This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
We’ve all been there: duking it out with a roommate or a significant other over which couch or flimsy dining room table to buy at Ikea. The memories are cringe-worthy. But for what it’s worth, Ikea’s corner of Red Hook has always been a cradle of conflict – and much deadlier conflict. As in, Dutch colonizers displacing Native Americans, and the British confronting Revolutionary armies led by General George Washington. It’s also where battleships dry-docked during the Civil War and World War II.
Look at an 1869 map of Brooklyn and you’ll see that the east corner of what is now your favorite place for Swedish meatballs is colored yellow to demarcate what was once Van Dyke’s Mill Pond. The Mill is a reference to the 17th-century farms and ponds where Dutch settlers lived in parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
The Van Dykes were among those Dutch settlers. According to The History of the City of Brooklyn, published in 1867 by New York physician Henry Reed Stiles, they were “good staunch whigs and very clever folks” who owned 50 acres of land in the Mill Pond area. In 1736, Matt Van Dyke left the land to his son, John, who, in 1784, divided it between his two sons, Matthias and Nicholas.
In the period leading up to the American Revolution, Red Hook was continually subject to “the dread of Indian assault,” as Stephen M. Ostrander put it in A History of Brooklyn and Kings Country, published in 1894. It was a time during which “the hot-headed act of some angry colonist might easily bring on a war.” In autumn of 1655, Hendrick Van Dyke killed a member of the Munsee Delaware tribe for stealing peaches from his orchard, and the tribe retaliated.
More violence came to the Erie Basin on August 27, 1776 when British forces arrived at Fort Defiance. Located at the end of Red Hook Lane and spanning several blocks, the fortress was an ideal location for military generals like General George Washington to protect New York from British colonists trying to recuperate political control. It had a commanding view of the ocean entry as well as a view of both the East and Hudson rivers.
The British defeated the revolutionaries at Fort Defiance, but General Washington managed to lead his army to retreat at Brooklyn Heights (today Downtown Brooklyn) by following the old Indian trail that started in Red Hook. That retreat allowed him to regroup his army and win the battle.
John Burkard, a Brooklyn history buff, wrote about an American sniper’s key role in the regrouping:
One sniper who though fully aware he would be discovered, continued to fire at the British allowing his comrades to escape. When he was eventually exposed, he was shot and killed, and his body lay where it fell for a number of days. This was the British way of setting example for the Colonists, to let the American dead remain and rot and have their flesh eaten by the vultures.
Burkard, who wrote for the Red Hook Star Revue and thehistorybox.com before he died last year, attended high school in Red Hook and lived in the neighborhood all of his life. He was devastated when the area was destroyed to make way for the Ikea. In 2012, he lamented the loss of a plaque commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn, an “historic treasure” that “marked the end of Red Hook Lane an old Indian trail used by the American Colonist.”
I’ve always wondered why this neighborhood history, so critical to the birth of our nation, was never taught in our local schools. . . Red Hook Brooklyn could indeed be considered responsible for allowing the American Army to withdraw and regroup, and go on to defeat the British Army. It could be safely said that the happenings I speak about did indeed contribute to the birth of our nation.
The demolition of Fort Defiance is commemorated on new plastic plaques at Louis Valentino, Jr., Park and Pier, a few short blocks from Ikea.
In addition to the Battle of Brooklyn, the land on which Ikea sits is connected to modern wars, as well. The store and its parking lot sits on top of a dry-dock that the U.S. Navy built in the 1850s, before the Civil War. In 1928, its original wooden structure was lengthened and rebuilt in concrete and steel at a cost of $2 million. Its civil engineer was William J. McAlpine, also known for his work on the Third Avenue Bridge. The dry-dock was a 710-foot-long basin that was erected to repair warships. The ships entered the dock, water was pumped, and then the ships were either painted or repaired. The Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that among the ships that came to this south Red Hook dry-dock for repair was the ironclad USS Monitor, credited with transforming naval warfare with its revolving turret, and the steam-frigate USS Niagara, which carried the first transatlantic cable from the U.S. to Europe on April 1857.
After the Civil War, in 1869, the Red Hook dry-dock was sold to the Todd Shipyards repair company. The Red Hook peninsula became one of the busiest in the country after the war, when commerce prospered and ships from all over the world arrived at the Atlantic Basin, in west Red Hook. The Erie Basin, where the dry-dock was located, served the purpose of repairing all the commercial ships, like the ones filled with cereals and grains coming from the Midwestern U.S. for export.
The U.S. Navy retook the dry-dock during World War II in an attempt to strengthen the country’s warships and submarines. A list of ships built at Todd Shipyards and run by the U.S. Navy mentions the Gannet, a minesweeper that fought during the Second World War until a German submarine torpedoed it on June 7, 1942.
The dry-dock and all the piers of the Atlantic and Erie basin lost commercial relevance when the harbor moved to New Jersey, as the New York Times explains. Nevertheless, the dry-dock kept working until 2005, right up until when IKEA bought this historic site.
The League was not alone in trying to stop the Ikea construction. The Municipal Art Society sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November of 2006 in order to get the Corps to review the repercussions for destroying the historic dock. The arts society lost the lawsuit in 2008 when Ikea was already opening its doors, but the complaint documents reveal interesting facts that could have prevented the destruction of the dry-dock.
They show that the society presented two alternative plans produced by architect Harold Fredenburg that would have accommodated the Ikea while also preserving the Civil War dry-dock. Fredenburg had already worked with Fairway, which managed to build their Red Hook supermarket while preserving the vestiges of the Civil War era at the location.
But Ikea, just two blocks away from Fairway, rejected both alternatives. And the dry-dock is now very old news.
Nonetheless, some dry dock remains can still be visited. Behind Ikea is a park with a few thick ropes, yellow bollards where ships were tied, red iron carts used to move metal pieces, and some silver shipyard cranes. Very few Ikea shoppers visit the park.
The rusty pieces have explainers behind them, sometimes with quotations about how great the dry-dock was, once upon a time.
“We worked fast and we worked with a purpose,” reads one of the panels. “We got the job done. This shipyard helped America win the war.” Graffiti defaces some of the other panels.
Among the few who hang out at the park are about a dozen fishermen. “There is no fish anywhere. Not in Greenpoint, not in far Rockaway. This is the only place where you can find fish right now in Brooklyn,” said one of those looking for blackfish. I asked one of the fishermen if he had read the small panels, or if he knew about the dry-dock that was located there before.
“I had no idea,” he said.
I then entered the Ikea cube, to ask if they had something on the history of the dock, where all of the visitors go. “There is nothing here,” one of the saleswomen said.
From Ikea’s third floor, shoppers can enjoy one of the best views New York has to offer – it’s the same one that General George Washington got to take in as he waited for the British.