand new.“
In the mid-20th century, Fort Greene became known as a predominantly African-American neighborhood; movie director Spike Lee grew up there and his production company is located on South Elliott Place. Fort Greene and other areas suffered from the city’s financial crisis in the 1970s. Wishing to save its architecture, a group of neighbors wisely lobbied the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate it a historic district, which succeeded in 1978. The locale was then listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Now while high rises ascend at the district’s edges, Fort Greene still retains its authentic history and charm.