A Love Letter To Brooklyn Heights…

Despite moving to New York City in 1995, it wasn’t until I bought my first coop in Brooklyn Heights 12 years ago, that I first set foot in the borough of BK. In those first five years in NYC, I worked my way through three nabes—the Upper West Side, Chelsea and Tribeca—before a friend suggested Brooklyn Heights.

“But that’s in… um, Brooklyn,” I responded. Oh, how times have changed.

In the fall of 1999, after first setting foot in the Heights to begin my search, I recall vividly sniffing the air—and capturing the wondrous waft of autumn leaves. Nature was all about. The main drag Montague Street was charming. The area was clean, proud and felt so very safe. And then I found the Promenade. Sold!

After seeing dozens of overpriced or undersized units, I at last found my utopia: a two-bedroom, 950-square-foot dump in a beautifully historic building near the end of Montague Street, just steps from the Promenade. Ultimately, I paid $255,000 for the apartment, which at one time was the super’s home (I was told he not only had a large extended family, but frequent guests from afar, who ultimately left the unit in disastrous condition). After a typically gruesome coop interview, I moved in May 2, 2000.

While the second-floor apartment is hardly light-filled, I can’t imagine living anywhere else today. It doesn’t hurt that a grocery store and liquor shop—essential—are mere blocks away. So it might be shady indoors, but it takes all of 60 seconds to discover paradise on the outside.

Over the years, my building has installed a rooftop deck, replaced the elevator, added storage in the basement, while my neighbors (with expected exceptions here and there) are a gregarious lot. Meanwhile, I’ve renovated my kitchen and second bedroom, gutted the bathroom, and had the good fortune of having my master bedroom redone on an episode of HGTV’s “Dear Genevieve.”

And during the past decade-plus, I’ve come to discover and treasure a wide swath of big ole Brooklyn. Working for the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, I walked through Downtown Brooklyn every day for seven months—which I admittedly once viewed as seedy and a bit discomforting. Over time, I came to fondly regard that area as a cool, reminiscent mirror image of Manhattan in the late 1970s (not so much anymore). Alongside my Census duties, I discovered—block by block—Fort Greene, Prospect Park, DUMBO, Vinegar Hill, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Red Hook and Sunset Park.

And now some history of the building I call home: 62 Montague Street. The Harbor View Apartments, later named The Arlington, were completed in 1887. The building was designed by Montrose W. Morris, who had built his own residence in Brooklyn and opened it to the public as his office, as a means of advertising his acumen.

Among visitors was developer Louis F. Seitz, who, mightily impressed, commissioned an apartment house on property he owned along Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue. He was so pleased with the resulting Alhambra that he commissioned Morris to design two additional multiple-family residences—a growing trend amid the prominent brownstones in the Heights.

In 1885, architectural firm Parfitt Brothers built the Montague, Grosvenor and Berkeley apartment buildings on Montague Street. Two years later, Morris was commissioned to design The Arlington, just up from a ferry landing at the foot of Montague Street. At the time, a trolley ran to the end of Montague, where the ferry took old-moneyed passengers to Wall Street.

Harlem-born American playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005) lived on the 10th floor of 62 Montague in the early 1940s with his first wife Mary Grace Slattery, paying $60 a month, while writing and working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It’s said to be one of four addresses he held in the Heights. In 1946, his play “All My Sons” earned him a first Tony Award. In 1949, Miller’s career-defining “Death of A Salesman” won a Pulitzer Prize and another Tony, propelling him to fame. He met Marilyn Monroe in 1951, then left poor Mary to become Monroe’s third husband in July 1956. She wasn’t having Brooklyn, and the couple moved to Manhattan. They divorced in 1961 and Monroe died 19 months later. Perhaps she’d still be with us had the pair stayed in BK?

The Arlington, meanwhile, originally contained 20 family apartments and 10 “bachelor”—or studio—units. For its first 20 years, at 10 stories, the building was the tallest residence in the Heights.

In 1965, 62 Montague joined with the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood as a National Historic Landmark for its “rare charm and historic significance.” The petition read: “Of the 1,284 buildings fronting on streets within the proposed District, 684 were built before the Civil War and 1,078 before the turn of the century. There are 60 Federal, 405 Greek Revival, 47 Gothic Revival and 201 Anglo-ltalianate buildings, as well as 216 buildings in eclectic and miscellaneous styles, not to mention 61 early carriage-houses grouped largely along unspoiled mews. In addition, 190 buildings are of generally conforming scale.”

To maintain the auspices of its Landmark stature, 62 Montague Street has been undergoing a massive renovation to restore and repair its façade to original grandeur: which boasts astonishing details, including terra cotta cherubs, intricate roping in the concrete and other decorative elements from sidewalk level to tip-top.

