Flatbush and Erasmus History

History Of Flatbush And Erasmus Hall High School

Susan Geller Rosefielde, Class of 1960


When Henry Hudson sailed into New York Bay, in 1609, his first landing was at the western tip of Long Island. Though the captain was English, this sailing was under the auspices of the East India Company of Holland.

The first European settlement, in 1624 was on Manhattan Island. That was quickly followed, in 1625, by a settlement of Dutch farmers at the west end of Long Island along the shoreline of Brooklyn. They purchased land from the Canarsee Indian owners and within a few years, 1630, acquired the first land grant on Long Island.

After an initial attraction to the familiar lowlands, the settlers soon discovered that the densely wooded area north of their village had better farming conditions. Between 1630 and 1634 they moved their community to Midwout, and founded the first settlement in Flatbush, Vlacke bos, or flat woodland. In 1651 Governor Peter Stuyvesant chartered Flatbush as the Dutch Nieuw Nederland colony town of Midwout. Both names were used in the Dutch era, and Midwood was an alternative name for Flatbush into the early 20th century. Flatbush became the seat of Justice for the County of Long Island in the 17th century. A road was laid out along the old Indian path through the village of Flatbush Hills, becoming FLATBUSH AVENUE, and farm land was developed on both sides of the “Path”.

“Old Town” Flatbush, and other towns of what was to become Kings County were surrendered to the English in 1664. Following the Revolutionary War, and the Battle of Prospect Hill, Flatbush grew slowly into a country town, with shaded streets, beautiful homes, schools, and churches. The influence of Dutch merchants and farming families remained strong in the area until the late 19th century. The community was cut off from the rest of Brooklyn by long stretches of open country, and by the hill running the entire length of the south side of Eastern Parkway.  For many years Flatbush generally meant that section of Brooklyn running from Ocean Parkway to Schenectady Avenue, and from Prospect Park to Sheepshead Bay.     

Flatbush was incorporated into Brooklyn City in 1894. At that time, Flatbush described both the Town of Flatbush, a large area of central Kings County extending east to the Queens County border, and the Village of Flatbush, formerly the heart of the current community.

Perhaps the greatest consideration in Brooklyn's residential development was the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883. It was the first bridge from Manhattan to Long Island. Horse drawn carriages, trolleys and the BMT line of trains allowed easy access to suburban Brooklyn.

In 1898 Greater New York City was created by consolidating all of the boroughs and former independent towns. Flatbush developed as a suburb, around Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Botanic Gardens. It became an integral part of the larger city and shared train service with Manhattan and other neighborhoods. In the first half of the 20th century Flatbush had a sizable population of Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans and Jewish Americans. It was a combination of working class and middle class families, with a few affluent pockets of professionals. By the 1980’s many buildings were semi-abandoned and fell into disrepair. The community is now mostly working and lower income families from the West Indies, although there are still pockets of wealthier residents.


Erasmus Hall High School, originally called Erasmus Hall Academy was a private institution of higher learning founded in 1786 by Dutch clergymen, and Reverend John H. Livingston and Senator John Vanderbilt. Land was donated by the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church and contributions were collected from leading citizens such as Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, and Robert Livingston. Erasmus Hall was named for the Dutch Renaissance humanist scholar and theologian. A statue of Erasmus, cast from the 1622 original in Rotterdam, by Hendrick de Keiser, was given by an alumnus, Richard Young. It was dedicated in 1931 and the base is engraved with the following words:

Desiderius Erasmus, the maintainer and restorer of the sciences and polite literature, the greatest man of his century, the excellent citizen who, through his immortal writings, acquired an everlasting fame.”

The clapboard Federal style building, constructed in 1787, opened with 26 students.  The school began accepting female students in 1801, and in 1803 it incorporated the village school of Flatbush. It was donated to the public school system in 1896. The old Academy building was designated a New York City Landmark in 1966 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

At the turn of the 20th century, Brooklyn experienced a rapidly growing population and the original small school was enlarged with the addition of several wings. In 1898 New York City was consolidated and all schools in the boroughs came under the control of the New York City school board. The city was experiencing a huge influx of immigrants and the schools were expected to help Americanize the new students. New high schools were needed in all the boroughs and the Board of Education authorized a new building for Erasmus Hall High School.

In 1904 the Board of Education began a new building campaign to house the burgeoning student population. Architect Charles Snyder’s “Collegiate Gothic Style” was selected for a series of buildings around an open quadrangle that housed the old Academy. The project was expected to cost at least a million dollars so it was constructed in four periods: 1905-1906, 1909-1911, 1924-25 and 1939-40. The cornerstone for the new building was laid in January 1905 and it was opened to 600 students in 1906.  

The Flatbush and Bedford Avenue facades have buff brick fronts with limestone and terra cotta trim. Each has a central entrance tower with crenellated parapets, and Tudor arched entrances. The first buildings were constructed along Flatbush Avenue and others were added over time. The style of Erasmus Hall evolved over the years so that the most recent buildings are simpler, with less ornamentation. The newer parts retain the general characteristics of the older ones, giving a sense of unity to the entire composition.


