Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Row houses
Address: 123-127 Lefferts Place
Cross Streets: Classon and Grand Avenues (corner Classon)
Neighborhood: Clinton Hill
Year Built: 1882
Architectural Style: Neo-Grec
Architect: Amzi Hill
Other work by architect: Hundreds of houses and flats buildings in Clinton Hill, Bedford Stuyvesant, Stuyvesant Heights, Crown Heights North, Park Slope, Fort Greene.
Landmarked: No, but part of Clinton Hill South HD on National Register of Historic Places (1986)
The story: The corner house in this group, 127 Lefferts Place, was up until recently, the notorious Lefferts Hotel, a long time haven of drug dealing, prostitution and misery. Now it looks like it will have a new, and very much more upscale life. But before the squalor, there has to be a history behind this group of very attractive row houses. Before 127 was the Lefferts Hotel, it was a long-time boarding house with similar neighbors. Before that? Let’s see:
The group of three five story houses was built in 1882, designed by the prolific Central Brooklyn-based architect Amzi Hill. He designed other houses on this block, as well as all over Central Brooklyn, and was one of the most popular go-to Brooklyn row house architects of his day, especially active as this part of Brooklyn began rapid development in anticipation of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, which occurred in 1883.
Lefferts Place was an upper-middle class enclave, sandwiched between the busy-ness of Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue, which also made it very convenient for public transportation via the omnibuses and trolleys on Fulton Street, and the LIRR on Atlantic Avenue. One could easily commute to lower Manhattan from here in under an hour, and when the bridge opened? Well, this was a great location, and these were large houses, with plenty of room for growing families and live-in servants.
The trio of houses had private owners in the beginning. 123’s first owner may have been Dr. Stephen Griggs, a prominent local physician, a member of the Kings County Medical Association. He lived here 1880s until he retired, and sold the house. He died at his son’s home in Long Island, in 1901. 125 also had a private owner, as did the corner house, 127, which was much larger than the others and a prime property. The other houses were 18.5 feet wide, 127 was a nice 23 feet wide, with almost twice as much room.
The first owner of 127 may have been the family of Judge Thomas Nelson. He is listed here from at least 1887. He was 80 years old, living at this address in 1903. His son, Thomas Nelson, Jr. had this address as his residence all through college and in his early work life. He was a member of the Sigma Psi Fraternity in college, in 1889, and listed this address at work, when he too became a lawyer, and was practicing in 1891 and when he joined several social clubs in 1893. The house was for sale in 1906, offered in an ad in the New York Times. The house had 16 rooms, and with all of those side windows, was light and airy.
It didn’t take long for all three houses, and for that matter, many others on this block, to become rooming houses and apartment buildings. 127 sold in 1915, and was soon advertised with suites and rooms for rent, as well as separate offers for board. All three houses advertised to high class boarders, and offered furnished rooms, as well as apartments. The rooms and apartments appealed to singles working in Manhattan, teachers, and other professionals. The neighborhood was still strongly middle class and above, but times were getting hard and a five story house is a lot of house. There are ads for maids, housekeepers and cooks appearing for all three addresses.
In 1912, 127 was home to a teacher named Miss Maude Pierson. She rented an apartment or rooms here. She wanted to start an organization for single female teachers, such as herself. They would fundraise to buy a home or institution where female teachers could recuperate from illnesses. She stated that there were many single female teachers who languished in their rented rooms without care or hospitalization, and needed a hospice where they could recover and get needed care. I hope they succeeded.
In 1921, 127 was home to Vivian and Arthur Coster. It’s not known if they owned the house, but even if renters, they were affluent and important enough to make the Brooklyn Blue Book, the Social Register. It’s interesting; to me anyway, that African Americans were renting rooms in one or more of these houses as early as the 1920s, without the world ending. In 1929, Professor Henry Gardner, who happened to be black, was a tenant in 123 Lefferts Place. He was a noted Spiritualist. Another African American man was a tenant in 125 about five years earlier. Of course, there were also shenanigans in these rooms.
In 1931, a room in 127 was rented to a girl named Veronica Libasci, 16, of Rockaway Beach, and her boyfriend, an older boy known only as “Tony.” They were enjoying a few days of sin and adventure in Brooklyn, when Tony decided he needed to clean his gun. While doing so, it went off and the bullet hit Veronica in the abdomen. Tony carried her to a taxi, which raced to Cumberland Hospital. On the way there, Tony had the driver stop, he gave him a dollar, and Tony got out and was never seen again. Veronica almost died from internal bleeding, but was expected to recover. She never even knew Tony’s last name.
The name, “the Lefferts Hotel” first shows up in 1949, when an article in the New York Age, an African American newspaper, wrote that the hotel was opening, and would have 20 rooms for transients and permanent guests. The owner was a man named John Pleasant, and the article said that he had purchased the building in 1944, with the idea of making the rooming house a first class hotel. He was pleased to be able to do so in 1949. All of the rooms had private baths, and reservations could be made by calling ULster7-6910. It sounds as if it was he who renovated the entrance, with the canopy, and perhaps annexed 125 Lefferts into the hotel, as well. However, according to newspaper records, the building was for sale two years later. The hotel would dominate the block for another sixty years. GMAP
(2012 photo:Christopher Bride for Property Shark)