Heights History: Alfred T. White

During the Victorian era many wealthy people felt a religious obligation to aid the poor through privately organized uplift projects. Alfred Tredway White (1846-1921), a cousin of Seth Low the Younger, was the Heights’ greatest philanthropist and community activist. In 1880 he moved out of his father Alexander’s house at 2 Pierrepont Place into 40 Remsen Street.

In 1889 he built Riverside, model housing for the working class at Columbia Place (the continuation of Columbia Street) and Joralemon Street on the site of the Livingston-Pierrepont distillery. His motto on good works was “philanthropy plus five (or eight) percent”, indicating he thought one could make a profit helping the poor.

It originally housed 280 families in nine buildings surrounding a courtyard on the plan of his Tower and Home Buildings in Cobble Hill and is considered the first public housing in the U.S. In his classic book How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis called Riverside “the beau ideal of the model tenement.” Each apartment was well-lit ventilated, had its own toilet and recessed balcony—which was unusual for tenements of the period. Bathing, however, was communal and in the basement. The western four buildings were demolished for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 1943 and underground parking was recently added. White included a bandstand in the courtyard where Saturday concerts were held. The reduced courtyard is now a shallow backyard. Since the 1980s successive owners have unsuccessfully sought to convert it into luxury housing.

The First Unitarian Church on Pierrepont Street constructed a Gothic Revival chapel in 1876 at 26 Willow Place to minister to the local workers in a then-industrial area. White began a kindergarten and community center there for the children of the Riverside Houses. As the neighborhood de-industrialized it was used first as a public school between 1928 and 1942. It also was reportedly a brothel during World War II, and was used as a furniture factory from 1947 until 1956. In the 1950s it was used as a mental health center. It is now the A.T. White Community Center, whose principal tenant is the Heights Players.

White founded, along with his cousin, Seth Low (the house next door to the A.A. Low House is the Alexander White House, Alfred Tredway’s father), the Brooklyn Bureau of Charities, whose building survives on Schermerhorn Street on the Downtown Brooklyn side of Court Street. He was Commissioner of City (Public) Works, and like his cousin Seth, was a Trustee of Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, of the Regional Plan Association, and was involved in planning the model community of Forest Hills Gardens. He was also a founder of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and much of the land that became Marine Park near the eponymous bridge to the Rockaway peninsula. He also founded the Brooklyn Heights Association.

In 1921, White died tragically when he fell through the ice of a pond while ice-skating.

Robert Furman is working on a history of Brooklyn Heights called “Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rise of America’s First Suburb,” to be published later this year.

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  • http://www.proteotypes.org Tom La Farge

    Those interested in Alfred White’s visionary building projects, which also included the Workingmen’s Cottages on Warren Place in Cobble Hill, may like to know of a book of essays, The Social Vision of Alfred T. White. Published in 2009 by Proteotypes, the publishing arm of Proteus Gowanus, it contains essays by the architectural historian Francis Morrone, Olive Hoogenboom, historian of the First Unitarian Church where White worshipped, and Kathy Madden of the Project for Public Spaces, among others. It can be ordered from Amazon or direct from http://www.proteotypes.org.

  • A Neighbor

    Great! Nice piece of social history. Thanks. Is there a White memorial, statue or otherwise, anywhere? It sounds like there should be.

  • bob furman

    There is a White Room in the Unitarian church and the community ctr on Willow Pl. Can I borrow the White book somewhere? None of the libraries have it.

  • weegee

    There’s a plaque in the Botanic Gardens, too.

  • garyvp

    Neighbor and Bob – The ATW Center has a plaque on the side of the building commemorating Alfred T. White. The old church space is known as the Kaufman Auditorium in honor of the foundation that paid the mortgage on the center not long after the community took control of the complex in 1962.

  • ujh

    Bob Furman, are you certain about the addition of underground parking? Underground parking has been part of the owners’ scheme to eventually remove the current tenants who have put up a years-old, valiant fight.

  • http://selfabsorbedboomer.blogspot.com Claude Scales

    Bob, you may borrow my copy of the White book. I’ll put it in a manila envelope with your name on it and give it to the doorman at 57 Montague.

    ujh is right about the underground parking. It has not been added, but has been the subject of administrative proceedings that, as of our last report, went against the landlord, Pinnacle Group. Pinnacle, represented by former City Council member Ken Fisher, has been dogged in its pursuit of this, and the DHCR’s decsion may be on appeal. I’ll get an update ASAP.

  • bob furman

    Claude Scales. Thanks a bunch.

  • bob furman

    Thanks all very much for your extraordinarily helpful comments!

  • http://selfabsorbedboomer.blogspot.com Claude Scales

    You’re welcome, Bob. I got this update on the Riverside garage situation from Ben Bankson, President of the Willowtown Association:

    “I believe we’re still waiting for the decision of the judge who heard the landlord’s appeal last December 10. I know that not so long ago she did, as she said she would, do visited the courtyard to see the old trees there for herself. Bill Ringler [President of the Riverside Tenants' Association] will say a few words about this at our fair’s opening rally at noon on Saturday.”

  • Bill Ringler

    The State DHCR decisions against Pinnacle are presently being appealed in NY State Supreme Court as an Article 78 proceeding. The DHCR ruled that it would be a further decrease in services to the tenants for the landlord to cut the trees down and then add the pollution of 100 cars inside our bowl shaped courtyard.

    Ken Fisher is representing the owner in this proceeding. Ken Fisher has stated that the owner, Joel Wiener of the Pinnacle Group will appeal any decision barring him from cutting the trees down, and building an underground parking garage inside the courtyard.

    We are still awaiting a decision from the Judge. The hearing was on December 10, 2010. She seems to be reviewing the papers with great interest.

  • bob furman

    Claude. Did you know that the western end of the block between Montague St, Pierrepont St, Pierrepont Pl and Hicks St was a private park called “Miss White’s Garden” until 1948?