The Totally Forgotten Bay Ridge Park That Never Was

Bay Ridge park proposal
Silliman Place and the Proposed Park. Brooklyn Atlas, 1905. From the New York Public Library

Cedar Lane was so named because it ran through a clump of cedar trees. It was an odd street, short and crooked, connecting Second and Third avenues on the north end of Bay Ridge at an angle totally different from the blocks around it—and totally out-of-synch with the coming street-grid.

The people who owned property that adjoined this street decided at the end of the 19th century to have it graded and officially “opened.” Shortly thereafter, they started also talking about changing its name. “It was at first suggested to name it after some of the old town residents, such as Perry [after Joseph A. Perry, a prominent local landowner remembered today as the eponym of Perry Terrace] or Winslow place,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported in November 1896. “Mr. John Winslow preferred that one of the more prominent citizens of Brooklyn should be remembered.” And so one was—Benjamin D. Silliman.

Shortly thereafter, Cedar Lane became Silliman Place on maps (though “Cedar Lane” continued to be used among locals). Today, we know it was Ovington Avenue, its westernmost stretch, between Third Avenue and Ridge Boulevard. But Ovington Village, the artist colony that developed along its namesake avenue/main street (named for the man they bought the land from), didn’t extend that far—the original farm and the subsequent village didn’t go farther west than Third Avenue. (This is why the rest of 70th Street, from Shore Road to Ridge Boulevard, doesn’t bear the name “Ovington.”) Ovington Villagers would have known Cedar Lane well—they likely would have used it to get to a popular multi-use hall called the Athenaeum—but it was not a part of their development.

Benjamin D. Silliman
Via the Brooklyn Eagle

Who Was Silliman?
The Silliman designation wasn’t particularly popular, as far as I can tell—the Eagle kept calling the street “Cedar Lane”—and it didn’t last long. Anyway, it was an oddly small-scale honor for a man who had an epic reputation; his obituary makes him sound like one of the most interesting New Yorkers of the 19th century (which, living from 1805-1901, he had seen most of!).

“Mr. Silliman was…the associate of Daniel Webster and Aaron Burr,” the Eagle reported when he died; “later he was the intimate friend of Irving and Cooper”—presumably Washington and James Fenimore. “In the days when there was not even a rope ferry across the East River, young Silliman used to hire a boatman to row him back and forth to evening parties at the houses of the Hamiltons [and other Old New York families]…He was one of the first directors of Green[-W]ood Cemetery [and] one of the founders of the Long Island Historical Society,” which became the Brooklyn Historical Society.

At the time of his death, he was believed to be the oldest living Brooklynite and was certain to be the oldest living graduate of Yale, which the men of his family had long attended. (His father was appointed postmaster of Brooklyn in 1849; his uncle, with whom he shared a name, was a prominent professor.) Silliman was an eminent Whig, elected to the state assembly (though he lost races for state senate and the United States congress); he was then a Lincoln Republican, briefly serving as his U.S. attorney for the Eastern district.

Benjamin D. Silliman
Silliman, 1900. Via Brooklyn Eagle

He also had tremendous real estate holdings, estimated at $1 million (in 1901 dollars!), including two houses in Brooklyn Heights, at Pierrepont and Clinton (later sold to the Crescent Athletic Club, which built its clubhouse on the property; he was for 20 consecutive terms the president of the club, which bought land for a country house in Bay Ridge in 1889). He also had a house at 8 Waverly Place, in Manhattan; 30 acres in Babylon, Long Island; and the land on the northeast corner of Broadway and Wall Street, which broke real estate records of the time when his estate sold it for $700,000.

Considering all this, it seems peculiar that his admirers envisioned Cedar Lane, a random and off-center street deep in suburban Brooklyn, as a fitting tribute. He didn’t even have a personal connection to the neighborhood!

The Beginnings of a Park
An 1898 Hyde map shows only five buildings along Silliman Place, and just seven years later, a 1905 atlas shows one less; the building on the corner of Third Avenue was gone (as well as the Athenaeum, which was replaced by 1909 with stone rowhouses that are still standing; see the bottom of this post for more info). On the land abutting the southern half of Silliman Place, part of the old Calvin F. Spear estate, there was even less—not even a dilapidated shack.