Whenever friends come to visit in New York, they are consistently charmed, if not seduced, by the architectural grandeur and calm of the Heights. I always nod in agreement, noting that when I worked in Manhattan as a journalist at Billboard magazine and then came home to Brooklyn, I felt I had a “there” and a “here,” two distinctly phenomenal destinations only a subway ride apart. How fortunate I am to have the two: New York City and the greatest neighborhood in the world, Brooklyn Heights. There’s nowhere I’d rather be.

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  • knitwit

    Terrific article, Chuck. You captured the whole neighborhood and the love for it. Born and bred in Brooklyn, living in the Heights was a childhood dream and I obtained. The best of historical buildings and the peace and quiet of living here yet only a few stops to mid-town and work. I worked with Chuck for many years and he was and still is one the best writers I know besides being a great guy. Love your photos too.

  • Willow St. Neighbor

    What a wonderful story. I loved every single word of it.
    I grew up in E. Flatbush in the 50’s. My parents were able to buy a small house on Long Island where they have lived for the past 50 years. Me, I couldn’t wait to “go home”. Home for me was Brooklyn.
    Spent many a weekend driving into Brooklyn, eating pizza at Grimaldi’s before walking over the bridge. My husband and I dreamed of one day being able to live here. We got our wish seven years ago. I pinch myself every day that we finally made it here.
    When we moved here my daughter said to me “Mom, you’re living your dream”. That I am!

  • Mark

    Great read, thanks so much for taking the time to share it with us.

  • Paige

    What a wonderful tribute to Brooklyn Heights. My husband and I were married in 1996 and rented our first apartment in a 60 step walkup on Pierrepont Street. We then bought a beautiful duplex in a brownstone on Remsen street where we lived from 1998-2004. We loved to walk our kids along the promenade and take them to the playground. My children and I spent many days having “play dates” with friends who lived at 62 Montague Street. We now live in NJ, but always visit once or twice a year which inevitably brings back very happy memories of our years of living in the heights.

  • lois

    Fantastic article. I look forward to future stories about other interesting Heights places.

  • lori

    A newcomer to the neighborhood remarked: I have lived in many cities and towns in the US, but I find Brooklyn Heights to be like a little village; so many people know each other, greet each other; we have almost everything we need right here. Altho most of us “visit” other parts of the city frequently for various activities, we are happy to return “home” to the Heights. .

  • Gerry

    Thank you for this great article.

    I have lived on Montague Terrace for decades walking by 62 Montague Street all the time — I remember the elderly woman who lived on the first floor in a great apartment she had a sweet Chrstmas Tree each year and a son who wore a crazy hat a tall younger guy who was trying to get his “sucession rights” to his mothers rent stabilized apartment after she passed away.

    Eventually I think the son took a buyout he never did settle into his mothers apartment the place he grew up? Does anyone know who this guy was and what happened to him?

    I loved what Gineveive did to your bedroom.

    Brooklyn Heights has been very good to me I have had all kinds of good things happen to me here and I hope that you continue to have great times at 62 Montague Street.

  • Promenade Princess

    Wow, I have never read anything like this on the Brooklyn Blog. This is an essay like you would find on Salon.com. This is a really beautiful story that’s personal and also relatable to everyone that has the good luck to call Brooklyn Heights their home. I loved this, it made me feel warm & fuzzy — and lucky. More please Mr. Taylor! (I also really liked his story on the Fallout Shelter signs.) Does everyone else feel the same, that this has raised the bar on this web site? I really enjoyed reading this.

  • Andrew Porter

    A writer I know, Jonathan Vos Post, lived there in the 1960s-70s and told me about raucous parties he hosted where Norman Mailer and others held forth in liquor-lubricated abandon. Now your building like mine is cocooned with a sidewalk shed, which I’m told will be up for much of the year. My own building was erected in 1883, but unlike yours was renovated some time after WW 1, at which time they got rid of the exterior decoration and the interior fireplaces, alas.

    But I’ve always loved your building, with its wonderful turret and intricately paned windows. Long may it tower over Montague!

  • Ex-Heightster

    Very eloquent & captivating article! Brings back lots of memories, thanks!

    I spent the first 52 years of my life growing up in the North Heights, and I have to agree that you are in one of the finest locations in all of New York–100 feet from the Promenade, a block from Key Food & plenty of other shopping, a few blocks from numerous subway lines that will put you in Manhattan in a matter of minutes! What more could one want?

    Presently, I’m staying (temporarily, thank God) in a small town in Central NJ, and like most of America, it’s the antithesis of the Heights. There is no neighborhood, no one strolls anywhere, everything is done by car, there is very little socializing. The locals idea of an exciting weekend is to drive to WalMart/shopping mall by day, and then go to a chain restaurant like Fridays, Red Robin, or other hick bar at night. Most everything else is also bland & sterile here.

    @Gerry: I believe you are referring to the Mara family who lived in a rent-controlled apartment on the first floor of said building. The Maras raised 7 or 8 children there over many years. The youngest, Rob Mara, the lanky outgoing guy who wore stylish hats, moved to Baltimore (and bought a house there I think) after taking the buy-out. Many of his siblings had already moved to Martha’s Vineyard years before.