Walkabout: There Goes the Neighborhood, pt. 1

131-Ft-G.jpgFort Greene Place, between Hanson Place and Lafayette Avenue is a quiet block, somewhat isolated from the busier hubbub of the nearby Fulton Street commercial corridor. The handsome brownstone rowhouses on this block were built as speculative housing in the 1850’s for the large number of middle class buyers who were pouring into Brooklyn right before the Civil War. At the time, Fort Greene was one of the fastest growing of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods, as development spread south and east from Brooklyn’s economic and residential heart, the Brooklyn Heights/Fulton Ferry and waterfront areas. By the 1890’s, the hot areas of town had shifted to Clinton Hill, Bedford, and Park Slope, and Fort Greene Place was settling down in comfortable, if unremarkable, solid middle class bliss. Until the unthinkable happened in 1894, when a house sale catapulted Fort Greene Place onto the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle, and the pages of the New York Times. It was a time to call the neighborhood to action, hold meetings and mobilize, because Hiram S. Thomas, the new owner of 131 Ft. Greene Place, was a Negro.

Brooklyn has always had black people in sizable numbers. From the Dutch farmers who kept slaves, to the freedmen who established businesses throughout the city, to the thousands who lived and worked all over Brooklyn, in a range of income and levels of opportunity, by the late 1800’s, there was already a two hundred year old history of black life in Brooklyn. By any stretch of definition, Hiram S. Thomas was an unqualified success. He had been born a free man in Drummondville, Ontario, in 1837. He was a college graduate, and during the Ulysses S. Grant administration, in the 1870’s, he was the steward of the Capitol Club, in Washington, DC. By the 1880’s, he had relocated to the popular and prosperous town of Saratoga Lake, one of the posh resort towns in the Adirondack Mountains, a favorite vacation destination of the rich and well-connected of New York City, during the Gilded Age. Thomas began as the head waiter at the exclusive Grand Union Hotel, the Waldorf of Saratoga . There, he did quite well, and in 1888, took over another well known hotel and restaurant called Moon’s, and renamed it the Lake House. According to local records, the hotel belonged to a NYC owner, but the popular restaurant was all his. The Lake House catered to a high end clientele, hosting parties, special events, as well as daily meals, and Thomas’ ownership of this venue was a coup for anyone. The Lake House was often in the society columns of the NY Times, with Hiram Walker’s name as proprietor. The fact that it belonged to a black man who was respected by his customers was extroadinary for its time. The Lake House is also the home to one of America’s national treasures, the Saratoga chip, or as we know it now the potato chip. Local legend has it that it was invented by the African-American chef when it was still called Moon’s, who responded to a customer’s complaint that his thick fried potatoes were too thick. The chef, George Crum, cut them thinner twice, they were still returned, and in frustration, cut them paper thin, fried them again and over-salted them before sending them out. They were a hit, and were soon ordered by everyone at every meal, and a classic was born.

But I digress. Saratoga was a seasonal town, so in the winter, Hiram Thomas was busy as the head waiter at the Lakewood Hotel, in Lakewood, NJ. In 1892, a NY Times writer, vacationing there wrote, Who should be the headwater, but the dignified and portly Hiram Thomas, from the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, who has ‘head-waitered’ upon me many times in that establishment; and Mr. Thomas stood by me while I ate the Lakewood’s Little Neck clams…..It is no small honor, you must understand, to have the dignified head waiter in a big hotel devote his time to you and even stop to talk with you. But I wore my laurels as modestly as I could. Obviously, Mr. Thomas was a well respected man, and quite chatty. In 1894, while chatting with guests at his Lake House restaurant in Saratoga, Hiram Thomas ran into General Edward Molineaux, once a member of General Grant’s staff, and a customer from Thomas’ days in Washington, DC. Upon hearing that the General was from Brooklyn, Thomas asked him about a property that he had just contracted to buy, on a little street called Fort Greene Place. To his great surprise, General Molineaux lived on that very block, down the street at number 117. What a coincidence! Well, the General told his sister, who told her husband, who told his landlady, Doctor Emma Onderdock. She owned several buildings in the neighborhood and on that block, including the house next door to Mr. Thomas’ new building. The good doctor, who had the distinction of being one of Brooklyn’s first female doctors, was the main instigator of the furor that followed. She immediately tried to sue the seller, a Dr. Harry Smith, who had moved to Prospect Heights, and really didn’t care who bought it. He had put the house in the hands of an agent named Thomas J. Henderson, who sold the house to Mr. Walker. Dr. Onderdock got the neighbors all agitated at the thought of a Negro buying a house on their block, and a series of meetings and strategy sessions, as well as media coverage, ensued. The headline in the Eagle on October 1, 1894 read, Flurry in Ft. Greene Place, because a Negro has bought a Three Story House: Aristocratic Neighbors in a Panic. The NY Times headline read, They Want No Colored Neighbor.