Bay Ridge map 1898
The area, 1898 (detail). From the New York Public Library

It is this empty block (“5886” on the map above) that almost became a park. The property once belonged to Horace Holden, a real estate lawyer who handled several midprofile transactions in the 1840s and 50s, and who lived in a “splendid residence” across the street from what became Ovington Village. He died sometime between 186067, and the property was owned by his estate (his heirs) until the time it was sold. Holden had also owned land between Senator and 68th streets, Fourth and Fifth avenues, until his heirs auctioned it off in 1904, so it’s reasonable to imagine the parkland was sold around the same time, although I haven’t yet found proof.

Horace Holden's land
Map (detail), 1890. From the New York Public Library

Holden’s splendid residence doesn’t appear on any maps from the late 19th century, probably because it was torn down; an 1895 Eagle article mentions a “Holden’s Field” on Cedar Lane, which is what we’ll call it. An 1899 article says it was “a beautiful green,” where a local boy practiced his golf swing on the “closely cropped grass.” But he had to compete for the space. As related by the very best kind of newspaper writing (unfortunately, the article is unsigned):

Before Johnny came on the field the big green had been the private clucking ground for a family of geese and goslings, numbering nine. The goslings were hatched among the cockle burrs near the green and they were reared on the succulent grass that grew thereupon. An old red cow was the only other occupant of this field, and together the combination made a beautiful pastoral scene with the pleasant-faced cow grazing on the grass, occasionally stopping to contemplatively chew her cud and to cast retrospective glances back unto the days of her calfhood, while the big gray goslings floundered and quacked along behind the bigger gander and goose and peacefully plucked the tender grass with their long spadelike bills.

But the bucolic beauty and pastoral peacefulness of this scene was rudely married and disturbed by Johnny with his golf sticks…They gave vent to their disapproval by loud quacking that would have frightened most small boys, but Johnny was borne up by his high enthusiasm and an army of geese would not have deterred him. He bravely went to work and played golf on the goose green. For many days the geese content themselves with threatening demeanor towards the invader, but last week their attitude became really menacing, and yesterday morning their action assumed the stern quality of danger to Johnny Liddall.

That day he saw the family out for its breakfast, and he thought about knocking off a few of their heads (!) with precisely aimed drives, the way he’d “demonstrated his dexterity as a golfer” two weeks earlier when he decapitated a rooster who “wandered near his field of operations.” But before he could execute his special golfball guillotine,

…Johnny looked up and saw the geese bearing down upon him and the sight of so much power rushing upon him like a whirlwind threw him into a panic of fear. He lost his mind, his golf stick and his hat in his endeavor to escape to the friendly trees that extend in two long rows down Lovers’ lane. Fleet of foot as he was, the geese were faster. Flapping their wings and calling out bitter cries of denunciation in the goose language they went after Johnny. They caught him near the junction of Lovers’ lane and Third avenue. In a second he was surrounded and nine sharp and tough goose bills were pecking at this bare and unprotected legs…It was short work for the geese to reduce Johnny’s trousers to shreds and to make him look like a magnified bruise. At the climax of the battle…a newspaper man, who is a summer boarder in Bay Ridge, came upon the scene when on his way to catch the elevated train for the city. Being a brave man, like all newspaper men, he plunged bravely into the fight to rescue Johnny. He succeeded in making a flank movement that surprised the geese sufficiently to allow Johnny to escape, but was himself forced to flight and put to ignominious defeat. Johnny’s golf stick and his hat are still on the field of battle unless he has gone back with reinforcements and recaptured them from the enemy.

The “Lover’s Lane” is marked on an 1898 map, seen above, as a “Right of Way,” likely a well-worn local trail, almost in the same line as present-day 71st Street, if 71st Street were at an odd angle like the 200 block of Ovington Avenue. Such “lanes” were not uncommon in rural Bay Ridge; see below.

