H. Dickson McKenna collection
Language of Materials
The H. Dickson McKenna Collection contains materials dating from 1868 to 1991 (bulk dates 1968 to 1989) compiled by architect and former Brooklyn resident H. Dickson McKenna, author of A House in the City: A Guide to Buying and Renovating Old Row Houses (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1971). The collection consists of news clippings, magazine articles, publications, brochures, flyers, newsletters, photographs, and ephemera, the majority concerning the brownstone movement and the development and renewal of Brooklyn neighborhoods. The material covers a wide range of topics from architecture to home remodeling and gives an overview of the efforts of McKenna and the Brooklyn community in the 1970s and 1980s to preserve and revitalize their neighborhoods. It also holds a small but significant collection of McKenna's general business documents and personal papers, including records and correspondence relating to his book.
Born in 1919 in Brooklyn, H. Dickson McKenna was raised in two renovated brownstones in the neighborhood of Clinton Hill, the second of which, on Gates Avenue, was remodeled by his physician father to include an office on the ground floor. McKenna was educated at Adelphi Academy, located at that time on Lafayette Street and St. James Place. He left New York to attend Yale University, where he received a degree in architecture. There are no records as to when McKenna attended school, nor is it known if he served in the military during World War II. Though his focus at Yale was on the modern movement, McKenna remained fascinated by Victorian domestic architecture, and, following a short stint living in Manhattan on the Upper East Side, returned to Brooklyn to purchase and restore his own brownstone in Boerum Hill. Shortly thereafter, he was approached by Van Nostrand Reinhold to write a book on the subject of row house renovation. The resulting publication, a heavily illustrated practical guide on every aspect of purchasing and renovating a brownstone, received overwhelmingly favorable reviews in the press.
Published in 1971, McKenna's book came out during a resurgence of interest in the Brooklyn and Manhattan brownstone and row house. At the end of World War II, the once popular nineteenth century New York brownstone and row house fell into disfavor by middle-class residents, who began moving en mass to the suburbs. Brownstones -- many of them in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Boerum Hill, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, and Fort Greene -- began to suffer from deterioration and neglect, and large numbers were either torn down or cut up into smaller apartments at the expense of their architectural details. Frequently even the façades of row houses were becoming defaced. By the 1960s, a small number of urban homesteaders began to purchase these buildings and restore them as single-family homes. Neighborhood and community groups such as the Brownstone Revival Committee formed in order to preserve and defend the brownstone as an important component of New York's urban and cultural fabric. Campaigns were launched against red-lining -- a practice by which banks declined to award mortgage loans for properties in "undesirable" neighborhoods. As the brownstone movement grew in the 1970s and 1980s, run-down neighborhoods began to improve, and several Brooklyn neighborhoods were given historic status by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, further protecting the row houses from alteration and demolition. By the 1990s, most brownstone neighborhoods were thriving communities, and today they are some of the most sought after areas for potential homebuyers. Though the brownstone movement has done much to benefit New York neighborhoods, the issue of gentrification in these areas has been increasingly debated -- especially as more and more of its prior residents are being displaced. Though most of the material in McKenna's collection focuses on the benefits of urban renewal, there is some related to gentrification and its outcome.
McKenna was, as much of the documentation in his collection can attest, an active member of the Brooklyn community in its efforts to preserve, revitalize, and renew its historic neighborhoods. He served on the advisory board of the Brownstone Revival Committee, was Executive Director of the New York State Association of Architects, and President of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects. His last known address was in Lancaster, VA.
- Adelphi Academy. "History." Accessed July 21, 2010. http://adelphiacademy.org/about/history.php
- Ondovcsik, Maryann. "Committed to Restoration." New York Sunday Herald, Nov. 7, 1971.
Scope and Contents
The H. Dickson McKenna collection contains materials dating from 1868 to 1991, with the bulk of the collection dating from 1968 to 1989. The collection consists of news clippings, magazine articles, publications, brochures, flyers, newsletters, ephemera, and photographs, the majority concerning the brownstone movement and the development and renewal of Brooklyn neighborhoods. It also contains records, correspondence, clippings, and other miscellaneous material relating to McKenna's book A House in the City and a small collection of McKenna's general business documents and personal papers. Though not specifically stated in the accession file, it appears that a significant amount of material was collected by McKenna for use in writing his book. Though the bulk of the collection is localized to the borough of Brooklyn, a substantial portion relates to New York City and beyond the metropolitan area. A small number of items pertain to areas outside the state, such as Boston, MA; Philadelphia, PA; and Savannah, GA.
The collection comprises 35 legal-sized folders arranged in five manuscript boxes, as well as one oversized folder. Within the first four boxes, folders are arranged alphabetically and, whenever possible, materials within folders are sorted chronologically or by document type. Copies of newspaper clippings are generally filed at the front of each folder. Undated items are filed at the back of the folder or at the end of each grouping of similar documents. The fifth box is a quarter-size box and contains solely photographs of interiors and exteriors of brownstones and houses in several Brooklyn neighborhoods (some of which were used in McKenna's book), along with close-ups of architectural details. There are also a small number of photographs of Atlantic Terminal, a Boerum Hill/Atlantic Avenue anti-development protest, and technical drawings and floor plans. The oversize folder contains one unsigned and undated architectural drawing (section) of a building showing stairs, and two photographs of proposals for the Brooklyn Long Island Railroad (L.I.R.R.) This latter folder is separately housed in an oversize box.
