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The History of Stewart Avenue

This post was originally published, in a slightly different form, as the final chapter of the book How Bay Ridge Became Bay Ridge.

Stewart Avenue, looking south from Ovington Avenue. Via Google

Stewart Avenue was one of the oldest and most important roads in the Fort Hamilton area, likely predating the army base and surrounding village, and it still exists there—just not as “Stewart Avenue.” From Shore Road to 95th Street, it followed the line of what’s now Fourth Avenue, then to 86th Street along what we now call Fifth Avenue. Most of the village’s businesses, churches, schools and homes would have been along it or what’s now Fort Hamilton Parkway, the next block over, or on the side streets between the two. The only other north–south routes for most of the nineteenth century were Third Avenue and Shore Road. (Second and Fourth avenues were mapped around 1870, followed by Seventh Avenue.)

Stewart Avenue was extended to continue through Bay Ridge, from what’s now 85th Street and Fifth Avenue to 65th Street and Seventh Avenue, at the home of George T. Hope, president of the Continental Insurance Company. (His neighbor to the west was James Weir, the florist who came up with the name “Bay Ridge.”) Around 1873, it was extended again, to the Brooklyn city line, at 60th Street, where it met Seventh Avenue.

North of 85th Street, Stewart Avenue was a forest road, just thirty-three-feet wide. (When they were built, Sixth Avenue was eighty feet wide, Seventh Avenue a hundred.) An 1852 map shows just a few homes on or near it, with little trees drawn densely all around, up until Ovington Avenue. This was woodlands, up to the twentieth century, a natural boundary between Bay Ridge and the rest of New Utrecht to the east. While much of Yellow Hook had long-ago been cleared for use as farmland, this portion was still more primeval. In 1888, the Eagle joked it was “a river of mud which is called an avenue.”

It was named for the Stewarts, James and Rimerick (often called Rime, sometimes Rymeicka). She was the daughter of Denyse Denyse, a well-known ferryman, and the great-great-granddaughter of town-founder Jacques Cortelyou; she and probably her husband lived in Denyse’s home on Shore Road, between what’s now Third and Fourth avenues; it would eventually be sold to George Gelston, who expanded it and opened it as the Hamilton House, the area's first hotel, in the 1840s. Old roads in Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton often took their names from the owners of the property from which they began, and Stewart Avenue started at Shore Road, by the Stewart homestead—likely at the family ferry.

Denyse and his descendants were prominent in this part of town. Rime's sister, Jane, married a Hugh Smith, and Smith Avenue was an early name for what became Fort Hamilton Parkway. The Smiths donated the land on which St. John's Episcopal Church, at 99th Street and Fort Hamilton Parkway, would be built. As late as 1907, 101st Street was called "Denyse Street."

Descendants of Rime and Jane's brother had property northeast of Denyse Denyse's Shore Road plot: Simon Denyse donated land for a Methodist Church in the middle of what's now the intersection of Sixth Avenue and 76th Street. A major thoroughfare (closed ca. 1897), Denyse Lane, connected Bay Ridge to the New Utrecht town square in present-day Bensonhurst; it took its name from Simon, whose property it passed. Peter Denyse lived at the corner of 78th and Sixth until he died, at the age of 100, in 1931. His son, Peter, Jr., sold the house but retained the family greenhouses on 79th Street, cultivating chrysanthemums and dahlias there until they too were demolished, in 1940, and replaced by an apartment building, 601 79th Street—called the De Nyse.

The Stewarts lived on Shore Road in the eighteenth century, before there was even a Fort Hamilton, when the area by the future army base would have been called The Narrows or Nyack, after the nearest waterway and the indigenous people. “The only buildings there at that time were the two Cortelyou houses, Stewart’s homestead…and the Bennett house, farther up on Shore Road,” the Eagle explained in 1896; most of them had been fired upon or commandeered before the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolution.

