Carroll Gardens

Landmarks Preservation Commission blocks planned demolition of historic Carroll Gardens kindergarten

April 10, 2018 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
This is the former Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten, whose planned demolition has been halted by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan

You wanna tear down a historic Brooklyn kindergarten and build condos? Fuhgeddaboudit.

On Tuesday, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) blocked Avo Construction’s plan to demolish the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten in Carroll Gardens and replace it with a six-story condo building.

The preservation agency voted unanimously to calendar the former school building at 236 President St. as well as a pre-Civil War mansion at 238 President St. for consideration as individual city landmarks.

The voting took place at a public meeting at the LPC’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.

Once the commission calendars a property, it’s illegal to tear it down or make changes to its exterior.

During the public meeting, LPC Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan called 236 and 238 President St. “an odd couple” whose shared history is “quite compelling.”

The LPC’s move to protect the late 19th-century kindergarten is a victory for Carroll Gardens residents who mounted an emergency campaign to save it and for City Councilmember Brad Lander, whose staffers worked closely with the residents.

The campaign was precipitated by Avo Construction’s pending purchase of the kindergarten building, which had been used as a private home since 1974. An executive from the firm told residents about its demolition and condo-construction plan for 236 President St.

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As the next step in the process of saving the historic kindergarten from the wrecking ball, the LPC will hold a public hearing where interested parties will offer testimony about it and 238 President St. The date for the public hearing has not yet been set.

After that, the commission will vote on whether to landmark each building.

Why were free kindergartens a big deal?

The Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten and its next-door neighbor, the Brooklyn Deaconess Home of the Methodist Episcopal Church, are worthy of being landmarked on the basis of their cultural history, Srinivasan said at Tuesday’s public meeting.

The kindergarten is a French Renaissance Revival-style building designed by architectural firm Hough & Deuell.

In 1897, when Elmira Christian built it as a tribute to her late husband, Brooklyn public schools did not offer kindergarten.

There was a growing movement in America among settlement houses and churches to offer free kindergarten to immigrants’ and poor people’s children as a means of bettering the lives of the kids and their families.

The Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten was the first free kindergarten in Brooklyn to be housed in a freestanding, specially designed building.

Elmira Christian built the kindergarten on the 75-foot-wide lot of 238 President St. She bought the Italianate 1850s mansion and donated it to the Methodist Episcopal Church.

The church used 238 President St. as a training facility and residence for deaconesses, who provided social services to the poor and the sick.

From 1950 through the mid-1960s, the deaconesses’ residence became the home of the Rev. Alberto Baez. He was the minister of a Spanish-speaking Methodist congregation that used the former kindergarten building as its chapel.

His granddaughter, singer Joan Baez, recently wrote a letter supporting the landmarking of the two buildings.

Today, the Brooklyn Deaconess Home of the Methodist Episcopal Church is a co-op building. Its residents are spearheading the campaign to win landmark status for their property and the historic kindergarten.

 

Who was Hans S. Christian?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Brooklyn Eagle published numerous articles about Norwegian-born sailor Hans S. Christian’s death and the kindergarten his widow built in his honor.

According to the Eagle, he was “a well-known builder and dealer in builders’ material” who “gave liberally to all philanthropic work.” His business was located on Second Street at the edge of the Gowanus Canal.

In December 1894, he attended a Wednesday evening prayer meeting at First Place Methodist Episcopal Church “and on his way home dropped dead,” an Eagle story said.

His wife hadn’t wanted him to go to the prayer meeting because there was a storm.

But attending church was important to him. He’d been one of the church’s founders and its board president and taught Sunday school there.

“The cause of death was a latent heart trouble, which had never been considered serious,” the Eagle reported.

Hans and Elmira Christian lived at 251 President St. at the time of his death.

 

Research contributed by Francesca Norsen Tate

 

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