Shore Road runs along the southwestern Brooklyn waterfront for 2.1 miles, from 68th Street to the Verrazano Bridge. The majority of it—60 percent, almost 6,800 feet, or 1.3 miles—is occupied by apartment buildings, built in or after the late 1920s, after the subway had arrived, changing the character of the community from rural to urban and attracting fewer wealthy New Yorkers to build seaside homes here; this was no longer a countryside getaway, just another part of the city. The old mansions were razed and replaced with more-affordable housing. (Approximately 1,500 feet of Shore Road frontage is occupied by schools and churches.)
But two-thirds of a mile were spared; twelve blocks of Shore Road, from 75th Street to 87th Street, are still occupied by freestanding houses—not coincidentally, just slightly larger than the borders of Crescent Hill, a tony former subdevelopment in Bay Ridge where the area’s most prominent families settled in the first half of the 20th century: the van Brunts, the Hinsches, State Senator Cronin, the Schlegels, Townsends and Cocheus.
It took its name from the Crescent Athletic Club, whose grounds were later purchased and repurposed as the campus of Fort Hamilton High School. The Crescent Club “was Brooklyn’s most prestigious sports club,” Brownstoner reports, occupying old Van Brunt property on Shore Road from 1889 to 1936. (The club went bankrupt in 1939, but an offshoot 39 miles away, in Huntington, survives.)
“Crescent Hill is the only land development along the Shore road,” the Eagle reported in 1916. “It extends from Seventy-eighth to Eighty-third street, and runs back to First avenue [Colonial Road]. Through the center of this development is…Narrows avenue, while part of it between Narrows and First avenues is penetrated by Eightieth, Eighty-first and Eighty-second streets.” (Six to Celebrate, a program of the Historic Districts Council, cites two nearby blocks as the prettiest in Bay Ridge, which I’d argue is likely a legacy of Crescent Hill.)
The character of these streets, lined with large and attractive freestanding homes, was intentional and carefully planned. “All who have visited the Crescent Athletic Club’s beautiful grounds at Bay Ridge, or driven an auto along the Shore Drive, or sailed down the Narrows, will recall the broad, level-topped hill fronting the Drive just north of the club grounds. This is Crescent Hill,” the president of the development company, William H. Bonynge (a prominent New York lawyer), wrote in Brooklyn Life in 1908.
A level plateau containing about five hundred city lots fronting the Drive at an average height of forty feet above the water, commanding a sweep of the entire upper bay to the Battery on the north, and of the lower bay to the Navesink Highlands on the south, with Staten Island and the Narrows in the immediate western foreground, provides a panoramic view of the natural beauty and commercial activity, not surpassed anywhere. When you add that the city has completed plans to expend $4,000,000 in making of the entire Bay Ridge water front along the Narrows a gardened parkway entrance to the upper bay, upon which no commercial wharf or business structure can ever encroach; and that the completion of the Fourth Avenue subway [in 1916] will bring this delightful region within twenty-five minutes’ travel of the business center of Manhattan, it is not at all astonishing that shrewd real estate investors have turned their attention to Bay Ridge with full recognition of its enormous possibilities. In the vanguard of these wise ones is the Crescent Hill Improvement Company, which has purchased the major part of the plateau above described and, uniting with other owners of adjacent property in heavily restricting the entire tract, is now engaged in the active improvement of the property under a comprehensive plan.
When I first saw the property there were but two thoughts in my mind: wonder that such a tract had been overlooked so long, and a determination to get hold of it at once, if possible. I took some friends down the next day, and this company and its purchase was the result. We realized at the outset that we had an unusual property and should deal with it in a manner befitting its possibilities. The very first thing, of course, was to put it all under high restriction and guard its approaches against undesirable development. We spent a year in negotiating further purchases and contracts with adjacent owners to accomplish this result…We are laying out the building sites in plots on First and Narrows Avenues…Other features of our development plan are the preservation of the present hill contour, with terraces to the street levels, and the location of plot boundaries in such a manner that the houses when built shall not front directly opposite each other—thus affording a more extensive view to each and giving a greater aspect of openness to the entire property.
