Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: The Blue Jewel Revealed

September 5th, 2008 · 5 Comments

Located next to the decidedly utilitarian Van Brunt Station of the Post Office on Ninth Street, a beautiful blue jewel of a building – certainly not its original color – was designed as a residence for one William B. Cronyn in 1855 and remodeled in 1895. The Blue Jewel of Ninth Street is a remarkable remnant of Brooklyn before brownstones and before the Bridge when mansions dotted the landscape. A free-standing French Second Empire Baroque stucco house, topped with a cupola, slate mansard roof and cast-iron crests—it’s original architect was Patrick Charles Keely, the most prolific architect of Roman Catholic churches in America. He designed, it is said, over 500 hundred churches between 1841, when he arrived from Ireland, and his death 55 years later. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, a fact for which we should all be grateful. For many years it was neglected, but since 1981 it has been occupied by Slope Music, a music school owned by Vita and Charles Sibirsky. They have kept the building in remarkable shape and have a beautiful garden in front of the residence. Their website, thebigbluehouse has photos of the interior, especially the room inside the cupola. A wonderful photo and some great comments were posted on Brownstoner and inspired me to expand more on this extraordinary building.

Little is known of the original owner, except that he was a man of obvious wealth. An article in the New York Times of January 1, 1888 reported that Dr. Thomas E. Cone of 271 Ninth Street, “a well-known Brooklyn physician” was convicted of assaulting his wife at the home. It can be assumed that he and his wife and three children lived there for some time. Shortly after that, the building was acquired by Charles M. Higgins to house his Higgins Ink factory. Higgins, an Irish immigrant, is said to have invented the formula for his India Ink and Eternal Black Ink in his sister’s kitchen in New York. In 1880 he formed a company to market his product, which soon became a universal ink used around the world. A brick building at 240 Eighth Street built in 1899 at the back of 271 Ninth was an extension of his factory. It is now condos. Today we remember Higgins as the patriot who had a lifelong desire to elevate the Battle of Brooklyn to its proper place in American history. To this end, he provided the impetus for the Statue of Minerva and the Altar of Liberty on Battle Hill in Green-Wood Cemetery, which were unveiled in front of his mausoleum (Higgins died in 1929) on August 27, 1920 on the 144th anniversary of the battle. The statue stands saluting her sister, the Statue of Liberty across the harbor, while laying a wreath with her other hand on the Altar of Liberty. After much controversy and publicity, her view has been preserved. Mr. Higgins would have been proud.

We visit Mr. Higgins and his Minerva on our Green-Wood Cemetery tours. Our next one will be on Sunday, November 9th. See our website, www.thecue.org for details or call 718-788-8500, ext. 217.

Ruth Edebohls
(Ruth Edebohls is the Coordinator of Urban Tours at the Center for the Urban Environment. To learn more about the Center visit us at www.thecue.org.)

The Higgins Mausoleum & Minerva.

The old ink factory extension behind the house.

Tags: CUE · Park Slope · Urban Environmentalist

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 amarilla // Sep 6, 2008 at 7:41 am

    Thanks for another great post! I’ve often wondered about that Music School, had no idea it had anything to do with India Ink. How enjoyable! I’m wiggy for India Ink, even though when my son was a baby he managed to coat half his body with it. It ‘s good thing to keep out of a child’s reach I guess. And I’m always thrilled to see that Minerva on the hill, too.

  • 2 vsibirsky // Sep 6, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    My husband and I own the Big Blue House, 271 9th Street and also own and operate Slope Music. If you want more information on music lessons go to slopemusic.com or give us a call at 718 768 3804 for more information.
    We offer private instruction on most instruments and voice.
    As far as the color of the building goes there is a back story. The house has Landmark status which has been nothing but a pain for us. The Landmark status given to neighborhoods and homes is meant to make sure that there is preservation of historical sites and I understand that some developers and evil doers would choose to ignore preservation and replace it with profit. We have owned the building since 1981 and have invested every dollar we could in taking care of the building. When it came to repainting the house afew years ago we actually wanted to change the color back to what it might have been in 1846. HPD was NO help and after countless submission and rejections of forms we were told that unless we painted the house blue, which was the present color of the house they would give us a violation. So we painted it blue… bluer than it had been!

  • 3 Brenda from Flatbush // Sep 6, 2008 at 11:27 pm

    I am thrilled to finally learn the story of this house, which has fascinated me for years. Great (if FRUSTRATING) story about HPD and grandfathering the paint job. We have a similar idiocy near me in Prospect Park South: A Victorian house burned and was replaced with a Queens-crap modern one, and Landmarks insists that renovations have to preserve–yes–the Queens-crap facade (or so the story goes in the nabe). Big shout-out to the owners for preserving this gem, blue or otherwise (and fun to learn it was designed by the same archi who did our church on Duffield St., St. Boniface…)

  • 4 Frank C Hamm Jr // Sep 23, 2008 at 12:00 am

    I am Chas M Higgins’ grandson (one of them), the son of his youngest daughter, Lisbeth. I was born May 29 1936 in Brooklyn, and have a younger brother Charles John. I was birthed in the Brooklyn Hospital where my father was the Chief of Urology. We lived in an apartment on an upper floor of 1 Pierrepont Street on Brooklyn Heights. After WWII we lived in 77 Columbia Heights. My grandmother (Alexandra Francioli Higgins) lived in a duplex on the first floor after CMH died in 1929. I now live in MA (Norwood). A friend of my son (Andrew) sent me the bit about the “Blue House” – which was plain brick when it was the Higgins Ink Co. I believe I am correct when I insist that the Higgins family would NEVER have painted it blue (perish the thoufgt)

  • 5 Big Blue House « City of strangers // Nov 24, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    […] I got home, I googled the Big Blue House, and found a post on Gowanus Lounge (Blue Jewel Revealed), and thebigbluehouse, run by the owner, one Jake Rockowitz. At one time the site had a photo tour […]