Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Wood framed row house
Address: 578 Sterling Place
Cross Streets: Franklin and Classon Avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North/Crow Hill
Year Built: Between 1880 and 1888
Architectural Style: Italianate
The story: I wonder what happened to this house. It seems to have fallen, and can’t get up. I chose it today because of the contrast between it, and the modern generic condo box next door. The picture was taken about three years ago, and much has changed in that part of Crown Heights. In researching this house, I saw that it was just sold this year to an LLC, so this may be the last time we see it, before the house disappears totally from the face of the earth, to be replaced by something quite similar to its neighbor. It turns out that 578 made the papers a couple of times, going to show that news can happen anywhere, even in a humble wood-framed row house in Crow Hill.
578 was built as half of a pair with its neighbor, 580, where the condo is today. Looking at period maps, there is nothing on this entire block, in 1880, the land having most recently been part of the vast Lefferts estate. By 1888, this pair of houses appears, along with a few others on this side of the block, including a pair of masonry row houses. Across the street, St. Theresa of Avila Church is there, but it sits absolutely alone on that side of the block. I have to wonder if the 578 was built half a story below 580, or if it sank later, at any rate, the houses were identical. At the time, Sterling Place was known as Butler Street.
That would change by the 1890s, and Sterling Place was the name in use when the address first was mentioned in the papers. The year was 1903, and this house was owned by William J. Plunkett, a motor man for the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. Sadly, Mr. Plunkett was piloting his train across the Brooklyn Bridge when he accidentally struck and killed David Janes, a line inspector. Janes was on the tracks at night, with no lantern, and Plunkett saw him when he was only yards away, and couldn’t stop in time. He shouted for Janes to jump, but it was too late, he was crushed beneath the wheels. Plunkett and Janes had been old friends, and had worked together for over twelve years. After he had managed to stop the train, with his friend under the wheels, William Plunkett had broken down and had to be carried from the scene. He was then arrested and booked for homicide, but made bail. The case was ruled a tragic accident.
The Plunketts remained in the news. Two years later, in 1905, the Eagle noted that seventeen year old Mary Plunkett had been sent by the courts to the House of the Good Shepherd. Her father, William Plunkett, had accused her of being “wayward,” and uncontrollable. Her sentence was for six months.
But in spite of his troubles, things were looking up for William J. Plunkett. Sometime before 1909, he joined the Hickory Club, a Democratic club in Brooklyn, and through his new connections, became a bridge keeper, with a salary of $1,100 a year. That no doubt gave him the money to move, because by 1910, the house belonged to another family, the Clarkes.
There seemed to have been a lot of sadness in this house, perhaps that’s why it sank. Frank and Annie Clarke had a daughter named Margaret Regina. Although she was only five years old, her picture had been in the Eagle a couple of times, holding a puppy, or marching in a parade of schoolchildren. Little Margaret had a bad heart, and died of heart failure at the age of five, here at home. She was known in this mostly Irish neighborhood as the “Little English Princess.” Her funeral in July of 1910 was packed with neighbors and friends.
By 1914, the house was home to the Finnan family. Charles and Catherine Finnan had three sons, Francis, Charles and George. Young George, who was six at the time, made the news that year when he and his friends from around St. Theresa’s Church, found a bag with jewelry and money inside. They began playing “treasure” with it, until they found out it belonged to a wealthy, but eccentric member of the parish, who had somehow lost the bag out on the street. The children returned the items, and were handsomely rewarded by Miss Wrinkle, the owner. George turned in $10, and was given five back as a reward. The Finnans lived in the house until at least 1922. Francis was wounded in World War I. Charles Finnan was a carpenter and builder, and he advertised often in the Eagle throughout that year.
The last family that lived at 578, that appears in the news was the family of William Fahey. His brother died in 1935, and his funeral took place at the house. Five years later, in 1940, another child from this house died too early. Seven year old John Fahey drowned in Prospect Park Lake somehow. His funeral mass at St. Theresa’s brought out four hundred people in the church, with another 150 people out on the street, unable to get in. John had been a student at St. Theresa’s School, and was a member of the children’s choir, which sang at the Mass. He was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Queens.
I have little doubt this house will be rubble soon, then new construction. The land is too valuable, and the house is too unremarkable and a bit strange. When it goes, there will be little left to remind people of the families that once called the house home. It’s kind of inevitable, but sad, nonetheless. This was one of the oldest houses on the block, and the only one remaining.GMAP