It turns out the General, who was in Saratoga for an extended time to take in the waters, tried to buy Hiram Thomas out, before the ink on his deed was dry, and Thomas said he would sell, but at a much higher price than what he had just bought the house for. That was not well received by the neighbors back on Ft. Greene Place. Dr. Onderdock is quoted as saying, If he [Thomas] is a respectable good man, as they say, he will not wish to live there after this trouble. If he does move in values will all become depreciated and he will lose as much as anyone else. She also went on to say that if they couldn’t stop Thomas from buying the house, he aught to at least have the decency to not reside at the property. After the furor died down, many of the other neighbors and parties involved were more reasonable. Thomas J. Henderson, the real estate agent, is quoted by the Eagle as saying that he would not mind living next door to a Negro, in fact, would prefer one as a neighbor to some white people he could name, and that anyway, business was business. Other neighbors also said they had no problem with the sale.

The incident drew the ire of the Rev. S. B. Halliday, assistant pastor of Plymouth Church, who wrote a scathing letter to the NY Times. In part, he said, I have supposed that the residents of Fort Greene Place were so eminently respectable that they could not have feared that their respectability could ever be called in question by the coming of half a dozen respectable families of color settling around them, much less by a single family. What a pretty story it is to get abroad over the country that a black man cannot move into a respectable neighborhood without stirring up a rebellion….I think our city is disgraced by the presence of such a spirit in its midst.

Well, what happened? Hiram Thomas and his family, which included his wife, and a son and daughter, both of whom were in college during this incident, never moved in. Although he told the Times that the family would move in within a month of purchase, they never did, and Thomas sold the house two months later. There was no reason given, and Hiram Thomas would pass away in 1907, a very prosperous and successful man. The neighbors would disappear from history. J.S. Burnham, General Molineaux’s brother-in-law, and one of the loudest opponents to Thomas’ purchase of the home, was the proprietor of a dry-goods firm called Journeay and Burnham. He was also Dr. Onderdock’s tenant. Was his opposition to a black neighbor his own indignation, or was he influenced by his landlady’s vociferous responses? We’ll never know. As for General Edward Molyneaux, who broke the news to Ft. Greene Place, he was well known as a Civil War general, and member of the Grant staff. Quite an illustrious neighbor for Fort Greene Place. But perhaps the good Dr. Onderdock and others should have been more worried about his family, rather than Hiram Thomas’. For General Molineaux’s son Roland would become as one of the most infamous murderers in New York City history.

Incidentally, today the house is on the market for over two million dollars. Hiram Thomas should have held out a lot longer.
Photo: Property Shark

0 Comment

  • Wow! What a story- as they say, Hiram Thomas was the real winner. The best revenge is living well. Dr. Onderdock- not so much. And Roland, the General’s son? Ah….karma :)

  • This could very well be the best post in Brownstoner history. Wow, this story had me riveted.

