Pierrepont: Seeing great potential across the river in Brooklyn

Hezekiah Pierrepont created city's first suburb in Brooklyn Heights

Jul.July 30, 2008 07:00 PM

In Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont’s day, New York City was confined to Lower Manhattan, horse-drawn
carriages were the only way to get around and Brooklyn was just some farmland across a river.

But Pierrepont, a member of a prominent New York family, saw great potential in that Brooklyn farmland, especially in the Brooklyn Heights lots that he bought up. Thanks to his vision, when a steamboat ferry started running between Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1814, Brooklyn Heights became New York’s first commuter suburb.

“When New York City was only growing in a northward direction up the island, Pierrepont had the foresight to see it could also grow
across the river,” said historian and author Francis Morrone.

This success was arguably rooted in past failures. Pierrpont had tried his hand at a couple of different enterprises, but after the last one, a gin business, failed, he realized the key to his fortune wasn’t his distillery but the ground it stood on.

Pierrepont started purchasing lots in Brooklyn Heights to expand his real estate holdings, buying up the Benson, Robert De Bevoise and part of the Joris Remsen farms. He bought 60 acres in the area, with 800 feet along the New York Harbor.

Setting a precedent followed by future developers, Pierrepont got involved in Brooklyn politics to make sure his property retained value. He was able to use his influence to make sure that local streets were created with wide lanes, and then he divided his property into 25-by-100-foot lots.

“He saw real estate as more than one house or two houses, but a broader conception of what a suburb might look like. He envisioned whole streets and blocks,” said historian Kenneth Jackson. “As opposed to [the] crowded inner-city lifestyle, he saw it better to escape the city and find a more green, quiet neighborhood.”

As Pierrepont focused on real estate, his friend Robert Fulton was developing the steamboat; its successful runs between Beekman Slip (now Fulton Street) in Manhattan and Fulton Street in Brooklyn gave rise to the first New York suburb.

According to Jackson’s book, “Crabgrass Frontier,” an advertisement for Brooklyn Heights properties called the area “the nearest country retreat, [with] easiest of access from the center of business” in Manhattan.

As soon as people began coming across the river, Pierrepont’s properties started to sell.

“It was generally prosperous people who put up very substantial houses [in Brooklyn Heights],” said Morrone. “Manhattan professionals and business people, the yuppies of 1820.”

Pierrepont, born in Brooklyn in 1768, was the grandson of one of the founders of Yale College.

“Pierrepont was from a very distinguished family going back many generations,” Morrone said. “Brooklyn Heights families tended to have roots in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and came down to New York when New England businesses were fanning out
across America.”

While he came from a comfortable family, Pierrepont was uninterested in scholarly pursuits like the study
of Greek and Latin, and instead set out to become
an entrepreneur.

At the age of 25, he moved to Paris and began importing provisions to France with his cousin, according to “Crabgrass Frontier.” He expanded his business to India and China, but it all came to an end when pirates took over his ship, the Confederacy, in 1797.

Only 29 years old and bankrupt, Pierrepont decided it was time to go home.

Back in New York, Pierrepont got married in
1802 to the daughter of William Constable, one of the
richest men in America and the largest landowner in New York.

As a wedding present, Constable gave Pierrepont and his daughter, Anna Marie, half a million acres of land in upstate New York. To this day, there is a town called Pierrepont in St. Lawrence County.

Pierrepont bought a gin distillery on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights, figuring alcohol was always in demand and
that he would be a guaranteed success. He wasn’t, but his real estate savvy proved far more prescient.

His legacy

Pierrepont had plans to build a public promenade along the waterfront in Brooklyn Heights, but passed away in 1838 before he could implement them. The promenade was finally built by Robert Moses more than 100 years later.

According to Jackson’s book, Pierrepont’s descendants kept up his real estate business by continuing to divide and sell the land. By 1841, 39 of the 84 homes on Pierrepont’s estate in Brooklyn Heights were owned by commuters who worked in Manhattan.

The houses varied from Federal-style row houses on Montague and Remsen streets, to larger homes designed in the Greek Revival style, three stories tall with high ceilings, columns and ornamental stair railings. According to the book “Old Brooklyn Heights: New York’s First Suburb” by Clay Lancaster, some of those homes could be seen on Cranberry, Clark, State and Henry streets.

“A lot of them do still stand,” Morrone said. “Many houses built in the 1830s and 1840s are original Brooklyn Heights houses, the first built on the site.”

Because of Brooklyn Heights’ rich history, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Commission named the area a historic district in 1965. The district is bound north and south by Cadman Plaza West and Atlantic Avenue, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway on the west and between Henry and Court streets on the east.

Pierrepont Street, named in honor of the developer, runs east to west in the historic district. It is also home to the Brooklyn Historical Society, at 128 Pierrepont Street.

“Pierrepont is considered the first suburban real estate developer in the United States and arguably the world,” Jackson said. “He set the model for William Levitt on through.”

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