The first church in Flatbush was built in 1654, by order of Governor Peter Stuyvesant. It was located on the corner of Church and Flatbush Avenues. For a long time it was the only church in Flatbush and Midwood. A second church was erected on the same spot in 1698 and the present church was designed by Thomas Fardon and built from 1793 to 1798. It occupies the site in longest continuous use for religious purposes in the city.  The Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church Complex was designated a New York City landmark in 1979.

The graveyard is particularly interesting. Most of the inscriptions are indecipherable but some old Dutch names are still visible. A brick and limestone church house was built in 1924.


Prospect Park is a 585 acre public park that was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux right after they completed Central Park in Manhattan, in 1861. The design was so revolutionary in its time that many considered the Park a work of art in itself. It is built to recreate in real space the pastoral and aesthetic ideals expressed in paintings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The hilly Long Meadow was made to approximate the “English Pastoral Style” of landscape that developed in England in the 18th century. The Park includes the only lake in Brooklyn, a boathouse, zoo, band shell for outdoor concerts, various athletic fields, Litchfield Villa, 19th century, Lefferts Manor, 18th century and a Quaker cemetery. It has some hills, about 200 ft above sea level, left from the ancient terminal moraine of the glacial period.

The designers felt they were more successful with Prospect Park than with Central Park, which had many site constraints and a long narrow shape. As the plans for the park evolved there was a southward expansion beyond the city’s limits and into the then independent town of Flatbush. The size of the Park increased by buying land from private developers which was highly politically charged and the cost of the Park mounted to $5 million dollars.  Many opposed putting one park in the wealthiest part of Brooklyn rather than several parks dispersed throughout the borough. The Park was opened in 1867.


Erasmus Hall High School is fed by many neighborhoods. Three of them are historic Victorian areas that have received landmark designation. Others of later date include row houses, free standing homes and many apartment houses. In adjoining East Flatbush, on Clarendon Road, is the oldest Dutch structure in New York City. The Wyckoff Farmhouse Museum dates from the 17th century.

PROSPECT-LEFFERTS GARDENS neighborhood, within Flatbush, is adjacent to Prospect Park, and close to The Brooklyn Museum, and Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It is bounded by Empire Blvd to the north, Clarkson Avenue to the south, New York Avenue to the east and Ocean Avenue/Prospect Park to the west. It was settled by the Lefferts Dutch family in 1660. In the era of residential development that followed the building of Prospect Park, the Lefferts estate, an 18th century Dutch American farm was divided by James Lefferts, in 1893, into 600 building lots and sold to developers. That neighborhood, an eight block rectangle, is now known as LEFFERTS MANOR. The Lefferts homestead, an 18th century farm house, was located on Flatbush Avenue between Maple and Midwood Streets. After development, it was donated to New York City, in 1918, and moved inside Prospect Park. It now functions as a museum. Construction of houses in Lefferts Manor began in the  1890’s. Lefferts attached land use deed restrictions dictating that each lot contain a single family residence built of brick or stone. Because of those restrictions, the houses were never divided into rooming houses and are described as pristine. The area received landmark status in 1979 by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, which called it “one of the finest enclaves of late 19th and early 20th century housing in New York City”. The surrounding area, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens grew with one and two family homes constructed in the early 20th century, mostly between 1900 and 1920. Many row houses date from 1905. There were later additions of apartment houses. This area is referred to as “Victorian Brooklyn”. Row houses and freestanding homes reflect fine examples of divergent architectural styles including neo-Renaissance, Romanesque Revival and neo-Federal.

PROSPECT PARK SOUTH is bordered by Church Avenue to the north, the BMT tracks to the east, Beverley road to the south, and Stratford Road/ Coney Island  Avenue to the west. In 1899, developer Dean Alvord created Prospect Park South as a community of substantial homes. He chose the motto rus in urbe” (country in the city). The popularity of his concept spread and is seen in neighboring  South Midwood, Fiske Terrace, Ditmas Park, Beverley Square and other developments that accommodated the demand for housing. Prospect Park South was designated as a historic district by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1979.

DITMAS PARK is one of the three Flatbush neighborhoods which have been officially designated Historic Districts. Located on land that remained rural until the  early 20th century, the neighborhood consists of many large, free-standing Victorian homes built in the 1900’s. The Ditmas Park Association was founded in 1908 and focuses on social and civil events, and sponsors, along with its sister neighborhoods an annual Victorian Flatbush House Tour. Cortelyou Road, a commercial street, has many new eateries.

NOTABLE INSTITUTIONS within Flatbush include Erasmus Hall High School, Prospect Park, Parade Grounds, the Flatbush Dutch Reformed Church, Brooklyn College, Ebbets Field, the last Brooklyn home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, The Brooklyn Museum, and the Grand Army Plaza Public Library.

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Susan Geller Rosefielde, EHHS ‘60

Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2009

Art Historian and Art Appraiser, with services for private collectors, including appraisals for insurance and institutional gifts. Assistance with cataloging and selling collections. Independent curator.

Artist/ Painter, member, Orange County Artists Guild.