  • No, this is ABOLUTELY the best post in Brownstoner history; it is a freaking MOVIE TREATMENT. It even comes with a teaser for Part II: Roland, the Murderer!!!

    Which makes me wonder:
    Why doesn’t BAM and/or BHS, with bucks from arts groups and blessing of Spike Lee, curate a “Project Greenlight” for a series of small, “Masterpiece-Theatre”-like movies on obscure, totally cool chapters of Brooklyn history? With some of our most awesome homegrown authors as screenwriters, and cast drawn from our massive population of underemployed actors?? Huh? Must it all be Snooki and dopey chef smackdowns? [gotta calm down]

  • As a soon-to-be Fort Greene resident, I found this absolutely thrilling! More please!

  • I knew this story but it was a LOT of fun reading your piece on this rainy Thursday! As always, Hats Off to Ms. Morris! I also enjoyed that piece you did a while ago on the crime “family” parading as a high class couple renting a house along with their household staff who turned out to be their partners in crime. That as a fun one. I thoroughly enjoy all of your pieces although I may not have the time to comment on them.

    I understand that you’ve been doing hard research. Any possibility of including photos you take of archival materials for these articles? Also, please post any links to online resources, say, that the Brooklyn Eagle or any other or your sources hosts on the web. Would be fun! I LOVE to read old, old newspapers.

    Thank you!

  • I have been kicking MM about putting together a book and kicked her once again this morning. MM’s writing is not just factual and interesting, she writes so well. She’s a true storyteller-

  • When I lived in Ft. Greene or when I visit BAM I always had and still do admire this block. They are not the grandest row, but they do seem special and agree sort of their own little pocket.

    Great history lesson, surprising the turbulent history given the calm quiet feel of the present.

    There was a great series on cable TV called “If These Walls Could Talk” where homeowners talked about what they found in the house and/or were spurred by the finding to researched deeper uncovering a very interesting history. These houses would be perfect for that kind of show.

  • MM has been the best reason to visit Brownstoner everyday for quite some time now.

    Kudos for yet another gem.

  • I’m happy this story, and others are enjoyed by everyone. Thanks for the compliments. Part 2 will indeed by about Roland Molyneaux. Brooklyn remains a fascinating place with interesting tales a-plenty.

    BrooklynGreene, I always try to include archival photos when I can, but most of the time, there aren’t any. I always look, because a visual reference really makes a story. I don’t include links to the Eagle, the Times, and other references mostly because it’s just too time consuming to do the links, especially in a story like this, which came from about 8 different newspaper articles. I will, of course, document all references in the forthcoming, hopefully, soon to be compliled, book.

  • Fascinating story, but isn’t the Civil War General Edward Leslie Molineux?

  • You are right, Maly, I spelled his name wrong. I must have been thinking of the fashion designer. That was a past occupation, I guess it got in my subconscious. It is Molineux, not Molyneux, but all of the other facts are correct.

  • bxgrl, keep kicking! MM, now is obviously the time in your life that you were meant to write this book. Please do it! I’m sure there are more than a few folks here with ties in the literary world who could help you sell it. And you’ve already got a few hundred guaranteed sales once it’s published.

    Fantastic story!!! You are a great researcher, and a truly fine writer.

  • Extremely well written. thank you

  • I see. I can imagine it would make for a lot of extra work. Have you thought about submitting a piece to the NY Times Local for extra exposure? I think it now covers Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Bedford Stuyvesant too! Your pieces have really developed since you started, maybe they’d pick them up for House and Home or the Metro Section!

    I agree with someone above–you’re the main reason I still visit this website. :-)

  • I was intrigued by the reference to Roland Molineux as an infamous murderer. Here’s a link to a description of his case: http://law.jrank.org/pages/2728/Roland-Molineux-Trials-1899.html

  • Fabulous piece, Montrose. You write the screenplay and I’ll go see the movie.

  • Great piece as many of yours are.
    But the ones that portray the lives of old New Yorkers are particularly fascinating.

