Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: The Betsy Ross Apartments
Address: 751 St. Marks Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner New York Avenue
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1935-37
Architectural Style: Colonial Revival
Architect: Cohn Brothers
Other Work by Architect: three other apartment buildings on this block and the next, as well as Haddon and Parbrook Hall apartment buildings on Park Place. Also many, many buildings in Flatbush and Queens.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Crown Heights North HD, Phase 2 (2011)
The story: On August 10, 1882 a huge fire engulfed the stable and coach house of James Hazelhurst, a wealthy dry goods merchant. His spacious estate on St. Marks Avenue consisted of an enormous rambling Italianate style wood framed mansion and in the back, near New York Avenue, a large stable and coach house. The property took up three lots, and was one of the largest on this block of mansions. In fact, between New York and Nostrand Avenue, on the north side of the street, there were only five properties on the entire block, all with spacious grounds between them. The newspaper accounts of the fire tell us that the entire stable burned to the ground before the fire could be put out. Tragically, Hazelhurst lost four horses in the fire, as well as four carriages and all of his tack and harnesses. He estimated the loss at $30,000.
The fire did not come near the house, fortunately, and the next owners, the Eiler family, lived there until the family sold the house and grounds to developers in 1935. By that time, the prestigious St. Marks District was fast disappearing under the wrecking ball, as the grand mansions along St. Marks Avenue went down, one by one, replaced by large apartment buildings that housed not one family, but hundreds. In 1920, the IRT subway had extended along Eastern Parkway with stops at Nostrand and Kingston Avenue, bringing people farther into Brooklyn on easily commutable lines.
Developers stopped building single and two family houses, and began building large six story elevator apartment buildings. These new middle-class homes were found all along Eastern Parkway, and then on both sides of it. The old mansion blocks of the St. Marks District were prime spots for development, as the owners began to give up the unmanageable large mansions and head for the suburbs or the new high rise apartments in Manhattan. By 1932, the IND subway was only blocks away on Fulton Street, and it too brought in new renters. Crown Heights was growing fast.
In 1935, the Hazelhurst/Eiler mansion fell, and the Betsy Ross apartments rose up on the enormous lot. She was a huge building taking up most of the three lots, although not the largest of these new apartment buildings. The architects of the project were the Cohn Brothers, a firm that specialized in these large six story elevator apartment buildings. Their buildings appear in every section of Brooklyn with apartment buildings of this vintage, most notably in Crown Heights North and South and all of Flatbush. They also built in Queens, specifically Jackson Heights, and in the Bronx. In this stretch of St. Marks alone, they were responsible for three other apartment buildings, as well as Haddon Hall and Parbrook Hall on nearby Park Place.
When the doors opened, the Betsy Ross could house 124 families over a wide stretch of building that had seven inset courtyard spaces for light and air. The building was constructed by the firm of Kenin and Posner who told the Brooklyn Eagle, “The building adds immeasurable beauty and charm to an already attractive neighborhood.” They went on to say that the amenities in the apartments included “dropped living rooms, dining balconies, direct access to each room from a foyer, colored tile bathrooms with colored fixtures, glass enclosed shower stalls, concealed radiators, reception room, gymnasium and recreation room.” Another article in the Eagle, only days later, reported that half the apartments were rented, and the other half were expected to be gone by the end of the week.
As the years went by, the Betsy Ross remained a classy building. It always had a doorman, a uniformed gentleman with white gloves. The rest of the neighborhood changed around it, and the racial makeup of the Betsy Ross would change with it, but it still remained THE apartment building in Crown Heights. . One of our readers, NOP, has written of his childhood in Crown Heights, and he remembers the white gloved doorman in this, the most impressive apartment building in the neighborhood to a small boy. It was home to Shirley Chisholm and her husband Conrad, in 1965-66, when she served as the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
Today, the Betsy Ross looks just the same as it did then. Very little has changed, certainly nothing important. It remains the classiest of Crown Heights’ apartment buildings and has always been immaculate, nicely landscaped and quiet. It still has 124 units, and it still has a uniformed doorman with white gloves. Classy! GMAP
(Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark)