A row of Ocean Avenue homes built on land once owned by a forebear of one the country’s wealthiest families was designated a historic district last week by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.
If the City Council approves, the dozen homes, 189-211 Ocean Avenue, called the Ocean on the Park Historic District, would have the protection of the city from the threat of overdevelopment, which, while less intense than just a few years ago, is still worrisome to homeowners pushing for the designation.
“I don’t think I have the words to adequately express how thrilled, delighted, and relieved I am buy this designation,” said Celeste Lacy Davis, homeowner of 209 Ocean. “Since I’ve been living here going back to the late 1980s, I’ve always realized this was a very special row of houses that needed to be preserved.”
That realization was heightened in 2007, when a developer bought and razed 185 Ocean in anticipation of constructing an eight story building there. “I was always concerned that there may be a time that a single homeowner or developer may make changes to distort the row,” Davis said. “We saw that with sale of 185 Ocean, which was the anchor house.”
For Davis and a handful of her neighbors, that set in motion research and advocacy on behalf of the row of homes, which once belonged to Jeremiah Vanderbilt, a descendent ofJan Aertsen van der Bilt, progenitor of the Vanderbilt family. In 1905, developer Charles Reynolds purchased the parcel and hired prominent Brooklyn architect Axel Hedman to design a row of 14 houses. Construction was halted in 1910 after the completion of just 10 of the homes, 193-211 Ocean, examples of the Renaissance Revival style.The two other homes, completed by 1918, were built in different styles: Arts and Crafts (189 Ocean), and Federal Revival (191 Ocean).
“I like my house — I don’t need the shadow of an eight story building hanging over it,” said Edmund Fanning, owner of 195 Ocean. In 2007, Fanning began researching the history of the row with the goal of having them included in a historic district. “These houses deserve to be protected,” he said.
Collectively, the row, which stands across from Prospect Park, is reflective of an early period of urbanization in Flatbush, according to Landmarks, which voted 8-0 to create the historic district on Oct. 27.
“The buildings stand out as a fine example of residential development along a stretch of Ocean Avenue that’s lined with apartment houses,” said Landmarks Chairman Robert Tierney in a statement. Historic districts limit what can and cannot be built within their boundaries. The commission also agreed last week to schedule a hearing on 185 Ocean, to see if historic designation could ameliorate the impact of the proposed eight-story building.
Lisi de Bourbon, a spokesperson for Landmarks, said the homes are “eminently worthy” of the historic designation, saying the row holds a “combination of architectural distinction and historical and cultural significance.” One home, 193 Ocean, was once home to Charles Ebbets, owner of the Brooklyn Baseball Club, a team that would later become the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose home field he developed, and bore his name.
Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a not for profit advocacy group, called the homes a “remarkable collection.” “They are really quite significant in that stretch of Brooklyn,” he continued. “They have a great deal of architectural integrity, they are historically significant, and they have the added cultural bonus ofhaving prominent people such as Charles Ebbets having lived there. Knowing that lends itself to a broader layering of history which really enables the modern visitor to understand how important and luxurious these houses were when they were built.”
The homes boasted grand interiors, shared porches, generous front yards and a connecting internal pathway going from one home to the next. “The thing that makes them stand out is that in the 1920s, all these large apartments began to replace the rest of the properties. But this little row of homes remained untouched for 100 years,” Davis said.
The City Council has three months to review the designation.