  • And by old New Yorkers, I don’t mean old people, but those of past eras.
    Not to say that old people aren’t interesting. aaaaaah, nevermind.

  • Great story, Montrose. But I’d love to understand better the racial dynamics of the neighborhood in the late 19th century. My understanding was that Clinton Hill, at least, had had a significant black working and middle-class since the 1840s or earlier. Was Fort Greene so different? Was it whiter because of its proximity to Brooklyn Heights? And the Lafayette Presbyterian Church — right around the corner from Fort Greene Place — was an important stop on the underground railway. Or was that just white beneficence at a remove and not a reflection of actual integration?

  • I love this story. I wonder if this ever happened in other ares like Brooklyn Heights. I always look forward to the walkabouts…

  • MM’s postings are officially my favorite thing on brownstoner. Loved this. And the one about the Anti-Suffragettes.

  • This was fascinating. I can’t wait for the second installment.

  • “MM’s postings are officially my favorite thing on brownstoner.”

    Also love the renovation posts.

  • “MM has been the best reason to visit Brownstoner everyday for quite some time now.” – Boerum Hill

    Hear, hear!

  • Good questions, grand army. The answers, if I can find them all, will make a good article. You are certainly correct in your assesments and observations.

    Everyone, again thanks for the complements. I appreciate them very much.

  • great story! I say keep this stuff on Brownstoner, The NY Times Local is barely read by anyone and is now a CUNY journalism school project. Here you’ll get more readers for this amazing stuff.

  • “Thomas J. Henderson, the real estate agent, is quoted by the Eagle as saying that he would not mind living next door to a Negro, in fact, would prefer one as a neighbor to some white people he could name, and that anyway, business was business.”

    THIS is a guy I could like.

    GREAT story, Montrose!

  • Montrose, simply put a few of your Brownstoner pieces together under their separate headings each with their photos, write a short introduction and send off to an agent, who will find a publisher for this book on Brooklyn history. Do not hesitate. It will take two minutes.

  • Absolutely great story. Looking forward to part 2 and the book.

  • What mopar said. Your book is basically written already. Email me at park_sloper@yahoo.com once you’ve put it together and written your intro, and I’ll give you the name of a top literary agent you can contact.

  • Montrose,

    Have I not told you this very thing many times?

  • Excellent post, Montrose. One of your best. Every Brooklyn house and apartment building has a story.

  • I think Plymouth Church is having their annual Yankee Fair this Saturday. Supposedly it’s the family-friendliest street fair in the city.

  • Park Sloper- if she doesn’t do it, I will personally throttle her :)

  • Montrose – we need uncle Denton to start coming down on you like he does with Rob. You and PitBull don’t have much in common, but surely sitting on wasted talent is something that you do.

    You rule!!

  • Ok, ok. You know how writers are, we want to noodle it to death with perfection.

    I will resist that urge, and do what mopar advises. Bxgrl can be a really annoying tenant, and I thank all of you for your advice and encouragement. :)

  • Let’s try a different approach.

    Either you compile a manuscript,
    with a forward by Mr. B,
    or I will continue to post angry
    and divisive anti-Liberal rants
    in the OT on a regular basis.

    And I have plenty to write about.
    In fact, I might just put them
    together and publish an illustrated
    history of progressive lunacy in
    Brownstone Brooklyn.

    The choice is yours MM.

  • Wow, I’m breathless, thank you for this MM.

    There’s a terrific book on Roland called The Devil’s Gentleman (I bought it last year in paperback at Barnes and Noble). It’s a pretty fast read and a terrific subject matter – the narrative so perfectly captures its time, as the crime could never happen today, which makes it both a quaint and remarkable read.

  • And *that* is why I love living in a city. A riveting story around every block. Thank you so much for hunting it down and telling it so well.

  • I’m a bit confused why Hiram Thomas was refered to as Hiram Walker twice in this article?

    Anyone else?