Clinton Hill

Preservationists redouble campaign to landmark Walt Whitman’s Clinton Hill house

Walt Whitman Way’s street sign is unveiled

November 4, 2019 Lore Croghan
City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo holds a Walt Whitman Way street sign. New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, who’s wearing a black poncho, stands at left. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Preservationists renewed their call for the city to landmark Walt Whitman’s Clinton Hill house during a street co-naming ceremony for the famous poet and former Brooklyn Eagle editor.

“It’s time to designate,” Walt Whitman Initiative board member Brad Vogel told the Eagle on Saturday at the unveiling ceremony for Walt Whitman Way. “Think what would happen 25 years from now if we fail to get it done. Everybody would be kicking themselves.”

The new Clinton Hill street sign stands at the intersection of DeKalb Avenue and Ryerson Street across from Pratt Institute.

The house that advocates want landmarked is a couple blocks away at 99 Ryerson St. Whitman lived there with his family from May 1855 through April 1856.

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Preservationists call it the Leaves of Grass House because he published the first version of “Leaves of Grass” while he was living there. That revolutionary poetry collection has had a lasting impact on American arts and letters.

Whitman is widely considered to be America’s greatest poet. He was the Eagle’s editor in the 1840s.

The house on the right is 99 Ryerson St., where Walt Whitman lived when he published the first version of “Leaves of Grass.” Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane
The house on the right is 99 Ryerson St., where Walt Whitman lived when he published the first version of “Leaves of Grass.” Eagle file photo by Paul Frangipane

“The steps of the house are the steps Whitman walked down to go print ‘Leaves of Grass.’ The place where his feet launched out into Brooklyn is incredibly important and we need to save it,” Gary Glazner, the founder and executive director of the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, told the Eagle at the celebration.

Italianate, wood-frame 99 Ryerson St. was constructed in the 1850s, but is now covered in modern siding. It isn’t much to look at, but it reflects the poet’s working-class roots, advocates said. It is the only New York City house where Whitman lived that is still standing today.


The house deserves to be protected from demolition, New York University Professor Karen Karbiener, who’s the president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, told the Eagle. Landmarked buildings cannot be demolished or undergo exterior alterations without the permission of the city Landmarks Preservation Commission.

“Brooklyn made Walt Whitman — and Whitman made Brooklyn. The house stands as a symbol of what Whitman is, and it stands as a symbol of what Brooklyn is,” Karbiener said.

The initiative’s members took to the stage during Saturday’s street co-naming ceremony to voice their determination to keep campaigning for Leaves of Grass House’s landmark designation.

“We will bring this fight to whoever will listen,” St. Francis College Professor Ian Maloney said.

A petition calling for the house to be landmarked has nearly 7,000 signatures.

From left, Joseph Belton, City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo and Walt Whitman Initiative members Karen Karbiener and Brad Vogel unveil the Walt Whitman Way street sign. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
From left, Joseph Belton, City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo and Walt Whitman Initiative members Karen Karbiener and Brad Vogel unveil the Walt Whitman Way street sign. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

During the ceremony, City Councilmember Laurie Cumbo and several Walt Whitman Initiative members peeled paper off the Walt Whitman Way street sign by pulling a cord attached to it.

It was Vogel’s idea to rename the street for Whitman. Cumbo sponsored street co-naming legislation, which the City Council approved in July.

“His work was about healing. It was about bringing people together. It was about the American story,” Cumbo said in brief remarks before the unveiling.

The street co-naming celebration included recitations of Whitman’s poetry. Several contemporary poets read their own works, which drew inspiration from Whitman. Guests ate birthday cake in honor of the Bard of Brooklyn — his 200th birthday was in May.

The Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, which includes the Walt Whitman Initiative and other groups, has been campaigning to get the Landmarks Preservation Commission to put 99 Ryerson St. onto its calendar for designation consideration.

In 2017, the LPC staff rejected the idea, citing alterations to the house. Preservation advocates wrote a 13-page rebuttal. In 2018, Cumbo and other elected officials sent a letter to the Landmarks Preservation Commission arguing that 99 Ryerson St. is a worthy candidate for designation.

The house belongs to the Horacio Downs Living Trust, city Finance Department records indicate. A representative of the trust has said the owners of the property are opposed to landmarking it.

The LPC has landmarked numerous buildings despite landlords’ opposition.

Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.


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