A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
The western side of Stuyvesant Avenue between Chauncey and Bainbridge Streets in Stuyvesant Heights contains some of the finest Beaux Arts style private houses in Brooklyn. This gracious row was built for the upscale professionals and other well-to-do people who made Stuyvesant Heights one of Brooklyn’s choicer neighborhoods at the beginning of the 20th century. Later, as the neighborhood became home to the more affluent of the African Americans who came next, this row was still home to upscale professionals and well-to-do people, only the complexions changed.
They kept the neighborhood beautiful, and the blocks stable at a time when the outside world considered all of Bedford Stuyvesant to be one huge slum, or as the press put it, “the biggest ghetto in America.” When I first moved to Bedford Stuyvesant, in the 1980s, my mother and I asked a real estate agent about buying on this block, and he said, “No one sells here, they only leave feet first.” Things have loosened up since then, especially with the big bucks being thrown around now, but the fact remains that this has always been a special block. It also replaced a special block, and that’s our story today. It’s a story about iron and steel, real estate and money.
Thomas Prosser is a familiar name in the history of Stuyvesant Heights, because he owned a great deal of it in the mid-1800s, before development built up the streets with beautiful row houses. Prosser was born in England, in 1829. His family came to America when he was a child, and eventually settled in New Jersey, where his father started a steel manufacturing company in Paterson, in 1851. Over in Germany, Alfred Krupp was growing his father’s steel works in to a large successful company, with much of its revenue stream coming from the sale of iron rail for trains, as well as a growing armaments business.
America did not yet have the capacity to mass produce iron rail, so imported iron was necessary to build the miles of railroad track that were beginning to connect the western part of America to the East. In a fateful meeting at the London Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, Thomas Prosser and Alfred Krupp met, and struck up a friendship and business partnership, so that in 1852, the Prosser Ironworks became the American agents for Krupp, and a very profitable relationship for both companies began that would continue until right before World War I.
Thomas Prosser did quite well with Krupp iron, and was soon a very wealthy man. After all, he was supplying one of the most necessary elements in the growth of America. While the surge west was hugely important, the rail lines connecting the Eastern Seaboard to the Great Lakes, the Midwest, and the plantations and cities of the South were also expanding, as rail men like Cornelius Vanderbilt and others were expanding train lines anywhere they could. Krupp, and by extension, Prosser, couldn’t import the iron fast enough. The Civil War, and the rebuilding and expansion westward afterwards would only bring in more money. Krupp iron and steel went into every railroad in the United States, until American iron production came up to speed in the late 1880s.
In 1857, Thomas Prosser bought up a large parcel of eastern Bedford land from the Lefferts family, and as the years progressed they bought up more and more land. They now owned a great deal of what we now call Stuyvesant Heights and Stuyvesant Heights East. Prosser had a huge mansion built with grounds that took up the entire block from Stuyvesant Avenue to Lewis Avenue, Chauncey to Bainbridge Streets. The house was surrounded by a large fence and faced Stuyvesant Avenue. Thomas Prosser and his wife had ten children, and he had homes built for several of them on Stuyvesant Avenue. Today, only one of them still stands, the brick house designed by George P. Chappell for Thomas Prosser, Junior, which stands on the corner of Bainbridge and Stuyvesant.
By the end of the century, the extended Prosser homestead WAS Stuyvesant Heights. But development was coming; it was already here, literally just around the corner, so by the time Thomas Prosser died, in 1896, his family had already begun to sell off parcels on Decatur Street for the building of Embury Methodist Church, and fine row houses built by developer Eli Bishop. They continued to sell off the land to developers a bit at a time, as the family started to think about leaving the area all together. What had once been a sleepy suburban enclave with scattered mansions and villas was now part of a busy neighborhood, with the sounds of saws and hammers replacing the peace and quiet of the country.
The Prosser mansions in the postcard lasted until just before 1910. By this time, most of the family had moved on to the wealthy suburbs of Long Island and Westchester, or the luxurious new apartment buildings of Manhattan. The Stuyvesant Avenue and Chauncey Street facing part of the estate was sold to developer Charles Tritschler, who razed the houses and hired architect William Debus to design elegant limestone single family townhouses in their place. Debus delivered, with unique and elegant houses not seen anywhere else in Stuyvesant Heights, or the rest of Bedford.
These are relatively late houses in the timeline of Brooklyn roughhouse development. They would be among the last houses built in the neighborhood; only the group of houses around the corner on Bainbridge, built by the Prosser Development Company itself, in 1919, would be later. Those houses had garages built into the back, accessed by a private alley. The Debus houses didn’t have garages, but they did have class.
The Beaux-Arts style unabashedly says “money.” The elegantly carved Classical and Baroque details, the short stoops with wide terraces and enclosed by stone balustrades and interiors with fine woodwork, stained glass and the latest modern features, were an immediate hit with buyers. The houses had two story dining room extensions with stained glass panels in the ceilings, and modern plumbing, electricity and other conveniences. For added amenities, the city had just finished a new park just around the corner, Fulton Park, which replaced stables and coal works with grass, trees and fountains. It was a good life, and remains so, even to this day. The Prossers left, and are all but forgotten, but the beauty of Stuyvesant Heights remains. GMAP