Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Flats buildings
Address: 162 and 165 Howard Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Decatur Street
Neighborhood: Stuyvesant East (Bedford Stuyvesant)
Year Built: 1898
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Henry Vollweiler
Other buildings by architect: The two other flats buildings on this block, as well as row houses, theaters and flats buildings in Bedford Stuyvesant, Park Slope, Williamsburg and Bushwick.
Landmarked: No, not yet.
The story: Heading east towards Broadway, in Stuyvesant Heights, you enter the old Eastern District, that part of Brooklyn that including parts of today’s Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and a touch of East Williamsburg. In the late 19th century, this area was a huge enclave for German immigrants and their descendants. If you look at the census reports, businesses, churches and cultural institutions in this area, Germans had made the ED their own, and on the whole, were probably the most successful ethnic group in Brooklyn. A group of German-born or first generation architects were among these successful businessmen; men like Theobald Engelhardt, Benjamin Finkensieper, F.J. Berlenbach and Henry Vollweiler. They, and many others, helped build the Eastern District, and their buildings can still be found gracing our streets.
Henry Vollweiler was born in Baden, Germany, in 1853. He learned drafting and carpentry from his stepfather, and went on to university to study architecture. He could have had a fine career in Germany, as he was employed by the city of Kaiserslautern, directing the building of banks and government buildings. As a young architect he got the opportunity to work on the Prince’s Palace in Karlsruhe, where he attended university, but decided to come to America, where he felt he could advance even further.
He first came to Montclair, N.J., where he set up practice, but then moved to Brooklyn’s Eastern District, where he worked in the office of Theobald Engelhardt, the most prolific of the ED’s German-American architects, and one of the entire city’s busiest architects. He soon developed a fine reputation of his own, and opened his own practice on the corner of Sumner and Broadway, in Bushwick. Many commissions followed.
During the course of his career, he designed mostly row houses and flats buildings, but also got a chance for some larger projects, such as breweries, theaters, office buildings and concert halls. At one time, another budding talent, William Debus, who also added much to Brooklyn’s architectural charm and had a fine career of his own, was Vollweiler’s chief designer. Mr. Vollweiler had moved into finance as well in the 20th century, and was one of the directors and founders of the Eastern District Savings Bank, located on Broadway.
In 1898, in the middle of his career, developer Henry Roth hired Vollweiler to design nine flats buildings in three groups, all near the border of the Eastern District and Stuyvesant Heights. One was on the corner of Madison and Stuyvesant, four were a couple of blocks away on Stuyvesant Avenue and Hancock Street, and the other four were on Howard Avenue between Decatur and Bainbridge. Two of those four are today’s BOTDs.
The buildings 162 and 165 Howard were named the “Decatur” and the “Howard,” the names carved above the front entrances. The flats buildings originally both had eight units each, and amazingly, both buildings are still in that configuration. They drew my attention in part because they are handsome buildings in their own right, but they also are exact twins, directly across the street from each other, with different owners. The owner of the Decatur has taken more care in upkeep of the building, and is a local owner; the twin is owned by someone far off site, and it shows. Even so, both buildings are fine bookends to the block, and present a very pleasing streetscape.
The day I first saw these buildings, in the company of “Amzi Hill,” we ended up talking at great length to the owner of 162, Ms. Willie Mae Watkins, one of those grand seniors of the community who has seen it all, and come out on the other side, intact and proud of her accomplishments. She was sweeping the front of her building when we were taking pictures. She was eager for landmarking in Stuyvesant East, as she wanted the results of her hard work and the work of her long-time neighbors preserved for future generations. It’s people like Ms. Watkins, these longtime owners and residents, who kept Central Brooklyn intact and beautiful. I salute them, with great respect and appreciation. GMAP