Norwegian history landmarked in NYC

A remnant of New York’s rich Norwegian history is now likely to be preserved

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Norwegian Memorial

Photo: Lore Croghan / Brooklyn Eagle
Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten is depicted at right and the Brooklyn Deaconess Home is at left on this antique coin box.

It isn’t often in this age of McMansions and Starchitects that historic low-story buildings can be saved from the wrecking ball, especially in a city like New York, where the quaint, quirky and comforting is rapidly vanishing. So, it is wonderful news to hear that homes at 236 and 238 President Street have a great chance of being saved, even though 236 had been sold to AVO Construction, which had plans to construct a six-story condo building on the site.

Now 236 and 238 have been calendared by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), which means that the building cannot be demolished, nor can any changes be made to the exterior. Calendaring does not guarantee preservation, but in this case there is a lot of support for the buildings to remain.

The buildings are in what is now called Carroll Gardens, previously known as Red Hook, a community not far from the Brooklyn waterfront that was once a Scandinavian enclave. For Norwegian Americans, the possibility of both being saved means part of Norwegian Brooklyn is being saved.

These two adjoining plots were bought in 1896 by Hans Christian’s widow, Elmira, in memory of her late husband, and gifted to the Methodist Episcopal Congregation. The existing building on 238, built in 1853, was enlarged to house a kindergarten on the lower floors, as public schools did not operate such at this time. The upper floors were used by the Deaconess social workers. This structure was called the Brooklyn Deaconess Home and Training School of the Methodist Episcopal Church.

A carriage house on 236 was demolished, and the French Renaissance-style building that’s there now was completed in 1897 by Hough & Duell. Upon completion, the kindergarten moved in from next door. “The two buildings were originally connected” and “comprised a compound that had been used for residential, religious, and educational purposes for over a century,” states the Save Carroll Gardens History blog.

The Christians had resided on the same block, at 231 President Street. Who was Hans Christian? Born in 1825, he was a Norwegian immigrant from Farsund, Norway, who, like many from his mother country, was first employed as a seaman. He later worked as a carman. In Brooklyn, he worked in the construction trade and owned a brick and lime factory in Gowanus.

As he prospered, Christian became an ardent philanthropist, as many Norwegian immigrants had, believing in their responsibility to give back to society. He was also a man of faith and a founder and active member of the First Place Methodist Episcopal Church, where he served on the Board of Trustees, as president, and as superintendent of their Sunday school for about two decades.

Ironically, he died upon his return from a prayer meeting at said church. His wife had asked him not to attend the meeting, as there had been a fierce snow storm. He collapsed on the sidewalk outside his home, and it was determined that he suffered from heart failure.

“After Hans’s sudden death in 1894, Elmira sought to create a memorial to honor his charitable works and commitment to education, and in doing so became known in her own right as a pioneer kindergarten founder in Brooklyn,” according to an NYC LPC brief.

Elmira, with painstaking attention to detail, made sure that the kindergarten would have southern exposure, and included stained glass within a bay window, a teaching garden, and a visitors’ gallery to observe the program.

The fight to save these two buildings has a large and prominent coalition. Credited with being the catalyst for this crusade are Jim and Grace Protos, Philip Mindlin, and Judge Mike Pesce, co-op owners at 238 President Street, who are seeking to get their own property landmarked.

They quickly sought assistance from their local council member, Brad Lander, as well as the Historic Districts Council. Other politicians who joined the cause are State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, assembly member Jo Anne Simon, and Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Also joining the fight is the incomparable Joan Baez, whose grandfather had served as a pastor at the church.

Although the LPC can landmark a site for architectural, historical, and cultural reasons, the latter category is rare. So it was exceptional to hear the words of Meenakshi Srinivasan, commissioner of the LPC, who at a recent public hearing called the two pieces of Norwegian history: “an odd couple, whose shared history is quite compelling.

“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,” he continued.

Since the owners at 238 wish to have the property landmarked, that piece of Norwegian history is likely to be preserved. The companion building is now back on the market for $4.95 million. No matter who buys 236, if the LPC landmarks the Hans S. Christian Memorial Kindergarten building, the exterior will be preserved. These will be the first two pieces of Norwegian cultural history in New York to receive such recognition.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.