Interview: Local Historian Matthew Scarpa on Old Bay Ridge

The Bay Ridge Atheneum, on Ridge Boulevard between. Ovington and Bay Ridge avenues, ca. 1880.
The Bay Ridge Atheneum, on the east side of Ridge Boulevard between Ovington and Bay Ridge avenues, ca. 1880. Courtesy Scarpa and the Bay Ridge Historical Society

Matthew Scarpa’s second local-history book, Old Bay Ridge & Ovington Villagewas released earlier this year. It explains how Ovington Village, a 19th-century artists’ colony whose main street was Ovington Avenue, fits into the story of the neighborhood—how it became an essential part of our past that hitherto has been often overlooked by local historians. (Except for me!) I caught up by email with Scarpa, who’s vice president of the Bay Ridge Historical Society, to talk about his book and what Bay Ridge used to be like.

Can you sum up what role Ovington Village played in the history of Bay Ridge?
While the establishment of Ovington Village predates the naming of the Bay Ridge area [which was called “Yellow Hook” until 1853], the settlement of artists and craftsman at Ovington Village are of paramount importance to the area’s growth and prosperity throughout the late nineteenth century. From the book: “The establishment of Ovington Village in the township of New Utrecht enabled the Bay Ridge area to thrive… [sparking] a rise in community civic centers in Bay Ridge [such as the Bay Ridge Atheneum and Ridge Club], [which greatly enhanced] the area’s suburban appeal to the wealthy, whose desire to use the village as a summer retreat or permanent residence outside New York…equipped with all the amenities of a large town was heightened by the area’s accessibility and scenic landscape.”

As a rural suburb of the City of Brooklyn, Bay Ridge was sparsely populated in the mid-eighteenth century. Ovington Village was unique to the area, in that property ownership was more closely situated, and Ovington Avenue, which cut directly through Ovington Village, quickly became one of the area’s very first and major thoroughfares. The land on which Ovington Village was situated included the majority of the community’s sociocultural centers and included the area’s first town hall, the Bay Ridge Atheneum, founded by the members of the community who established the institution to promote a taste for the arts, music and literature among the youth of the neighborhood. Ovington Village sowed the seeds of a greater community, and the establishment of such centers of communal growth as the Atheneum and Ridge Club, along with accompaniment of residential property ownership such as Joseph A. Perry’s, gradually transformed the once agricultural-based community of Yellow Hook into Bay Ridge, and Ovington Village is attributed to bridging those two distinct eras in the course of the area’s history.

How did you get interested in Ovington Village?
My interest in Ovington Village was heightened by its people, those who established the colony, such as Otto Heinigke, the stained-glass manufacturer. While conducting research and reading up on the history of Bay Ridge, I found too often from many sources that Ovington Village was only mentioned in passing—a footnote in Bay Ridge’s past—when the area itself was predominately the most densely populated space in all of Bay Ridge/Yellow Hook at the time. There was little offered from secondary source material on the topic. Other than by name, Ovington Village, as well as the artists that established it, had appeared to have been overlooked in their significance to the area’s development. I found that artists of national importance, such as Otto Heinigke, held a residence there. Heinigke, whose stained-glass firm produced works of art for many prominent New York based business tycoons, had also produced many stained-glass works which can be found all over New York, including the New York Sock Exchange and St. John the Divine, as well as in Bay Ridge. This discovery intrigued me…

Why do you think its history has hitherto been overlooked? 
Perhaps due to Bay Ridge’s rapid development coinciding with the establishment of the village. Those who helped established the village, such as Joseph A. Perry, established neighborhood houses of worship and civic centers, such as Christ Church Episcopal and the Bay Ridge Atheneum, which served the entire community as a whole, rather than Ovington Village solely. In essence, Ovington Village and its incorporators set the ground work for an already present Bay Ridge area to prosper, and was a short-lived, yet vital, precursor to the overall area’s development between 1850 and 1915.

Whatʼs your favorite thing you turned up while researching this book?
During my writing and research process I discovered many little anecdotes and facts that I had never known, including information pertaining to many of the residents of the community. I felt it was imperative to the book as a whole and to the community to include as much of those discoveries and information as possible. Chronicling my neighborhood’s past and history is very important, and I felt many of those interesting finds needed to be written of and investigated so that our neighborhood’s history is not forgotten, or lost—whether discovering that Samuel W. Thomas operated a small printing press for the publication of the Bay Ridge Chronicle called the Barigeny Amateur Press, or discovering Otto Heinigke’s original watercolor art and paintings of old Bay Ridge. Other interesting finds include the biographical information I was able to compile on a few of the old residents who are all too often never mentioned in other publications.

What do you think was the greatest part of old Bay Ridge that no longer exists?
Over the last century and a half, Bay Ridge has continuously transformed. Once an agricultural community with small farm houses and stately homes during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the country mansions and centers sociocultural congregation and faith of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Bay Ridge has evolved and still maintains that small, rural feel, “with close-knit residents and a charm reminiscent of the small village community it once was, despite the neighborhood’s transformation over the last century. Bay Ridge is as vibrant as ever and increasingly becoming one of the most desirable sections of Brooklyn in which to live.” Although, many of the sights and spaces of old Bay Ridge have long since been replaced or removed, Bay Ridge is still growing, and a community diverse in character. “‘Cosmopolitan and growth best describe Bay Ridge,’ and it is said with great merit.”

An institution I would have personally liked to have seen continue was our neighborhood’s Atheneum. It was Bay Ridge’s first center of arts, music and literature—where events and performances were held, and where our community banded together for public debate and council. It was in essence the neighborhood’s first town hall…

Are you working on anything new?
At the moment, I have been performing preliminary work and research for a future publication, potentially a biographical history based on old residents of old Bay Ridge. However, the work is not focused on Bay Ridge history. I consider Old Bay Ridge & Ovington Village: A History my second and last publication entirely devoted to the history of the neighborhood.

Follow Hey Ridge on Twitter @heyridgebk