Save historic kindergarten from demolition, Carroll Gardens residents say
Eye on Real Estate: Landmarking campaign for 236 President St. and historically linked 238 President St.
Save the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten!
That’s the rallying cry of Carroll Gardens residents who are trying to stop the planned demolition of the first freestanding free kindergarten built in Brooklyn.
It’s at 236 President St. Its purchaser, Avo Construction, plans to tear it down to construct a six-story luxury condo building.
The residents are working to save the two-story former kindergarten by campaigning for city landmark designation for it and 238 President St.
The two buildings have a shared history, which is why they believe both should be landmarked.
“We’re honoring the community by spotlighting its history,” Jim Protos of 238 President Tenants Corp. told the Brooklyn Eagle in an interview. “What’s at stake is the character of Carroll Gardens.”
For 22 years he and his wife Grace have lived at 238 President St., a four-and-a-half-story co-op next door to the former kindergarten.
They and several neighbors have submitted a request for urgent evaluation to the city Landmarks Preservation Commission about the two buildings — which have a touching back story.
Neighborhood resident Elmira Christian donated money to fund the operation of a kindergarten for First Place Methodist Episcopal Church. She bought 238 President St., a building with a 75-foot-wide lot — and constructed a stand-alone kindergarten on the lot in 1897.
She took these actions to honor her late husband, Norwegian immigrant Hans S. Christian.
He had died on the way home from a prayer meeting at the church. The church was important to him. He’d been one of its founders and its board president and taught Sunday school there.
In that era, Brooklyn public schools did not have kindergarten classes. Free kindergarten was considered a means of improving the lives of impoverished families.
More than 2,000 supportive letters and emails
This is not the first time there has been a call to landmark 236 President St.
During Carroll Gardens’ rezoning in 2009, then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz wanted the kindergarten to be landmarked.
Protos said that during the rezoning process, he and his neighbors looked into the possibility of landmarking part of their neighborhood that’s outside the existing Carroll Gardens Historic District.
They were told the Landmarks Preservation Commission believed that there had been too many modifications to buildings in the area. So they didn’t pursue the idea.
Fast-forward to the year 2018, to 238 President St. residents’ push for the landmarking of 236 and 238 President St.
People who are pro-development will likely accuse Protos and his neighbors of trying to use landmarking law for selfish purposes to prevent a big construction project from being undertaken next door to their property.
“They’re wrong,” Protos responded when asked about this. “We represent a lot of voices in the community who want the kindergarten landmarked. It’s not just us.”
At last count, he said, more than 2,000 letters and emails had been sent supporting the landmarking of 236 and 238 President St. to Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan or elected officials.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission’s response
The Eagle reached out to the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the two buildings.
“The Landmarks Preservation Commission recently received requests to evaluate 236 and 238 President St. as potential landmarks from elected officials and the community, and they are currently under review,” a commission spokeswoman said via email.
According to city Finance Department records, the United Methodist City Society owned both 236 President St. and 238 President St., which were one property, until 1974.
Towards the end of the Methodists’ years of ownership, 236 President St. served as a chapel for Brooklyn’s first Spanish-speaking congregation. And the Rev. Alberto Baez — who was folk singer Joan Baez’s grandfather — lived at 238 President St.
He had established the Spanish-speaking congregation in 1920.
In 1974, the United Methodist City Society split the lot and sold the former kindergarten building to husband and wife Giuseppe and Fortunata Gangemi, Finance Department records show.
After Giuseppe Gangemi’s 2013 death, the ownership of 236 President St. was transferred to a Gangemi family trust, Finance Department records indicate.
Some time after Fortunata Gangemi died, the house was put on the market, Protos recalled. A “For Sale” sign first appeared in front of the house in 2016.
The developer gave them a heads-up
Last year, residents of 238 President St. and neighboring 232 President St. and reps from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church asked the real estate agent who then had the listing to pass a letter to the former kindergarten building’s prospective buyer, Protos said.
The letter requested that the would-be buyer meet with them to tell them what was in store for the property.
The former kindergarten building is on the opposite side of a small garden from St. Paul’s parish hall, whose address is 199 Carroll St.
Neighborhood residents didn’t receive a response to their letter, Protos said.
But a few weeks ago, one of Protos’ neighbors found out Avo Construction had signed a contract to buy 236 President St. The residents sent a second letter directly to the development firm. One of Avo Construction’s employees followed up and arranged to meet with them and reps from St. Paul’s and 232 President St.
That’s how they found out about the developer’s demolition and condo-construction plans. They also found out Avo Construction expects the sale of 236 President St. to close this month.
In mid-February, the residents of 238 President St. notified the owners and buyer of 236 President St. of the request for landmark evaluation.
We just checked Finance Department records. As of yet, there’s no indication Avo Construction’s purchase of 236 President St. has closed.
It’s possible the deal’s done, though. Usually when a New York City real estate transaction is completed, there’s a lapse of several days before the deed shows up on the Finance Department’s website.
The Eagle reached out to Avo Construction for comment about the landmarking campaign. We have not yet gotten a response.
Deaconesses lived next door
And now, a few more historical details about 236 President St.: The architecture firm that designed it was Hough & Duell.
Its architectural style is French Renaissance.
As for 238 President St., the Anglo-Italian stand-alone brick mansion was built as a private home. Construction was completed in 1853.
Elmira Christian purchased 238 President St. in 1897 and donated it to the Methodist Episcopal Church with the intention of housing the free kindergarten there. But the house wound up being used as the Brooklyn Deaconess Home and Training School of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
She built a freestanding kindergarten building — today’s 236 President St. — on the site of 238 President St.’s carriage house.
Deaconesses were the 1890s’ equivalent of social workers. They provided assistance to the poor.
Detailed historical info about the two buildings is available on a “Save Carroll Gardens History” website the residents created.
City Councilmember Brad Lander, U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez and state Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon have written a joint letter to Landmarks Preservation Commission Chairwoman Srinivasan asking that 236 President St. and 238 President St. be considered for landmark designation.
State Sen. Brian Kavanagh and organizations including the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, the Norwegian Immigrant Association and the Cobble Hill Association support the landmarking of 236 and 238 President St.
More than 1,000 people have signed President Street residents’ petition.
Readers are invited to sign the petition if they haven’t already. It can be found at savecarrollgardenshistory.blogspot.com.
The Historic Districts Council is helping President Street residents with their landmarking campaign.
P.S.: We hereby send a shout-out to Katia Kelly, who has written eloquently about 236 President St.’s threatened demolition on her blog “Pardon Me For Asking.”
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