Part Two: A History of the Strong Place Properties

Here’s the next installment of the Strong Place Construction Blog, a series following Brennan Realty Services and their team through the development of three townhouses in Cobble Hill, at the corner of Kane and Strong Place. Today Brennan Realty posts Part Two of the history of the Strong Place properties. The history of the properties is spread over three posts, go here for Part One and tune in for the last installment.
Numbers 2 and 4 Strong Place
Little is known about numbers 2 and 4 Strong Place. We have one photograph take in 1934, and we have the Brooklyn maps to give us a clue as to their dates. We also have census records to show the progression of people who lived there every ten years, and we have the newspapers. Nothing is written about the two houses in the Landmarks Preservation Commission report for Cobble Hill, written when the district was landmarked in 1969. At that time, these reports were in their infancy, and while much more thorough than earlier reports, (the 1965 Brooklyn Heights report is all of one page) they were not able to fill in all of the blanks. The houses were gone by then, and no mention of them was made.

So what can we deduce from the evidence we have? The 1934 photograph offers some clues. The two houses were very similar to number 6 Strong Place, and were probably built at the same time. Unfortunately, the designation report for Cobble Hill totally fails to mention number 6, the last remaining house of the trio that stood on the corner of Strong Place and Harrison, now Kane Street. So we have to do some speculating here. The earliest homes on this block date from the 1830’s, also the time of the Greek Revival style of architecture, of which all three houses are an example. There are other houses on this block, documented as being from the 1830’s that look almost exactly the same. So I think it’s safe to say numbers 2, 4, and 6 Strong Place were built in the 1830’s. Most of the houses in this part of Cobble Hill, from this time period, were built by builder/speculators, and there were usually no architects of record. The 1830’s also pre-dates another of the sources for Brooklyn building information: The Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, a weekly magazine, put out by the building and real estate industry. It covered Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and parts of New Jersey and Long Island. It began publishing in 1868.

The first census report to with addresses took place in 1880. Number 2 Strong Place was home to the Mapelsden family. Reuben Mapelsden was 65 years old and retired. He lived in the house with his wife, Anna (65), son Reuben, Jr. (29) listed as in real estate, his daughter-in-law Josephine (27), granddaughter Elizabeth (3), and two servants: Ella Norton (50) and Margaret Brennan (19), both from Ireland. Mr. and Mrs. Mapelsden and their son Reuben were all born in England. Reuben Jr was also an attorney, as well as a real estate man, and his name also appears in the Eagle as an administrator in several estates, as well as a referee in several civil court suites. The family lived here from at least 1880 to 1888, when Reuben Mapelsden, Sr. dies, at the age of 74. In 1899, Josephine Mapelsden died, and her address was listed as 881 Union Street at that time. Her husband, Reuben, Jr. remarried two years later, in 1901.

Next door at #4 Strong Place, the 1880 census tells us that this was a boarding house. Elizabeth Hall (38) was head of house, and ran the boarding house with her daughter Bessie (20). Their borders were George Walker, (35) a broker, and his children, Minnie (11) and George, Jr. (13) both of whom attended school. Other boarders in the house were Stowe Von Moers, (60) and his son Stowe Von Moers, Jr. (28). Both are listed as being in the wine business. William Cochran, (24) and H. Anthony (27) were both store clerks. Ellen McGowan, (22) from Ireland, was the house’s servant.

The 1890 census records were destroyed in a fire in 1921, and are hugely incomplete. The records for Brooklyn were among those lost, so we don’t know who was living in the houses at that time. In 1900, 2 Strong Place was home to Gustav Steubach, (51) a German-born manufacturer. In fact, the entire household was German-born, which included his wife, Jenny (43), son Gustav, Jr. (19) who worked as an insurance agent, and Lousic Bortsher (36), the family servant.

4 Strong Place was no longer a boarding house, and was home to Pauline Luenarg (sic) a 43 year old woman from Germany, and her daughter, Margarethe, who was a 16 year old student.

1910 shows us the Cummings family in the house at 2 Strong Place. Michael Cummings (64) was a clerk, Lillie, (33) a daughter, and four sons: James (21), John (19), Paul (14) and Edward (12). All were native born Americans.

Next door, 4 Strong Place was home to a large family as well. Joseph Zucker, (47) a German-born manufacturer, his 47 year old wife Mary, son Maurice, a 22 year old lawyer, and more siblings, all lived in the house. The remaining children were Sadie (18), Estelle (16), Helene (14), Sidney (12), and Ruth (8). The older children were born in Texas, which had a lot of German immigrants in the late 19th century. They were joined by Minnie Sdansyetskorr, (19), a Polish servant and housekeeper.

