Historic brick structures in Sea Cliff landmarked

Landmark played part in village’s development


The Village of Sea Cliff board of trustees approved a recommendation by the Landmarks Preservation Commission on Dec. 10 to grant two buildings historic landmark status. The structures, which serve as water pumping stations, are on the Sea Cliff Water Company compound, at the intersection of Prospect and Laurel avenues. The pumping stations played a pivotal role in the village’s transition from a seasonal resort to a year-round residential community.

“The water company was completely integral to Sea Cliff’s development,” said Trustee Dina Epstein, who is the board’s liaison to the preservation commission. “Without it, Sea Cliff wouldn’t have grown into a year-round village.”

Leslie Guerci, who chairs the commission, said that designating the properties historic landmarks has been decades in the making. “There was a survey done in the 1980s by a resident named Jacqueline Powers, who volunteered for [the preservation commission] and worked on [researching] the water company,” Guerci said. “In 2016, that survey was updated by a Cornell intern with Landmarks, Rocky Vhu, and edited by Alison Frankel.”

Last summer, Guerci worked to further expand on the history included in the commission’s survey of the site. “I started doing more extensive research,” she said, “using primary documents such as Sea Cliff News and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.”

While there are many landmarked homes in the village, Epstein said she and the board found “tremendous historical significance” in Guerci’s findings. Before the first building’s construction in 1891, there were few structures on Shore Road, which was considered the entry point to the village. Before the turn of the century, a large brick edifice was constructed there. Its presence signified the beginning of the ascent up Prospect Avenue toward the heart of Sea Cliff. The building housed coal-burning pumps and had an ash-spewing chimney that was removed in 2006.

“When you drive into Sea Cliff along Prospect, that’s the visual landmark,” Epstein said. “It’s a very striking building.”

The building replaced a wooden structure that was built by the Metropolitan Camp Ground Association of the Methodist Church. Twenty years before, in the 1870s, the association had bought much of what is now considered Sea Cliff, converting the land into communal campgrounds for church members. “There used to be a tabernacle that held 3,000 to 5,000 worshippers,” Guerci said.

The association, facing financial troubles, was stabilized with the help of John T. Pirie, a prominent village resident who founded the Sea Cliff Water Company. “Pirie had an estate in Florida and managed a department store in Chicago,” Guerci said. “He was a very wealthy man, but when he came to Sea Cliff, he lived in a tent like everybody else.”

By 1897, the company finished laying supply pipes along main byways in the village, and began pumping water to public fountains, private homes, hotels, greenhouses and small cottages year-round. “Before the water company dug the new supply, people would get their water from wells and cisterns,” Epstein explained.

This development eventually paved the way for Sea Cliff to become a major East Coast resort. The abundance of clean water provided by the company allowed the village to accommodate throngs of vacationers who arrived by steamboat, ferry and train. “People were coming to Sea Cliff from the New York City area by the thousands,” Guerci said. “It facilitated the village’s change from a summer campground community to a major resort town.”

In 1941, Jamaica Water Company built a new building for a diesel water pumping station on the property. Though not as visually prominent as the initial brick building, the structure was designed to look like a residence to complement the elegant homes that surrounded it.

Guerci’s research also outlines a recommendation to potentially recreate a “reference” to the first building’s chimney, which no longer stands. “We feel the additions don’t add much in terms of aesthetics, but the loss of the chimney was definitely unfortunate,” Guerci said. “It was a beacon, and it would certainly add something to the narrative of Sea Cliff’s history.”