In the extreme southwest corner of Brooklyn, Fort Hamilton guards The Narrows, a strait that connects Upper New York Bay with Lower New York Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The city’s last active military base, Fort Hamilton abuts the Bay Ridge neighborhood. The area is filled with historic alleys and old buildings. It is the birthplace of Kevin Walsh, author of Forgotten New York. The neighborhood’s trove of secrets includes a hidden body of water.
If you’ve never seen this pond before, I don’t blame you. It’s hidden behind a 20-foot concrete wall and I cannot divulge the source of this photograph.
Looking at old maps and aerials of this property, it’s difficult to tell whether the pond is natural or manmade. The 1873 F. W. Beers Atlas and the 1891 Bien Atlas do not show any ponds in the vicinity of this property. The earliest map with a pond for the site is the 1898 E. B. Hyde Atlas designed by cartographer Hugo Ullitz.
The grid-defying holdout property above was first settled by William Harmans Barkaloo in 1725. Among the Dutch settler families of New Netherlands, the Barkaloos hopped around New Amsterdam, Flatlands and Gravesend before settling at Bay Ridge, at the time part of the Town of New Utrecht. The last name originates from the Dutch village of Borculo.
A mile to the north of the pond, at Narrows Road and Mackay Place is the city’s smallest cemetery, a Barkaloo plot that had its last burial in 1848.
In 1867, the state passed legislation to establish the Kings County Home for Inebriates, an asylum for chronic alcoholics. At the time, the temperance movement was sweeping the nation and the public was supportive of public measures that sought to curb alcoholism. The 15-acre Barkaloo property was selected by the institution’s trustees for its “advantage of the sea breezes… easily accessible from the city without being near enough to attract too many visitors. Architect Ebenezer L. Roberts designed the facilities in an Italianate style.
Articles from the New York Times in 1869 and 1870 about the Kings County Home for Inebriates describe the surrounding countryside and the property, but no mention of any pond.
It was founded with good intentions, but over time Brooklyn voters resented having to finance the institution and sentencing individuals for “no worse crimes than a fondness for a strong drink,” as described in an 1895 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1894 state lawmakers cut off its primary source of funding. Following an unsuccessful lawsuit to survive, the asylum’s charter was cancelled in April 1898. The Sisters of the Visitation moved into the former asylum in July 1903, leaving behind their convent in Clinton Hill which is now the site of Saint Joseph’s College. The former asylum became a convent and a Catholic girls’ high school.
A Renaissance revival church was built, partially concealing the old asylum behind it. The property was reduced to its present 7.5 acres and surrounded by a high concrete fence. There are other monasteries and convents within the city, but none have their own pond.
The pond is located on the western side of the property and features a fountain in its center. A statue of an angel and the crucified Jesus decorate the pond. The surrounding property is out of the public’s view and resembles a countryside summer camp, used by the young ladies of Visitation Academy for recess and by the nuns for contemplative strolls. The photos below are taken from the school’s Facebook photo gallery.
The pond is an outdoor gym class used for rowing during the summer and ice skating in winter. Thick vegetation and landscaping conceal the concrete wall and the city that lays beyond. Over the decades, not much has changed at the pond.
Heads up: On Friday February 19, urban explorer Steven Duncan will be giving a lecture on the daylighting of Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx. The event is free, but you must reserve your seat.