Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally William H. Childs House, now Brooklyn Ethical Culture Society Meeting House
Address: 53 Prospect Park West
Cross Streets: Corner 2nd Street
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1900-1901
Architectural Style: Neo-Jacobean
Architect: William B. Tubby
Other buildings by architect: 61 PPW, just across the street; Charles M. Pratt Mansion, Charles A. Schieren Mansion and Pratt Institute buildings, Clinton Hill; Benjamin Moore factory in Dumbo; other houses and buildings in Brooklyn.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Park Slope HD (1973)
The story: There are only two houses on this block and both of them are among the finest private homes still standing in the entire city. They were both built for that growing breed of entrepreneurial geniuses that seemed to thrive in Brooklyn during the Gilded Age. Both owners engaged two of the most brilliant architects Brooklyn had to offer, and the houses are very different, but present such a wonderful streetscape, especially when you include Prospect Park. The house at 53 Prospect Park West owes its existence to a humble substance found in almost every home: cleansing powder, which made its manufacturer, William Childs, very, very rich.
Many of the great mansions of Park Slope belonged to the inventors and manufacturers of simple, yet necessary products: chewing gum, India ink, baking powder and here, cleansing powder. According to the Bon Ami website, Childs didn’t actually invent Bon Ami. That credit goes to J.T. Robinson, who had a soap company of the same name. In 1886, he had been making scouring powder soap with crushed quartz particles as the abrasive. The quartz was mined with the surrounding feldspar, and in the manufacturing process, the feldspar was removed and discarded. One day, Robinson crushed some of the softer feldspar, and mixed it with his soap, and found the scouring powder did not scratch the surfaces it was used on. It was also cheaper than quartz. He began using it in his soap, and named it “Bon Ami,” or “good friend.”
Robinson used a grist mill owned by G.H. Childs to grind his feldspar. Child’s son, William, and his nephew formed a company called Childs and Childs, and began to manufacture and market Bon Ami in 1890, and were the sole agents of the soap. Soon, the soap with the delicate yellow chick as its advertising symbol was everywhere, and fortunes were made. The brand is still going strong after over 125 years. I have a can of Bon Ami in my cupboard now. It’s great stuff.
In 1900, Childs commissioned William Tubby to build him a suitable mansion on 9th Avenue, now Prospect Park West. The large lot he acquired was next door to the Hulbert Mansion, designed by Montrose Morris in 1892. It is very different. Tubby designed a neo-Jacobean mansion, most resplendent in red brick, with a stepped gable lined in limestone, with a wonderful play of shapes and color taking place between the dark brick and the white limestone. And you have to love the lions guarding the entrance.
It’s simply a magnificent house, made even better by the parkland across the street and the large lawn to the left of the house. In 1907, Tubby came back to add the ground floor extension on the left. It houses a beautiful sun room, with a large billiard room below. The entire house was decorated by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and has some of Tiffany Studio’s finest examples of stained glass in a private residence.
William Childs also commissioned the house on the other side of 2nd Street and Prospect Park West, a present for his daughter, Mary. The Childs family was active in philanthropic works. So much so that Richard Childs, William’s son, donated the house to the Ethical Culture Society upon his mother’s death in the mid-20th century. The Society also used to own the Hulbert Mansion next door. Today, 53 Prospect Park West is open for the Society’s lectures and other programs, and the halls are also for rent for weddings and other events. What a wonderful opportunity to see the treasures inside. GMAP
(Photo: Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark, 2012)