Building of the Day: 1 South Portland Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Private house
Address: 1 South Portland Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner DeKalb Avenue
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: 1878
Architectural Style: Italianate palazzo
Architect: Edward Kendall
Other Work by Architect: mostly works in Manhattan, including buildings in the Soho Cast Iron District and the Robert and Ogden Goelet mansions on 5th Avenue.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Fort Greene HD (1978)

The story: This impressive brownstone house is the only free-standing mansion in the entire Fort Greene Historic District. Like many of its neighbors, it is a refined and elegant building, in keeping with the spirit of much of Fort Greene’s housing stock. By the 1840s and 50s, development in the city of Brooklyn was spreading eastward, away from the Heights, and Fort Greene was developed as an upper middle class enclave, laid out on wide streets named after elegant streets and neighborhoods in London. South Portland is named after Portland Place, an upscale street that connected Regent Street and Regent Park Terraces, one of London’s finest areas.

South Portland is often considered the most beautiful street in Fort Greene, and this house is one of the contributing factors. The architect, Edward Kendall, designed a mansion worthy of the best Brooklyn Heights streets, or the tonier parts of Manhattan. He actually chose a design that was a bit passé by 1878, but fit into the existing streetscape of South Portland and DeKalb like a glove. This palazzo is restrained and elegant in design, with subtle details, such as gorgeous steps, a glass transom, elegant French windows, stained glass windows and beautiful ironwork. On top of that, its side windows and expansive bay faces Fort Greene Park, and the other side sports a beautiful conservatory oriel and a generous side yard.

Edward Kendall was one of the more prominent members of the Manhattan architectural world in mid-19th century New York. He was Boston born and educated, and came to NY in 1868. Among his better known works were mansions on Fifth Avenue for brothers Robert and Ogden Goelet, and several cast iron fronted buildings in Soho. He was also the president of the NY City chapter of the AIA, and between 1891 and ’92, was president of the national organization.

The first resident of 1 South Portland was Colonel Nathan Turner Sprague. He bought the house in 1879, but didn’t live in it until 1883. He was a very successful farmer and sheep breeder in Vermont, and a member of the Vermont state legislature. He came to Brooklyn in 1883 to establish his bank, the Sprague National Bank, which stood on the corner of Atlantic and Fourth Avenues. He would later be a founder of the City Savings Bank of Brooklyn, which was on Fourth and Flatbush, just up the street from his other bank. He sat on the boards of several other banks, including another one he owned back in Vermont, and he had financial interest in a water company and other utilities in New England. Sheep farming can certainly pay off.

Once settled into his fine home, Mr. Sprague lost no time becoming a citizen about town. He joined the Montauk Club, and sat on the boards for several charities, including the Brooklyn Dispensary, and was a member of the nearby Hanson Place Baptist Church. He also was a trustee of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, and supported libraries in Brooklyn and Vermont. He was married three times, outliving two of his wives. He died at his home in May of 1903, of dropsy. He’s buried in Vermont.

Today the house is a two family, certainly large enough for anyone’s needs, at over 7,500 square feet. It remains one of Fort Greene’s finest homes, on one of the neighborhood’s most beautiful blocks. GMAP

(Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark)

De Lalb Ave side view, facing the park. Photo: Scott Bintner for Property Shark.

Photo: Googlemaps

12 Comment

  • I’ve always loved that conservatory.

  • Lovely house but I have always found it a bit awkward. It doesn’t read as well as it should given its many good features.
    I guess what I would identify as its weakness is that it faces the wrong way. The main facade should face the park, and the side facade, the street. The garages would look less awful if they were a continuation of the side rather than smack up against the front stoop. It’s just wrong urbanistically. The main facade should face the square. I wonder what the architect was thinking? It may have been the clients who insisted on the odd orientation of the house for whatever reason. Brooklyn! Go figure.

  • I have always loved this house. It sold me on Ft Greene 15 years ago!

  • I’m with Minard. That should infuriate her.

  • Hey Minard. If you want to start calling names, I know more words than you do.

  • I think they probably thought the streetscape of S. Portland was more important than that of DeKalb Ave. It really would have been rather awkward to have the side of the building facing into S.P. I see what you are saying regarding the park view, but Kendall kind of mitigates that by putting the bay there, which mimics the front of many a rowhouse block.

    In any case, that oriel on the side, with the garden below is is really beautiful,and while the garage is awkward, it blocks the view of the yard from the street, giving blessed privacy. That’s worth its weight in gold, right there.

    • my theory is that only Brooklyn Puritan Protestants would buy an expensive corner lot facing a major park and then tell their architect to place the house facing away from the park. He tried to do the best he could with that bay but sorry, it’s still peculiar.
      But it’s Brooklyn, not London, so it’s OK.
      What is not OK are those garages. They could be redesigned to look much less egregious. Those garages and the words “best street” do not go together.

  • Hey guys, a few observations. Only one of the garages belongs to the 1 S. Portland building – the garage with the brownstone and ironwork continued from the house. (The brick/rollup gate garage belongs to 7 S. Portland). The garage DID NOT EXIST at the time of Kendall’s design and construction, and was added a couple decades later, probably 20s or 30s. Before that, the lot was a garden. Thirdly, the entrance of a stately house is not going to be oriented to open onto a commercial thoroughfare (as Dekalb is and has always been) but on the residential avenue side (see mansions on Clinton, Washington etc). Fourthly, the main living rooms are all oriented towards the park to maximize the park views from the actual living spaces, not the hallway/stairwell, where a park view would be wasted. Finally, Kendall’s design is, for his time, a muscular and minimal, no-nonsense elegance that emphasizes high quality construction and design, over flashiness and frills. (One of the stained glass windows, with the arched shape, is actually an original John La Farge, instead of what could have easily been an ostentatious but inferior Tiffany mass-production). It’s a design to be celebrated for its restraint, intelligence, practicality and classical beauty, with a twist of the modern in the form of simplicity and an almost industrial, mill/factory-like circularity and clean lines. You can see Kendall’s future as a Flatiron and Soho commercial- building designer in what could be considered, at least to me, an early example of industrial-chic. (Even the glass solarium on the side was not KEndall’s design, but a later addition – he didn’t seem into creating any excessive frills). Hats off to a brave young architect with a distinct vision, and the wealthy banker who gave him a chance. Wish there was more of this kind of spirit in today’s design world.