house of old: Brooklyn
There’s this building at the end of my block. It’s big, old, beautiful, and half of it houses the Hebron Seventh-Day Adventist Bilingual School. If you wake up early (okay, maybe 7 a.m. isn’t that early), you’ll be lucky enough to watch all the children beginning their school day, some clad in pale blue uniforms that almost match the arch above the front door. The letter board outside reads “This School is Souler Powered By the Son,” and the over-the-top wordplay still makes me crack a small smile every time I see it, even though they haven’t changed it since I first moved to NYC over a year ago.
When I first moved to Brooklyn, I asked my uncle—a proud member of the Crown Heights North Association—exactly what the scoop was with this behemoth. Since the building is considered a landmark in the historical section of the neighborhood, no one is allowed to tear it down, though there had been previous talk about clearing the land for new apartments. He vaguely suggested that it was once an institution, and that was more or less the end of the conversation.
I decided to do some digging on my own. The building on 920 Park Place was erected in 1888-1889 as a home for elderly men and women who were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 150 rooms, before another two wings and a chapel in the Gothic Revival style were added. According to the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Church Home for the Aged and Infirm provided room, board, clothing, employment, medical aid, religious privileges, and a respectable burial to those who fit the admittance requirements:
“…residents must be at minimum 65 years old, have no means of adequate financial support, nor have living relatives who could provide for them. Further, to be admitted, a resident must have been a member, in good standing, of the Methodist Episcopal Church for 10 years, five of which as a member of a Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Church. Finally, no person could be admitted who had a physical or mental condition, such as insanity or epilepsy, that could be considered detrimental to the interests of the Home. If a person acquired such illnesses after admittance, the Home would find a more appropriate facility for the resident and would bear no further legal responsibility for the care of the person.”
The 1904 Census “Benevolent Institutions” Report states that there was a $100 entrance fee, or over $2,600 in 2017.
In 1976, the church moved into a more modern space, leaving the original building without residents or purpose. For thirty years, the building was considered vacant, until the Hebron SDA Bilingual School took residence in the early 2000s. I probed into the gap in the building’s history, but I couldn’t find any concrete information about the years between the change of hands.
A large group of chimney swifts occasionally fly over the roof in circles before plunging into the chimney’s depths. A crooked fence lines the school, reinforced with barbed wire on top. A little tree grows off the front wall, a clear sign of negligence. Half the building is derelict. Weeds flourish in the front yard, sheets of plastic cover the stained glass windows, and the broken backboard of the basketball hoop hasn’t been fixed in years. Since 1982, 82 Department of Building violations have been filed. 73 are still open and active.
The building is particularly chilling yet alluring at night. It’s not quite Dickensian, not quite American Horror Story: Asylum, though both come to mind. Sometimes I’ll come home after midnight and see all of the lights are on still in the chapel. An event, maybe, put on by the local SDA church. I wish I could cross the gate and peek in through the windows, just to see what’s going on.
In the eighth window to the left of the entrance, a light perpetually glows. Day or night, the dim light continues to shine through the dirty glass, and I wonder how many light bulbs this particular lamp has burned through. Stars in the Brooklyn sky might be a rarity, but I can always see Orion’s Belt framed by the silhouette of its tallest, oldest tower.
When I was in elementary school in suburban Massachusetts, a rumor went around that there was a body buried in the walls of the third grade girls’ bathroom. I wonder if the kids who go to school at 920 Park Place make up their own stories, as they play hopscotch a few feet away from a building with rich history and a light that never goes out.