Historically Speaking: A Century of Jehovah’s Witnesses

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle/April 28, 2010

A century ago, the Borough of Brooklyn sprung to life. In 1898, the City of Brooklyn was dissolved into the Borough of Brooklyn. While the borough no longer had the prestige of the “fourth largest city in America,” it still retained a panache that captured the imagination. So the beginning of the 20th century saw the organization of the Brooklyn Heights Neighborhood Association, the opening of the Brooklyn Museum, the founding of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and the relocation of Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn Heights. Now the Witnesses are planning to move to upstate New York, abandoning their very notable presence and property to more commercial interests.

The mark they have left on Brooklyn is significant. As the Bible Student Association, they moved their headquarters to the Heights in 1909 and incorporated as the People’s Pulpit Association. In 1942, the third president, Nathan Knorr, started buying Brooklyn real estate, moving their headquarters to 25 and 30 Columbia Heights.

Among their 30 Heights and Dumbo properties are many readily identifiable buildings. Their warehouse and shipping complex at 360 Furman St. moved upstate to Watchtower Farms in Walkill, so the 14-story building was sold in 2004 for $205 million (tax free), and soon emerged as One Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Bossert, a former 14-story hotel at 98 Montague St., remains a Witnesses property, although it has been on the market since 2008. Opened the year the Witnesses moved to Brooklyn, it was built on the site of the Pierrepont House by lumber tycoon Louis Bossert, who expanded it in 1914. While popular with transients and long-term residents (including the Brooklyn Dodgers), it fell out of favor in the 1970s. So the Witnesses leased the building in 1983, purchasing it outright in 1988 and following with a full restoration of its Italian Renaissance Revival style.

Another former hotel, the 12-story Standish Arms at 169 Columbia Heights, built in 1903, was sold in 2007 by the Witnesses for $50 million and converted to luxury rentals as The Standish. After a disastrous fire in 1966, the hotel lost business until leased by the Witnesses in 1981 as a residential hotel for their members and then purchased in 1988. Numbers 161 and 183 Columbia Heights were sold as a package; three more at 165 Columbia Heights, 105 Willow St.and 34 Orange St.were sold privately.

The residence at 89 Hicks St., built in 1940, has 48 units and was purchased by Brooklyn Law School in 2006 for $14 million. New York University, which merged with Brooklyn Polytech recently, acquired the 26-floor “sliver building” at 67 Livingston St. in 2006 for $18.6 million. In place of the former Hotel Margaret (1889), which had burned to the ground in 1980, the Witnesses built an 11-story modernistic office at 97 Columbia Heights in 1980 that looks out of place in Victorian Brooklyn Heights. They wanted to build it higher but Landmarks wouldn’t allow it.

The worldwide Watchtower Bible and Tract Society numbers over 7 million. Founded in 1876 by Charles Taze Russell as Bible Students, the organization followed an evangelistic fervor governed by a patriarchal leadership of elders. Moving to Brooklyn in 1909 enabled them to be near the waterfront and its shipping. The four-story brownstone at 124 Columbia Heights, formerly the parsonage of Henry Ward Beecher, became a residence for the staff. A Plymouth church building at 13-17 Hicks St. became the Watch Tower headquarters and auditorium, which they named Bethel. Their auditorium became The Brooklyn Tabernacle, but was sold in 1918.

Acquisition of Brooklyn real estate continued with the purchase of 122 Columbia Heights in 1909 and construction of a new building on Furman Street in 1911. Other Witnesses properties in Brooklyn appeared on Myrtle, Concord, Adams and Sands streets in the 1920s. In 1926, long before the historic designation of Brooklyn Heights, four brownstones on Columbia Heights were purchased and demolished to construct the executive offices and their Kingdom Hall. In 1931, the name Jehovah’s Witnesses became the official name.

More realty on Columbia Heights was purchased in the 1940s and 1950s and two residential buildings rose there at 107 and at 119 in 1969. Further expansion in 1969 included the purchase of the Squibb complex and, a few years later, the Towers. Many of the properties are connected by underground tunnels.

While these facilities accommodate the 70,000 national and international visitors annually, who speak 440 languages, the existence of the Witnesses has not been without controversy. They use their own translation of the Bible called the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, which predicts that Armageddon will destroy the world, allowing only 144,000 people into heaven. Predications for the end of the world have been issued for 1914, 1925, and the strongest, for 1975, to no avail. Witnesses don’t vote, salute any flag, or serve in the military. They don’t accept blood transfusions. And they refuse to observe Christmas, Easter or birthdays, on the grounds that they are based on pagan rituals. All of which causes trouble.

Yet, among their followers have been or are President Dwight Eisenhower; the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena; Prince, the singer; George Benson, the jazz guitarist; the Jackson Five; the Wayan brothers; and Mickey Spillane, the writer.

So, after a century here in Brooklyn, the Witnesses are slowly leaving The First Suburb, Brooklyn Heights, for the upstate suburbs of Patterson, N.Y., where they will build their headquarters, an educational center and their Bethel on 240 acres. The property there, which they started purchasing in the 1960s and continued to do throughout the 1970s and 1980s, includes their latest Ramapo purchase, in 2009, and costs $11.5 million.

But moving that many people and divesting all their Brooklyn property will not happen overnight. So expect to be greeted by the friendly Witnesses for several more years, just as Truman Capote had encountered them on Willow Street in the 1940s.

Resources: The Brooklyn Eagle, The New York Times, The Daily News, The Brooklyn Paper, Watch Tower, and online sources.

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