Building of the Day: 903 Park Place

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row house
Address: 903 Park Place
Cross Streets: Corner of New York Avenue
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1898
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival body, Colonial Revival details.
Architect: George P. Chappell
Other Work by Architect: A great many houses in Crown Heights North, also Bedford, Stuyvesant Heights, Park Slope and Clinton Hill. Free standing homes, row houses, churches, storefronts and flats buildings.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Phase 2 of Crown Heights North HD (2011)

The story: New York Avenue is one of the great residential boulevards in Crown Heights North. There is a little bit of everything here, and all of it is quite good. There are free standing mansions, large and elegant row houses, stately flats, some of the finest churches in Brooklyn and grand apartment buildings from the 20th century. I never get tired of walking along this avenue, and can only imagine that those who lived here in the early 20th century, as well as later, all felt the same way.

Architect George Chappell must have felt that way too, but for a different reason. Since he lived in the neighborhood he would have been able to walk from Atlantic to Eastern Parkway and tick off all of the buildings he had designed on New York Avenue itself, in addition to all of his buildings on the side blocks visible from the avenue. It would be quite a tally. He is, of course, one of my favorite local architects, and one reason for that is his inventiveness and variety. Here’s a great example:

On first glance from New York Avenue, 903 Park Place appears to be just another light-colored, brick row house ending this block of interesting houses. But once you get to the Park Place side, the full impact of this really large house is seen. The Landmarks Preservation Commission called it one of the first Colonial Revival houses in the neighborhood, begun in 1898. The commission cites the Palladian window on the attic floor, the high pilasters (half columns at front and back) and the paneled and splayed lintels, not to mention the impressive columned entryway and the leaded glass windows on the second floor. Chappell’s use of buff-colored brick, not generally a Colonial Revival choice, shows his awareness of the surrounding buildings and provides a connection to the house’s general appearance as a melding of Renaissance Revival and Colonial Revival elements.

Since this block is in the heart of the prestigious St. Marks District, it’s not surprising that it belonged to someone of means and influence. The house was built for Franklin Quinby and his family. Quinby was a wealthy commodities broker with a seat on the Produce Exchange. Grain was his business; he and his business partner, Edward Rice, (fortuitous name, considering) did business as Rice, Quinby & Co. Quinby was an active member of the Exchange, and the spokesman for that group, especially in the negotiations that went into expanding the Erie Canal system in 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt was governor. Like many men of his station, he was also interested in politics and ran unsuccessfully for congress in 1906. Later in his career, he was also the director of the Seaboard National Bank in Manhattan, and sat on the New York Chamber of Commerce.

Upkeep on a house this size means a lot of servants, and there are many ads in the Eagle and other local papers advertising for help. Maids, waitresses, laundry and cleaning ladies were all sought, all Scandinavian. The Quinbys were listed in the Brooklyn Social Register and lived in the house with their daughter, Edith. She married in 1913. Mr. Quinby died in 1915 from a heart attack. His funeral was here at the house, and he’s buried in Green-Wood, Cemetery in a rather impressive mausoleum. Mrs. Quinby stayed in the house with her daughter, grandchildren and son-in-law.

By the 1930s, the house belonged to Dr. E. Leo Berger, a prominent ear, nose and throat doctor. Ads in local papers show he was looking for nurses for his practice, which was at this address. Since the house has a very large one story extension with a separate entrance, that would be a perfect place for a medical office. In 1931, Dr. Berger made the papers because he successfully sued his stockbrokers for losing his money during the Crash of 1929.

He stated during the trial that he had accounts at two firms, L.F. Rothschild & Co, and Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. He said that he had a long-standing agreement that his stock at Rothschild should be used in case his accounts at Ladenburg needed to be covered for any reason. He was on a cruise when the market crashed, and Ladenburg, Thalmann did not do the transfer, dumped his stock and caused him to lose over $50K. The brokerage said there was no such agreement. The judge disagreed, and awarded Dr. Berger $24K in damages, splitting the difference.

In 1952 Dr. Berger sold his house to the third owners, one of the first African-American families on the block, and the house is still in that family. The owner is their daughter, a feisty and eccentric lady, one that I had long wanted to meet. I have to admit a fascination with this house, and it’s long been on my fantasy list to own, or to at least get a look inside. I never did get inside, but I did get to meet Ms. Johnson. She told me that the house once had a large leaded glass canopy over the doorway, but they had to remove it. I have a hard time picturing that, and can’t imagine Chappell was responsible for that one. She also had many other fascinating stories about the neighborhood and its people. I still would love to get inside, perhaps one day Ms. Johnson will let me in. GMAP

From LPC designation report. 2011

Quimby mausoleum in Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo: findagrave.com

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