There are no series. Folders with abundant and/or unique materials appear to be those with the greatest strength in the collection and are highlighted below:
Architecture and Architectural Theory (Box 1, Folder 2). Contains brochures, news clippings, and magazine articles (the majority from The Architectural Forum). Many articles highlight Modernist architects' conversions of Manhattan brownstones and row houses into contemporary living spaces. Items of interest include a 1938 article on standardized housing, an article on Philip Johnson's redesign of a guesthouse on 52nd Street, and a feature on Nine-G Cooperative, a group of nine adjoining brownstones on West 93rd Street. A standard-sized folder labeled "New York House/See Fortune July 1939," containing magazine clippings and a folded architectural blueprint, kept intact in its original order, is filed toward the back of the folder. Also included is a group of color magazine clippings from a feature on various Victorian architectural styles from across the United States.
Atlantic Avenue Development, Defeat of Highway Proposal (Box 1, Folder 3). Contains newspaper clippings, flyers, and other materials relating to the defeat of the Atlantic Avenue Development Authority Bill, a proposal to rehabilitate nine miles of Atlantic Avenue to make way for Robert Moses's Brooklyn Queens expressway. Noted items include a "Kill Bill A-1860" tag and a letter to McKenna from William J. Giordano of the State Assembly of New York in Albany.
Atlantic Avenue Development Proposals (Box 1, Folders 4 and 5). Contains general documents such as news clippings, business documents, and forms pertaining to the renewal of Atlantic Avenue. Includes documents relating to McKenna's involvement with the Five Hundred Street Block Association and their interest in purchasing properties along Atlantic Avenue through the Atlantic Terminal Urban Renewal Area Project. Included are information sheets completed by McKenna proposing the purchase of several properties for such businesses as an art gallery, book store, and antique shop. Also included are such items as an annual report from the Downtown Brooklyn Development Committee and an article about young shop owners along Atlantic Avenue.
Brownstone Movement (Box 1, Folders 8 and 9). Folder 8 contains newsletters, brochures, documents, and printed ephemera relating to the brownstone movement, a period beginning in the 1960s and gaining prominence in the 1970s and 1980s wherein preservation enthusiasts and community activists began to purchase and restore brownstones and row houses in often run-down neighborhoods, frequently in an effort to revitalize and renew these areas. Most of the material relates to Brooklyn, but there is also a significant amount from Manhattan. Highlights include a 1984 poster from the 2nd annual Brooklyn Brownstone Fair and a brownstone hunters' guide put out by Con Edison. Also of note are two booklets advertising Liberty Tower, a residential cooperative skyscraper on 51 Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, and papers from the West 95th Street Development Corporation proposing the renovation of eleven vacant brownstones into moderate and middle income multi-racial residential housing. Folder 9 consists entirely of news clippings (the majority photocopied from originals) and contains articles on such topics as renovating row houses, the brownstone boom, and redlining (a term referring in this case to mortgage discrimination by New York banks refusing to secure loans to would-be home buyers in certain neighborhoods).
Brownstone Revival Committee (Box 2, Folder 10). Contains documents related to the activities of the Brownstone Revival Committee (BRC), founded in 1968, of which McKenna was an active member. Includes minutes, fliers, brochures, invitations, copies of The Brownstoner (the BRC newsletter), and notes on workshops, lectures, and other public programs. Of note are printed ephemera related to "Welcome Bach to Brooklyn," a program of Saturday walking tours of Brooklyn churches featuring music by Bach.
Coalition to Save Brooklyn's L.I.R.R. Terminal (Box 2, Folder 13). Consists of news clippings, documents, and other ephemera relating to the Coalition to Save Brooklyn's L.I.R.R. Terminal at Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, a neighborhood proposal to save the 1907 station from demolition by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Items of interest include petitions to New York State Governor Hugh Carey, copies of photographs of the original station, and copies of design drawings/proposals for its renewal (both interior and exterior). Though the coalition's efforts ultimately failed, a small portion of the original building stands today in the triangle where Flatbush, Atlantic, and Third Avenues connect.
Home Remodeling and Repair (Box 3, Folders 19 and 20). Contains news clippings, commercial flyers, and other ephemera relating to home remodeling and repair, some but not all relating to New York. Materials of interest include a copy of Demorest's Monthly Magazine from January 1868, containing information on such topics as 17th- to 19th-century window forms, and an 1878 article called "Old Homes Made New," reprinted in a 1945 Harper's magazine. Also included are advertisements and fliers on such topics as saunas, skylights, and solar power, and an issue of New York Magazine on home repair.
House Tour Fliers (Box 3, Folders 21 and 22). Contains Brooklyn house tour brochures, fliers, and other ephemera for a variety of neighborhoods such as Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, and Park Slope. Also included are several Fort Greene house tour foldout posters, a copy of the Flatbush Frolic newsletter, and a flier on the Pieter Claesen Wyckoff House. Some tours include historic landmarks.
Safety (Box 4, Folder 32). Contains materials relating to both home and neighborhood protection. Significant items include a training manual for block watchers, an article from New York Magazine on obtaining an attack dog, and a list of preventive measures from the New York City Police Department Sex Crimes Analysis Unit. Also included is a guide to electronic security alarm systems, and a brownstone homeowner's insurance brochure from the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania.
Conditions Governing Access
Open to researchers without restriction.
Conditions Governing Use
Although the collection was donated to the Brooklyn Historical Society without restrictions, many of the items, including nearly all of the published materials, remain under copyright. Reproduction rights for photographs have not been evaluated. Please consult library staff for more information.
Identification of item, date (if known); H. Dickson McKenna collection, ARC.060, Box and Folder number; Brooklyn Historical Society.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
Gift of H. Dickson McKenna, 1994.
Other Finding Aids
An earlier version of this finding aid, containing a detailed folder listing, is available in paper form at the Othmer Library. Please consult library staff for more information.
About this Guide
Minimally processed to the collection level.
The collection combines the accessions 1994.001 and V1995.035.