Bay Ridge Lovers' Lane
“Exterior view of a narrow path, identified as ‘Lover’s Lane,’ in a wooded area near the intersection of Colonial Road and 89th Street.” Undated. Via BPL

“Where 71st Street is now, from Ridge Boulevard to Third Avenue, was a double line of trees,” Grace A. Glen writes in Old Bay Ridge, her 1962 pamphlet memoirs about life in the late 19th century. “Mr. [Joseph] Perry had planted them and there were 80 different varieties among them, many of which were new in this locality. Of course, the walk between the trees was called ‘Lover’s Lane’, but whether it was ever used by ardent young couples I couldn’t undertake to say.”

On both sides of the Lane were vacant lots. The one between 71st Street and Ovington Avenue, which at that time was called Cedar Lane, was always flooded after a heavy rain. When a sharp frost followed, it made a grand skating pond and all Bay Ridge turned out to enjoy it.

The field, clearly, was already being used as something like a public park by man and goose alike, skaters and golfers, and an attempt to acquire it formally was made at a meeting of the Citizens Association of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton on October 5, 1904. The group discussed many topics, including the expansion of the Fort Hamilton armybase; the planned Fourth Avenue subway; new sewers; the paving and grading of 86th Street, from Fifth to Thirteenth avenues; and the narrowing of that street “to save the handsome trees on either side.” Tucked into all this business was the matter of Holden’s Field. “Referring to the question of parks,” the Eagle reported, “the members appeared pleased to hear that the resolution to acquire the land bounded by Second and Third avenues, Cedar lane and Seventy-first street, for park purposes, had passed to local board.”

The End of a Proposal
They didn’t appear pleased for long. Just six months later, the plan had apparently fallen out of favor. A notice in the Eagle included upcoming resolutions to be voted upon by the Local Board of the Bay Ridge District, the very first of which was “To rescind the resolution of October 1, 1903, recommending…an alteration in the map or plan of The City of New York by laying out as a public park the property bounded by Seventy-first street, Cedar lane, Second avenue and Third avenue.” (The rest of the resolutions mostly concerned paving some of the streets on the north side of the neighborhood.)

Bay Ridge proposed park
Proposed park, upper right. Detail of 1905 Atlas key. From the New York Public Library

Presumably, the resolution passed; today, obviously, there is no park there—the blocks were as densely developed as any other in the neighborhood: graystone rowhouses on the 71st Street side, double-wide brownstones on the Cedar/Silliman/Ovington side (built ca. 1908 by the Silliman Construction Company—likely named after the street, not the family—and now on the National Register of Historic Places). Storefronts were built along the Third Avenue side, apartment buildings on the Ridge Boulevard side. The Lovers’ Lane was built over and forgotten.

If there was a reason locals had a change of heart about the proposed park, it didn’t make it into the newspaper record. We do know, however, that this wasn’t an isolated area; it was the very heart of old Bay Ridge. Ovington and Bay Ridge avenues were relatively well developed by this point, as they’d been some of the earliest streets to become more than just farmland or parts of fancy country estates. PS 102 was already in its present location, though as a different building, directly across from the proposed park; and the Ridge Club, a social and sporting club whose members were among the area’s most elite, was across the street on 71st, between First and Second avenues. A library had already been built nearby, where there’s still a library today (on Second Avenue/Ridge Boulevard and 73rd Street).

PS 102 Brooklyn old building
Old PS 102 building, 1904. Everyone in the photo would have been looking at the 71st Street park. From Images of America: Bay Ridge by Peter Scarpa, Lawrence Stelter and Peter Syrdahl
Bay Ridge Library old one
The original Bay Ridge library, 1904, just a two-minute walk from the park. From Images of America: Bay Ridge by Peter Scarpa, Lawrence Stelter and Peter Syrdahl

All the more reason to have a park smack dab in the middle, a sort of town square! Then again, maybe the area’s development prospects looked too promising for the land to be converted into open public space; maybe the owner saw too much money to be made from real estate. Maybe locals decided that the grand parkway they were planning to encircle the neighborhood was parkland enough, and the community could afford no more such investments, however relatively modest.

Silliman Place is last mentioned in the Eagle in 1913; I presume it became “Ovington” not long after that. It was a sensible renaming, I suppose, but it obscures the fact that the block has a rich history unconnected to the rich history of the rest of Ovington Avenue—one that’s been completely forgotten!

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