James had been in the British army, and he died in 1780, when Rime was thirty or thirty-one. He died without a will and without heirs, suggesting it was unexpected. It’s very possible he died in the American Revolution, which ended in 1783, maybe fighting for the wrong side, though Charlotte Bangs writes her Reminiscences, “The Denyse branches were very well represented as patriots for the American cause.” Perhaps James had defected to the patriot side.

Rime lived many more years. “She was of gifted and Christian character,” Bangs writes. “Her courage and generosity were often taxed.” According to Bangs’s book, Rime buried on her property Charles Conradi, the lovelorn, possibly insane Hessian who shot himself near Simon Cortelyou’s home.

Denyse died in 1806, and Rime took over his affairs. Her brother Jaques was said to be “considerably of a good spender,” with many debts and a large family to feed, which is why Denyse did not entrust the job to him.

Rime died on January 25, 1832, at the age of 82. Construction had finished on Fort Hamilton just a year before. Slavery had been abolished less than a decade earlier (and the Denyses, like the Cortelyous, had been slave-owners).

The modern street grid was drawn in the late nineteenth century, and Stewart Avenue did not survive it. The southern section was given the numbered names it has today. The forested remainder was rendered obsolete by Fifth and Sixth avenues, which would run sensibly parallel to the other numbered avenues, unlike the crooked, narrow old woodlands road.

In 1897, the Eagle called Stewart Avenue an “ancient highway.” It ran past many different farms but few buildings or homes. Grace Methodist Church, the first congregation in Bay Ridge proper, had built its second home here, before the congregation moved to Ovington and Fourth. Peter Bogart (1804–79), son of the neighborhood’s founding Methodists, Adrian and Phoebe, lived nearby, at the corner of Stewart Avenue and Denyse Lane, in a house that stood where 558 78th Street is today, spilling over into both neighboring plots. It was the most notable house on the avenue. When Peter’s daughter Elizabeth married John C. Furman, they moved into it, and it became known as the Furman homestead. (Their daughter, Louise, married a man named French, and the couple were the house’s last occupants.) Furman was a farmer who cultivated the surrounding land. He was also an officer in the Supreme Court.

The house had a “fine lawn…immense black walnut tree and [a] 75-foot deep well,” the Eagle reported in 1941. “The old barn in rear was built of heavy locust beams and the frame put together with wooden pegs, no nails being used in its construction. The homestead was a real home where young and old were always welcomed.” Furman was friends with Hugh McLoughlin, a powerful Democratic political “boss” in Brooklyn, who became a notable visitor to their home.

When city planners drew the street grid, the Furman house wound up sticking out into 78th Street. When that street was opened in 1915, the house was demolished. Ritie Denyse, who lived nearby and was 80 years old at the time, wrote a poem for the occasion, called “The Bogart House—Its End.”

’Twas the sound of the hammer in the distance
Which awoke me that morning from my dream,
And the sound which it made was a sad one.
’Twas the feeling at last of that beam
Which had stood up so proudly for ages
And had weathered the sun and the storm.
It had sheltered the young and the aged
And welcomed both gay and forlorn.
We mourn as we gaze at the ruins
And wish to turn back for a spell.
Just to look once again for a moment
At the orchard, the lawn and the well.
I have played with my friend in the garret
And searched for eggs in the mow.
Those days were so free and so happy.
I love to look back on them now.

Stewart Avenue, from 85th to 74th streets, had by then already been officially closed for at least a decade, as there were no homes along it to which it alone offered access. At the turn of the twentieth century, the only building in that section was the Furman house. “But just because a street is demapped doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Kevin Walsh writes in his history of Stewart Avenue on the website Forgotten NY.

You can see how it influenced development. The rowhouses on both sides of 76th Street, just west of Sixth Avenue, for example, don’t continue closer to the corner because that’s where Stewart Avenue had been—where 7526 and 7602 Sixth Avenue are today. Similarly, the rowhouses on the northside of 84th Street, just east of Fifth Avenue (Nos. 515–541), don’t get closer to Fifth because between them and it was Stewart Avenue—just about where No. 503 is today.

