A Peek Inside a Clinton Hill Favorite
Now THIS is one fantastic house. Or actually, make that two. The clapboard-clad twins on Waverly Avenue are among the oldest buildings in Clinton Hill, and if there is ever an argument for maintaining authentic clapboard siding, this is it! These houses are dripping with texture and history. I dare you to walk by and not do a double-take.
Lucky me — I got to go inside!
In the professional realm of history and preservation, I get to meet a lot of fascinating people who love their jobs — and who practice what they preach. Frampton Tolbert is a former colleague of mine, so you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that he and his partner Andrew rent an apartment in one of these two beauties. A staff member at the Historic Districts Council and a board member of the Victorian Society New York, Frampton knows a good old house when he sees one. And this one I had to see.
As you’ll notice, Frampton and Andrew have the coolest sense of style — mid-century antiques abound all over the place. It all provides a nice juxtaposition to the home’s old-world charm (the fireplaces! the floors!). This is definitely one of those “I’m not in New York” kinds of places. Or at least, “I’m not in New York in 2013.”
But New York in the 1840s? Absolutely. That’s when the Landmarks Preservation Commission claims the houses were built, and a quick survey of the conveyance records makes me think they’re right. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle notes that the section of Hamilton Street (as Waverly Avenue was known until the 1870s) between Lafayette and Fulton Streets officially opened around 1843, and my assumption is that the homes were built right around that time. They were definitely there in 1860, according to a fire insurance map from that year that I glanced at while visiting the Brooklyn Historical Society. The map shows a slew of little wooden houses all over Clinton Hill! So few are left; today, this area is mainly composed of bricks & brownstone.
Looking closely at the 1860 map, we can see our matching 3 1/2 story houses. Sitting alone, surrounded by vacant land. It’s incredible to think about that!
Historically, Waverly Avenue served a very specific purpose in Clinton Hill (which was commonly referred to as “The Hill” — the wealthy suburban retreat on the far outskirts of what was then the city of Brooklyn). Even in its early days, the neighborhood attracted people of high social standing, many of whom built large wooden villas on Clinton and Washington Avenues. The neigborhood’s wooden past was all but obliterated when masonry came into vogue and large brick and stone mansions and rowhouses replaced the earlier buildings. These are the ones you see on the avenues today. They are spectacular, and earned the neighborhood the moniker “Brooklyn’s Gold Coast.” As for Waverly Avenue — well, it developed mainly as a service street for the neighboring mansions. The rowhouses, carriage houses and other smaller service buildings along this street have always been more quaint than grand. As such, its one of the more charming streets in Clinton Hill.
I was able to locate a photo of our houses from 1941, when they both had more decorative, protruding cornices. Only one survives. My assumption is that these are not original, but rather were added around the time the fireplaces were installed. They are just too Victorian for the 1840s. This photo would have been taken a few decades before the neighborhood was redlined. My, how times change.
Frampton and Andrew had done a bit of research on their house and tipped me off to an interesting fact. A former tenant of the house was Lieutenant Colonel William H. DeBevoise, a Union officer in Brooklyn’s 14th Regiment during the Civil War. Having come from a prominent Brooklyn family, Colonel DeBevoise died in the house in 1886 around the age of 60. DeBevoise and his wife are both buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Having come from a prominent Brooklyn family, DeBevoise was well-connected in Brooklyn society and was thus well-suited to Clinton Hill. In 1863, he was mentioned in a letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to his brother Walt Whitman: ”My old friend Bill DeBevoise is home sick with ‘weakness’ I suppose you might call it. He can hardly walk alone. He has been home about 2 weeks and has got so he can just get about a little.”
I’m not sure if there’s any truth to this, but it certainly paints a cute picture: Rumor has it that Love Lane in Brooklyn Heights was named for the many suiters of Sarah DeBevoise, who lived there with her uncles. She and her lovers would write their initials – love lines – on a nearby fence. Any relation to our William, I wonder?
I am excited to continue to research these houses, which have always been two of my absolute favorites. If anyone out there has more historic tidbits to share with the community, please do! As a thank you for opening their home to me, I’ve arranged for Frampton and Andrew to receive their tax photo in the mail. Here’s hoping they’ll share it when it arrives.
In the meantime, if you love Frampton as much I do, you can follow his other pursuits at midcenturymundane.com.