Preserving Walt Whitman’s Clinton Hill house: Poet’s 200th birthday improves odds

May 9, 2019
By: Lore Croghan


Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, the Brooklyn Eagle’s editor in the 1840s, is widely considered America’s greatest poet. Enhanced image by Great Bridge Associates

Ahead of two important cultural milestones, preservationists are renewing a stalled effort to landmark the Clinton Hill home where famed Brooklyn poet Walt Whitman wrote “Leaves of Grass” — despite opposition from the property’s owner.

The Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House is demanding landmark designation for 99 Ryerson St. as Whitman’s 200th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots approach. Landmarking has eluded the property for years, though new support from local elected officials, as well as the publicity bonanza expected around the two anniversaries, could help secure historic protections.

Walt Whitman published his first edition of his ground-breaking poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” while living in the modest Clinton Hill building.

“It is the center, the desk, of the great gay American of Letters,” Professor Karen Karbiener, president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “He is our poet who first represented, 100 years before Stonewall, not only the idea of celebrating difference but even imagining a community.”

A team of preservation experts and the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project are members of the Coalition to Save Walt Whitman’s House, as is the Walt Whitman Initiative. More than 5,400 people have signed its petition calling for 99 Ryerson St.’s landmarking.

Whitman, who is widely considered America’s greatest poet, was born on May 31, 1819, and died in 1892. He was the editor of the Eagle in the 1840s.

He lived in more than 30 places in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The only one still standing is Leaves of Grass House, which is the coalition’s name for 99 Ryerson St.

LGBTQ+ historic site

Walt Whitman home at 99 Ryerson Street, Brooklyn
Walt Whitman lived at 99 Ryerson St., which is the second house from the left. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

As a cultural landmark, the aluminum siding-covered house at 99 Ryerson St. is Brooklyn’s equivalent of the legendary gay bar The Stonewall Inn, the advocates say.

In 2017, the city Landmarks Preservation Commission rejected the Whitman coalition’s first proposal to put 99 Ryerson St. onto the commission’s calendar for landmarking consideration. The agency cited architectural alterations to the house since Whitman’s day, such as the addition of a floor and modern siding.

Leaves of Grass House’s roles in the city’s literary history and the history of LGBTQ+ New York are more significant than its architectural features, Karbiener believes.

The wood-frame house built in the 1850s “is not beautiful,” admits Karbiener, who is a Whitman scholar and a New York University professor. But, she says, “it is a cultural landmark and should be designated.”

In 2015 the LPC designated the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village as a city landmark primarily because of its significance in LGBTQ+ history, the New York Times reported. The bar was the scene of the 1969 riots that launched the LGBTQ+ rights movement.

According to a posting on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s website, Whitman poems that expressed “male-male love” made him “iconic in the United States and Europe as one of the first people to openly express the concept of men loving men.”

The Ryerson Street house is one of the oldest existing New York City buildings associated with someone who would now be considered an LGBTQ+ resident, the website says. Whitman, four of his brothers and his parents lived there between May 1, 1855, and May 1, 1856. His father died there.

The ‘holy grail’ for Whitman’s fans

Karen Karbiener
Professor Karen Karbiener is president of the Walt Whitman Initiative, which is trying to get his Clinton Hill house designated as a landmark. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

Karbiener fears for the future of Leaves of Grass House if it’s not landmarked.

“It could be torn down and a spindly tower built in its place,” she said. “And history would be erased.”

She used to take people inside 99 Ryerson St. during walking tours she leads of sites important to Whitman’s life.

“It’s like the holy grail,” she said.

A man she thought was 99 Ryerson St.’s owner would sometimes be sitting on the stoop. He would graciously open the door and let everybody step inside the threshold.

“He was very kind,” Karbiener recalled. “It meant there was a continued spirit of goodwill in the building,” from Whitman’s era to the present day.

She wasn’t worried then about getting the house landmarked because “it had such a good caretaker,” she said.

In 2014, Karbiener stopped seeing the kind man at 99 Ryerson St. Nobody has let her inside the house since then.

Owners don’t support landmarking

According to city Finance Department records, the Horacio Downs Living Trust owns 99 Ryerson St.

Horacio Downs bought the house with Imogene Downs in 1970 and became its sole owner in 1987, Finance Department records indicate. He transferred the property’s ownership to the trust in 2009.

The Eagle left messages for the trust through contact info listed in Finance Department records, rang doorbells at 99 Ryerson St. and dropped a note for the owners through the mail slot. There was no response.

Whitman coalition members have been unable to win the property owners’ support for landmarking 99 Ryerson St.

They tried repeatedly to contact Glenda Downs, Walt Whitman Initiative board member Brad Vogel told the Eagle. Downs’ name is listed in the public record in connection with the Horacio Downs Living Trust.

A different woman responded to their queries by saying the property owners planned to tell the Landmarks Preservation Commission they prefer 99 Ryerson St. not be landmarked.

The Eagle attempted to reach her but was unsuccessful.

‘Great art can begin from the streets’

The LPC takes property owners’ opposition into account when making designation decisions — but has landmarked buildings whose owners were opposed.

It’s helpful to have the support of the City Councilmember who represents the district where a landmarking candidate is located. In the case of 99 Ryerson St., that’s Laurie Cumbo.

Last year, she signed a letter calling for the house to be landmarked that emphasized its significance to the LGBTQ+ community, the Eagle previously reported. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and several other councilmembers also signed the letter.

Karbiener said in her recent interview with the Eagle that 99 Ryerson St. was built for the working class. It’s where Whitman — who was born into a family plagued by alcoholism and mental illness and who dropped out of school at age 11 — began writing poetry of enormous literary merit.

“Standing in front of the house is refreshing,” Karbiener said. “You see that great art can begin from the streets of New York.”

Click here to read the article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.