Between 66th and 74th streets, Stewart Avenue remained open, known to locals also as Stewart Lane or Stewart Alley. In the ensuing decades, though, many sections were closed, lost or semiprivatized. Much of the old road is now gone. From 66th to 67th Street, it was swallowed up by Leif Ericson Park. From 67th to 69th Street, it was lost to construction of the approach to the Verrazano Bridge. The house at 650 Bay Ridge Avenue now uses what was Stewart Avenue as a side yard, fenced off; the produce stand that occupies the rest of the block, to Ovington Avenue, uses the rest of the old lane as its private driveway.

The next section includes six parking spaces, and the narrow walkway is cracked but passable. There used to be a few small homes here, which is how it survived in the early twentieth century, though they’ve since been replaced; however, several of the homes that abut it on Ovington or 71st Street have side doors that open onto Stewart Avenue.

The next section, from 71st to 72nd streets, ran behind P.S. 170 after the public school opened in 1915, but private homes were built over it in 1982, obliterating this section. The last section, from 72nd to 74th streets, still has a few private homes on it that have been there for more than a century, at least, without which Stewart Avenue might have disappeared entirely. This section doesn’t look great: chunks are unpaved, and there are no sidewalks or street lamps; the houses have been renovated beyond charm, and newer garages sit squat and ugly. It’s a cruddy driveway, with no suggestion of its once rural allure.

Residents saw such change coming. The Eagle ran a feature, “Ancient Stewart Lane Menaced by Builders,” in 1931.

Residents on historic old Stewart Lane, awake to threatening dangers, are quietly seeking the law’s protection for the colonial cow-path upon which they have built their homes.
Stewart Lane is one of the oldest of Bay Ridge thoroughfares. It dates back to the early days of the Republic, when pioneer Brooklynites farmed for a living and chased cows through the pastures of old New Utrecht.
It is located between 6th and 7th Aves., running from 67th to 74th Sts. A small part of it has been built upon in recent years, but its residents number only about eight families.
Now a rumor has it that builders are interested in developing some of the land on the old cow path, and consequently the affected residents are perturbed.
For more than 100 years the greater part of the old lane remained in its original state. Nearby residents encroached upon it a little, planting grass and improving its appearance.
These residents want the old lane to retain its ancient status. They would like to let well enough alone.
According to the reports current in the district, building operations on the old cow path will mean its opening up as a through street. This would necessarily mean the destruction of much of what now is well-kept lawns and graded pathways. It will mean the changing of the lane of old into a street of today.
“The residents here,” said the Rev. C. O. Pedersen, who lives at the corner of Stewart Lane and 67th St., “are mighty proud of the history of the old lane and would regret seeing it pass. It would be better to leave it as it is. Efforts have been made to encroach upon its tranquility several times in the past....Any future effort will meet with popular rebuff.”
...Twentieth century progress has caused the old lane to widen along several blocks of its course. Automobiles can make their way through from Bay Ridge Ave. to 74th St. But north of [Bay Ridge Ave.] only pedestrians can comfortably move along the narrow road.
The residents near the 74th St. end of the lane are addressed as living on Stewart Avenue. A city sign marks the road at this corner. It is the only sign along the entire roadway, which does not appear on the zone maps of the city.
How far the advance on Stewart Lane will go is not known. So far builders have had little success in disturbing its ancient refinement.
No useful purpose can be attained by eliminating the old lane, its neighbors hold. Then why should any effort, whether economically wise or not, be made to change its character, they ask.

Why indeed. “Through the force of politics,” Henry Reed Stiles writes about New Utrecht in a section of his 1884 history of Kings County, “many new roads have been ruthlessly opened as avenues, with mathematical accuracy, across the beautiful old lanes and highways of the town; and lots for residences have been staked out of late on many an ancient farm.”

Bay Ridge was once nothing but fields, woods and country paths. Today, just ghostly traces remain, though they’re there—if you know what you’re looking for, and look hard enough.

Stewart Avenue today, looking south from 72nd Street. Via Google

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