In general the terms are, perpetual restriction against nuisances and the conduct of any form of business, and the erection of any building other than dwellings and their necessary adjuncts; also restrictions, running for twenty-one years from January 21, 1908, against the erection of any dwelling designed or used for residence or occupation by more than one family. Permission is given to erect a garage on the plot, which, however, must be built either of stone, brick, cement or iron. The minimum size of plots is 60×100 feet. The minimum cost of any dwelling by plan and specification is limited to $7,500 [approximately $200,000, in 1913 dollars adjusted for inflation]. There are also certain restrictions against the erection of any building beyond certain boundary limitations. It is not our intention to establish a community under drastic rules or regulations but simply by these restrictions to protect everything within the limits of our territory in a satisfactory way, without annoying details. Crescent Hill, in short, is not intended in any sense as a club settlement but as a thoroughly protected segment of a generally attractive locality…
One other and very important requirement we make is that all house plans must be approved by us. The object in this being to secure the erection of buildings not necessarily elaborate but always of an attractive design…We wish to emphasize the fundamental distinction between Crescent Hill and the various country properties now being exploited on the market. Crescent Hill is urban, not suburban—it is in the city. It occupies in Brooklyn borough the same relative position that highest tract on Riverside Drive does to Manhattan…
The Shore Drive is conceded to be as attractive as the Riverside to-day; five years hence it will far surpass it. Five years hence the Bush chain of immense factories will be operating, the great market at Thirty-eighth Street doing business, the series of big city docks well under way, the Pennsylvania’s freight terminal completed, and South Brooklyn a humming hive of industry. The Bay Ridge section will be the natural home-site for the owners and chief men engaged in these industries, as well as of hundreds of well-to-do business men whose offices are in lower Manhattan; and, of course, we think that Crescent Hill will be the “show place” of Bay Ridge.
Such restrictions were novel. Most developers in this area at the start of the 20th century purchased collections of lots the size of a block or less and built identical row houses, or apartment buildings; such structures define much of the architecture above and around Third Avenue. But here was something defiantly different, with men of means intending to preserve the exclusivity of the Shore Road section as it had been in the Gilded Age—but in a new way, for a new generation.
We still feel the effects of that. Usage of Crescent Hill continues in real estate ads in the Eagle until 1951, though it starts to go out of favor as the ’30s became the ’40s—shortly after the namesake athletic club left the neighborhood. (“Crescent Court”—sometimes called Crescent Street—also lost its Crescent connection, becoming today’s Harbor Lane.)
Still, the development’s sense of itself as a distinct community within the boundaries of Bay Ridge persisted. Crescent Hill held out. Changes to the zoning laws were seriously considered in 1927, when the property owners south of 92nd Street advocated for a change allowing apartment buildings. However, “Opposition is manifested to a pronounced degree by the residents of the neighborhood from 75th st. to 82d st., west of 3d ave.,” the Eagle reported.
Philip V. Manning, an attorney, resident of the section for many years, believes “that the character of this neighborhood is so well established and the property now available for building purposes so scarce, that it seems downright folly to attempt to include this section, possibly one of the finest residential sections of the boro, within the area petitioned to be changed.
“From a professional angle,” said Mr. Manning, “I doubt whether Shore rd. apartment houses would be as successful as some proponents of the measure seem to think. It is my opinion that for the most part those apartment dwellers who might be induced to venture out as far as Bay Ridge would be dissatisfied with the situation after a time through a lack of high-grade transportation, the scarcity of amusements, shopping centers, garages, etc. The skyscraper type of apartment in this neighborhood is a long way off. It is a residential section purely and simply.”
This fight continued for decades. “From 74th [Street] to 86th, the Crescent Hill section, the Shore Road might well be left as it is. It is an area of beautiful rich, rolling country, with homes costing from $9,000 to $100,000 [$150,000 to $1.7 million, adjusted for inflation],” Frank Matrunola, then a prominent local realtor, told the Eagle in 1940. The rest of Shore Road had either gone, or was going, to apartment development.
James J. Creahan, president of the Bay Ridge Taxpayers Association, predicted the same would happen along the entire street. “I’ve fought [alongside]…others who wanted to save the original aspects of Bay Ridge,” Creahan told the Eagle, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that progress can’t permanently be retarded. Where the cottages stand now, hundreds of apartments will be built. The zoning law will have to be changed. Some are still fighting against it, but the apartments are coming in.”
But fatalistic Creahan was wrong—the Crescent Hill section stubbornly resisted, and its homes were never converted into apartment houses. Today, much of the old Crescent Hill section is zoned (maps here and here), unlike the areas around it, as R2, which “is limited exclusively to single-family detached houses,” according to the city. The Crescent Hill distinction faded away, but not its ethos.
I don’t mean to disparage apartment living; most of us, I’m sure, can’t afford to buy a house in Bay Ridge, especially these days, with the real estate market so out of control. And a diversity of housing stock is essential to an economically diverse community. But I’m glad that a segment of Shore Road was more or less preserved. My “ideal community” would disperse apartment houses more evenly rather than clump them together. Apartment building upon apartment building can have a dehumanizing effect and restrict walkability—not literally, but by creating an inhuman scale that discourages perambulation. I could walk all afternoon up and down every block in the old Crescent Hill section; I’d rather bike past the south end of Shore Road, just to get it over with.
But we don’t live in my “ideal community,” and certainly not in one that was carefully planned to maximize flâneurability; Bay Ridge was haphazardly developed by myriad men with innumerable interests. So I’m grateful that one small group held out and preserved some sense of the aesthetic character of the old community in one small corner of it, even if it was ostensibly for the wrong reasons—not to preserve, but to exclude.