Building of the Day: 751 St. Marks Avenue

751 St. Marks Ave, NS, PS, 2010

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)

The Hazelhurst-Eiler mansion. 1935. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

The Hazelhurst-Eiler mansion. 1935. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Map: Property Shark

Map: Property Shark

1937 ad in the Brooklyn Eagle.

1937 ad in the Brooklyn Eagle.

Another ad in the Eagle, 1937.

Another ad in the Eagle, 1937.

The Betsy Ross in 1966. Brooklyn Public Library.

The Betsy Ross in 1966. Brooklyn Public Library.

6 Comment

  • Is it possible NYC benefited from the depression vastly reducing land and labor prices, which enabled an enormous building boom in high-quality affordable multifamily housing? Put another way, if the roaring 20’s had a milder recession (or one that didn’t deflate NYC housing costs much like the last one) would there have been such options for those fleeing Manhattan tenements for a better life?

    • Interesting question. Certainly the depression caused the building of skyscrapers to grind to an almost complete halt. Wasn’t the Empire State building was one of the last to go up in Manhattan? Similarly, I believe most of the big prewar apartment buildings date to the 1920s. But MM is the expert so I defer to her wisdom.

    • Excellent question for debate. I fully admit to not being an expert on the subject, but I have done a small bit of research, and it seems that the “outer boroughs”, as well as far Northern Manhattan were the recipients of a perfect storm for development: the subways, the open land, or in this case- white elephant mansion sites, plus cheap labor, and a huge outpouring of the children and grandchildren of immigrants eager to get out of the crowded parts of the city, like the LES. I really thing we underestimate the importance of public transportation in thinking about these things. If the subways had not been close, it would have taken much longer for these areas to have been flooded with apt bdgs.

  • I believe there were two major forces at work. The first was transportation. Subways made it possible for common people to get to and from formerly far-flung neighborhoods. Private automobiles and the new interstate highway system made it possible for the affluent and very rich to get away from the common people.
    The second of course, since this is America, was race. White people were compelled to move away from colored people. It was like a social imperative that we probably cannot quite fathom. There were no apartheid laws in New York, we segregated ourselves voluntarily.
    White folks this way, Black folks that way, Jewish folks this way.

    Only recently have those barriers started to crumble.

  • People did a lot of fleeing in the 1890s and teens too. The Depression had a huge impact on development in Jackson Heights. For a couple of years, nothing at all was built. Then for about a decade, the apartment units were dramatically smaller with fewer luxury features. The 1920s units were huge, with fireplaces, butler’s pantries, and banks of windows. They built the Towers — the fanciest building — just before the crash and then couldn’t sell the units. If I remember correctly, it had to go rental, and some of the units got chopped up. It converted back to co-ops in the ’80s. (Which is why the maintenance there is relatively high compared to the older co-ops — they haven’t yet paid off the underlying mortgage.)

  • Thanks for the nod, Montrose.

    I can’t help but wonder: If the Betsy Ross could stay in such good shape, why couldn’t the rest of Crown Heights’ grand old apartment houses?

    Your piece did answer a long-term question of mine, even if not completely. A buddy of mine and I visiting our friend K always wondered about the meaning of the initial “W” inlaid in the Betsy’s lobby’s terrazzo floor. He was convinced it meant “Wellbilt” or “Well-Built” for the company that erected the joint. No doubt he was simply responding to the fact that the Betsy was obviously well built. But in your history, the builders are Kenin and Posner. So you’ve answered the decades’-old question of who erected the place. Yet what’s behind the enigmatic “W”? (My own Manhattan building, a bit older than the Betsy, is full of little initials and symbols in the tile work, including swastikas that somehow managed to survive World War II! Ironically, the building’s architect, Emery Roth, was Jewish, although my brother assures me that during the 1920s the swastika was a benign Indian symbol. Still, on only one floor was the tile gouged out, perhaps at the request of a Jewish resident, of whom there were few back in the day.)

    Fifty years later I can still remember the creak of the Betsy’s elevator and the cab’s burnished wood panelling. But a single memory of the place recurs frequently to this day. On one of my visits, guests to a party exited on the floor below K and walked to an open door across the hall. There visible through the doorway was a beautiful young women in black cocktail dress with a dramatic open back. She was seated on the steps from the “dining balcony” to the living room and leaned against the baluster, a martini glass extending from one hand, the other hand twirling a strand of pearls. She was blonde and flashing a high-wattage smile at a Mad-Man type at the foot of the steps.

    Funny what one remembers and what one forgets. She must be 80 now. But in my eye she’ll be forever young.