The 1920 census for 2 Strong Place further illustrates the neighborhood as a middle class European ethnic enclave. The large house was now home to the Shiglia’s, born in Italy. Frank Shiglia (27) was a lace manufacturer, and his wife Josephine (23), kept house. Others in the house were Joseph Mayer and his wife Dalla, both 41. They were also Italian. He was a barber and shopkeeper, and she sewed embroidery. They had three children, Fanny (15), Dominic (12), and Joseph (3). The house was also home to Carlie Corhan (30), a Syrian shirtwaist manufacturer and his family. Mary, his wife (26), and children Emil (7), Maurice (5), Julius (3), Philip (3) and Josephine (1). In addition to them, George Lobos (34), a silk manufacturer, and his wife Hononud (26), also from Syria, also lived there.

A similar group of people were next door at number 4. John Dourdell (54), an Irish-born clerk at the magistrate’s office, lived here with his wife, Mary (47), and their two children, John Jr. (23) and Frank (21), both of whom clerked in a clerical shipyard. Elsewhere in the house were Michael Habit (23), from Syria, and his wife (20) and daughter (3), both named Mary. The father worked as a manufacturer of auto supplies. Rounding out the apartments were Louis (36) and Hannah (35) Barker, with son Arthur (4) and daughter Helda (2). The Barker’s were Russian, and he was a drug store keeper.

The last census we have public access to was 1930. Number 2 Strong Place was not inhabited at that time, and no census records were recorded. Next door at number 4 Strong Place, the large house was home to quite a few people. John Raddovick was a 37 year old fireman from Austria. His wife Mary (30) and son John (2) lived there, as well. Rudolf Donat was a boarder, a 19 year old Austrian-born longshoreman. Michael Flocico (30) was an Austrian fireman with the railroads. Sabatino Langella (30) was a 30 year old Italian immigrant who was also a longshoreman. He lived with his wife Theresa (28), and children: Joseph (9), Rose (8), Sarah (6) Frank (3), and Louis, an infant. The last family on the roster was also quite large and consisted of Italian-born Gastrasso Traino (47), a longshoreman, and his wife Anna (45), and their children: Ralph (20) a long shore clerk, Frank (16), also a clerk, and six other kids, Carmila (18), Ciro (14), Antoinette (12), Timber (?) 9, Oneal (5) and Filomina (2).

The Mystery
There is no reason, or record listed for why these two houses were demolished sometime around 1934. Perhaps something was planned for the space, or perhaps there was a fire or structural damage, although the photographs don’t seem to support that theory. If you look closely at the one existing photograph taken in 1934, several things are apparent, especially when you enlarge the picture. 2 Strong Place, the house on the corner, was abandoned and empty when this photo was taken, and looks to have been so for much longer than its neighbor. This is borne out by the census. You can see that the window glass was either taken out or broken. There is no reflection of light from the windows, the shutters are askew or falling off. The house is clearly empty. Next door, at number 4, you can see that it, too, is now empty, but much more recently, again borne out by the census. More of the window frames are intact, although the curtains or blinds were just ripped out, leaving fragments. Contrast both houses to number 6 Strong Place, which is occupied, and you can easily see that difference. When the houses were torn down, they lots remained empty.

2 Strong Place in 1934, enlargement.
2 Strong Place, Kane Street facade, 1934.

These houses are on the corner of Strong Place and Kane Street. But Kane is a relatively new name for this street. It began as Butler Street, but soon became Harrison Street, presumably named after William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the United States, who died in office about the time this area was being developed. Maps of the area show Harrison Street, up until 1928, when the name was changed to Kane Street, to honor James Kane: election commissioner, alderman and police sergeant. (1839-1926)

One side of 2 Strong Place faced onto Kane Street, with a very attractive oriel bay, and lots of windows. Had this house survived, it would have been extremely desirable today for the number of windows, as well as its general beauty and location. There are now no other buildings on the south side of the street, just empty lots and the garden for the house at 441 Henry Street. Or are there? Here we have a mystery to be solved. The 1934 photograph of Strong Place and Kane Street clearly shows a three story building in the middle of Kane, on the south side of the street, midway between 2 Strong Place and the walled garden of 439 Henry. What is this building, and what happened to it? I was not able to find anything whatsoever.

Enlarging the photo only intensifies the mystery. The building appears to be an apartment building or a club or organization’s building, dating back to the first decades of the 29th century. A careful look shows what look to be French doors right before the garden gate, which makes me think the building belonged to a club or organization. Most working class apartment buildings have more substantial doorways. There are men hanging out in front, which also supports the club/organization theory, but then, the photograph was taken in 1934, during the Great Depression, so men hanging out in front of a building may be more symptomatic of unemployment, as much as membership in a club, or organization. An aerial photograph of Brooklyn streets, taken in 1923 shows this building here, but it is not listed in the Real Estate and Building Guide, or in the censuses between 1900 and 1930, which would also support the existence of a club, where there were no full time occupants. When researching this area, I thought perhaps this was the location for the American Society of Swedish Engineers, a prominent Swedish organization, but they were actually located in the house with the large walled garden, 439 Henry Street, a building with a very interesting history of its own.

439 and 441 Henry Street
439 and 441 Henry Street were built as a pair. They were built along with their neighbor, 445, by the Van Nostrand family, between 1846 and 1848. John Van Nostrand was a grocer-merchant, originally from Manhattan, and he chose number 441 as his home. His brother, James Van Nostrand, was president of the Merchants Exchange Bank of New York, and in 1848, he made his home at 439 Henry Street, an extra wide house with a large garden behind it, stretching along Harrison (now Kane) Street. Brooklyn’s Nostrand Avenue is named for this old Dutch family.

441 and 445 Henry Street had mansard roofs added later, in the 1860’s, adding another floor. 439 does have a partial top floor with a deep setback, no doubt home to the house’s servants, at one time, but it is not as obvious as the two mansards. The Van Nostrand houses are both quite large, thirty-six feet wide by fifty-five feet deep, and the corner house sits on a lot measuring 101’ x 220’.

Yet impressive houses of the rich don’t seem to stay that way for long. John Van Nostrand died in 1889, and the house was sold to several wealthy families, including that of Henry Behr, before becoming a respectable boarding house. James Van Nostrand died even earlier, in 1880. In late 1888, or early 1889, 441 was purchased by the New York Club of the American Society of Swedish Engineers, a national society founded in 1888. The Eagle reported on their first large social event in the space, in February of 1889, where it mentioned the building’s “handsome quarters”. The Engineers also didn’t stay very long in this location, by 1908, they had moved to Union Street. The organization still exists, but now has headquarters in Manhattan.
1934 Garden and side of 439 Henry Street. Photo: NY Public Library

By at least 1910, 439 Henry Street had become the convent of the Nursing Sisters of the Poor, also known as the Convent of the Infant Jesus, home to a charitable order of nuns who made house calls to the sick, supplying them with medicines and looking after their homes and families. They were founded as the Little Sisters of the Assumption, in Paris, France in 1864, and their mission was to go out to the homes of the working class and the poor, accepting no money or gifts, and care for the sick, not just giving medicine and home care, but with home and housekeeping tasks not able to be done by a sick parent or caregiver. The order had branches throughout Europe and the United States.

The convent took over both buildings, 439 and 441 Henry Street, and they stayed there until the 1970’s. Both the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times filed stories regarding charitable activities at this address, and stories about the work the nuns had done. When the order moved out of Brooklyn, to Rockville Center, NY, the house was sold to Henkane Realty in 1970. It then became home to the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, or Hare Krishna sect. The New York Times reported in 1971 that 55 members of the group lived here; men, women and children, and they could all be seen walking to and from the houses every day, clad in saffron robes, holding begging bowls, and chanting “Hare Krishna”. They lived simply, without chairs or tables, telephones or radios or television. The head of the Brooklyn chapter, a registered non-profit organization, was a former Manhattan filmmaker who was now known only as Bhavananda. After the Society moved over to Schermerhorn Street, in downtown Brooklyn, in 1983, the property became rental units.

In 2010, the property again changed hands, in one of the largest real estate sales in Cobble Hill. The transaction included the lots that once held numbers 2 and 4 Strong Place, as well as the frontage on Kane Street between Henry Street and Strong Place, and the two houses on Henry; numbers 439 and 441 Henry Street. The present owners have permission and plans to build once again on the Strong Place and Kane Street lots, and are planning townhouses, keeping with the historic nature of the blocks and the landmarked neighborhood. These new houses will be among the most desired homes in a neighborhood that has become one of the most popular and beautiful places in Brooklyn.

-Suzanne Spellen

3 Comment

  • hairyone

    Suzanne / Montrose — Any idea why P.S. 29, right across the street, was built at such an angle to the frontage of Henry St.?

  • hairyone

    Suzanne / Montrose — Any idea why P.S. 29, right across the street, was built at such an angle to the frontage of Henry St.?

    • In my mind there is a question as to when 2 and 4 Strong Place and the building that once stood on Kane Street (between Henry and Strong) were demolished. I can’t speak for all 3 buildings (I didn’t know a house on Kane Street existed (across from PS 29), but I remember at least one of those houses was still standing in ca. 1959.

      I was a small boy when my family moved to the top floor apartment at 6 Strong Place. I distinctly remember seeing our view of Henry Street and PS 29 increase as one or more of those houses was torn down. In the first months in that apartment in 1959, our view was blocked at the kitchen window (in the rear of 6 Strong Place by at least one of those buildings.

      Further, once the building(s) were torn down, the brick and rubble littered the property. A nun, Sister Mary Michael took it upon herself to arrange each brick into organized designs and altars with at least one statue of the Holy Mother facing Kane Street for passers-by to see. I often helped her endeavors. There were no weeds growing at that lot at that time, ca. 1960-64. In time the sister no longer went out to care for the lot and weeds began to take over. There was a gap in the chain-link fence on the side of 6 Strong Place where we kids used to sneak onto the lot and play.

      In the mid-70s this property was made into a a private parking lot.

      It is certainly possible that the properties at 2 and 4 Strong Place and the one on Kane were vacant as of 1934, but that they were all demolished in that year is doubtful.