Unearthed and Unforgotten

A 19th-century freedman’s settlement comes alive again in Brooklyn.

By Jonathan Lerner

Now viewed across the lawn and meadow, the houses evoke the settlement's rural character.
Now viewed across the lawn and meadow, the houses evoke the settlement’s rural character.

Nearly 50 years ago, a cluster of old houses, set slightly askew, was “discovered” in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood. They had been surrounded and concealed by newer structures aligned to the modern street grid. These modest cottages were the last physical trace of Weeksville, a self-sufficient farming settlement founded by freed African Americans after slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827.

An organization soon coalesced to document the history and preserve the structures. These years later, the newly completed Weeksville Heritage Center has wider ambitions: both to celebrate the area’s black history and to foster its present-day cultural vitality. The historic houses have been restored and are joined by a dazzling new building with exhibition, performance, research, and classroom spaces. Between them is an outdoor area meant for active programming and historical interpretation. Elizabeth J. Kennedy, ASLA, the designer, says, “One challenge was to make the historic land use patterns apparent.” Another was to reveal the idiosyncratic route of long-erased Hunterfly Road, originally a Native American footpath, which the old houses had fronted.

The Weeksville houses were hidden in the center of a Brooklyn block.

At midcentury, Crown Heights was in decline. “The early 20th century frame houses built around [the historic ones] were lost to vacancy, so this whole view opened up again,” Kennedy says. “The site was magical.” The once-hidden houses, themselves rural in character, were now seen at a distance unusual in this dense urban context. Viewing pregrid maps, Kennedy “could see that the roadway was an extension of the drainage pattern” leading to Jamaica Bay. “It’s only conjecture, but it was probably a more gentle way of navigating Brooklyn’s topography at that time, a natural feature that could landmark a path.”

Where the vanished road’s route intersects the new building at the far edge of the roughly one-acre site from the houses, the architects Sara Caples and Everardo Jefferson of Caples Jefferson Architects placed a glass lobby. Passersby glimpse the historic houses through it as if looking down the Hunterfly Road, and visitors enter the Heritage Center as if by walking along it. Kennedy then marked the road’s diagonal route across the gently mounded one-acre site with several narrow cuts that have retaining walls of Cor-Ten steel. A second phase of the project will turn a derelict lot across the street into a parking area for school buses. Their required turning radius “creates this corner that we can preserve,” Kennedy says. “The old foundations of the previous buildings are all there. So by bridging over them along the alignment of the Hunterfly, you will continue to cross history.”

The meadow and boardwalk are aligned to reveal the historic farm grid.

The site design includes lawns for active programming use, and—its largest piece—a meadow set on the angle of the historic farm grid. Between these elements are linear wetlands that Kennedy says are meant to separate them like hedgerows. Seen in long view, the result is a formal arrangement with the lawn areas a foreground, Kennedy explains. “The wildflower break in the swale is the end of the foreground, then the meadow is the midground, and the background is the houses.” The meadow is planted with a random-seeming mix of little bluestem, wild rye, and clover. Kennedy says, “We wanted to have the sense of overgrowth and abandonment,” to reference not only the lost agricultural history of Weeksville but also the neighborhood’s recent experience of urban decay.

The goal of her landscape design, Kennedy says, was to create a framework for interpretation of the layered and nuanced site. She credits her ability to do that to the considerable research that had been done into Weeksville’s history, including its history of land use. Much of that information was archival, from historic atlases and documentation of the civil engineering that extended the modern grid across the community. But some was inherent to the site, says Kennedy, “features that said, ‘We’re here to be uncovered.’”

Jonathan Lerner writes on architecture, planning, art, and design for national magazines and for professionals in those fields. Find him at www.urbanistcommunications.com.

Credit: Historic houses, Yifan Sun, EKLA PLLC; Aerial, Julia Olivas, Air to Ground, for Caples Jefferson Architects, PC; Boardwalk, Nic Lehoux Architectural Photography, for Caples Jefferson Architects, PC.

2 thoughts on “Unearthed and Unforgotten”

Leave a Reply