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Guide to the H. Dickson McKenna collection ARC.060

128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY, 11201
718-222-4111
library@brooklynhistory.org


Brooklyn Historical Society

Collection processed by Barbara Elam

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on November 22, 2011
English. using Describing Archives: A Content Standard

 Finding aid revised and entered into Archivists' Toolkit by Nicholas Pavlik,  , July 20, 2010

Biographical Note

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.

Sources:

  1. Adelphi Academy. "History." Accessed July 21, 2010. http://adelphiacademy.org/about/history.php
  2. Ondovcsik, Maryann. "Committed to Restoration." New York Sunday Herald, Nov. 7, 1971.