Walkabout: A Reader’s Inquiry – the Toerge Family Saga, Part One

887 St. Marks Aven, BE 1890

One of the nice perks of this job is that I hear from readers off blog from time to time. Some have written to tell me that I’ve written about their house, or their family, or an event or place that connected to their own history. Sometimes I get messages telling me I got names wrong, or dates. My favorite letters are from people who tell me that I’ve given them information about an ancestor that they didn’t have before, occasionally informing them about distant relatives about whom they knew nothing. It’s great for family members to find out more information about where they came from, and to have long dead people come to life, with all of their deeds, quirks and foibles, good and bad.

Over a year ago, I got a message from a reader in Germany. He had been researching his family’s history, and one of his ancestors had come to America to be a nanny for a wealthy German-American family at the turn of the 20th century. While he was researching that family, he had come across Brownstoner articles that I had written about the house and neighborhood they had lived in. He wrote to ask me if I knew anything more about the family, or if I had found any pictures of the house they lived in, which no longer exists today. At the time, I was in the midst of making some of the biggest changes of my life in years, and was about to leave Brooklyn and New York City, and wasn’t able to give the story the attention it warranted. But his story was always in the back of my mind, and at last, I’m able to see what’s available. What I found follows: a tale with a lot of questions still unanswered, but an interesting look at one family, and the neighborhood they called home.

Nicholas Toerge came to America from Darmstadt, Germany in the mid 1800’s. There is not a whole lot written about him, unlike some German Americans who came here about the same time, and were wildly successful in their enterprises. I had a hard time even finding out his occupation, although I knew that whatever he was doing, it paid off really well. I don’t know if he came here with money or not. His name appears in the census once as a “landlord”, and then, after he retired, he has “no occupation” listed as his occupation, until his death. After doing some digging, I was able to find out that he was for many years, a wholesale liquor merchant. He was very successful, although very quiet about that aspect of his life. He didn’t sell retail, didn’t operate any kind of drinking emporium, and did not lead or even seem to belong to any merchant groups, or trade organizations. His name does not appear in the papers in any way related to that business.

Like many successful men in the German American community at that time, he belonged to, or at least attended the social functions, of one of the Saengerbunds – German singing groups, which were popular places for not only singing and socializing, but also networking. He was not active in any particular church that I could find, and also unlike many wealthy people, did not get involved in politics or lend his name to any banks or trusts. The family did not do a lot of socializing, but when their names appear in the papers, they were attending some of Brooklyn’s fanciest events. When the papers mentioned the family name, in relation to their fine home in the St. Marks District, it was taken for granted that the readers knew who they were. For the most part, the Toerge family stayed below the popular radar, wealthy enough to live in the fanciest part of town, summer at popular resorts, and have their children’s weddings carried in all of the Brooklyn papers. But with the exception of one event, they led remarkably quiet lives.

In 1873, the Toerge family lived at 180 Amity Street in Cobble Hill. In 1888, they moved to the Bedford area, and lived at 1131 Bergen Street, in what is now Crown Heights North. Nicholas Teorge is listed as either a merchant or in liquors during this period. In 1890, in one of the family’s rare newspaper appearances, the Brooklyn Eagle announced that Nicholas Toerge was having a new mansion built on a large lot on one of the most exclusive and richest blocks in Brooklyn, St. Marks Avenue in the posh, newly minted St. Marks District.

It’s hard to imagine what St. Marks Avenue looked like in 1890. Today, the blocks between Nostrand and Brooklyn Avenues are lined with large apartment buildings, with the exception of two houses that date from this period which have remarkably survived. The best way to describe the area is to note that wherever you have an apartment building, no matter how large, that area was most likely taken up by one large mansion. The street had developed as a suburban retreat, with large wood framed villas on large lots lining the blocks, no more than five or six houses on each side of the block. By the 1890s, most of those villas had been replaced by equally large brick and stone mansions, each vying to outdo the next in size and fabulousness.

Some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest people lived here, giving rise to a new neighborhood designation, the St. Marks District. The blocks surrounding St. Marks also developed with large mansions, and as the neighborhood was further developed, the mansions were flanked by rows of upscale speculative townhouses, all designed by some of Brooklyn’s finest architects. St. Marks Avenue between Brooklyn and Kingston Avenue developed a bit differently. The Dean Sage house, one of the oldest of the villas, dating from the 1870s, anchored the corner of Brooklyn Avenue. It was (and is) a magnificent stone house with large grounds. The land that would become Bedford Park, now Brower Park, was just across the street, and it too, had a couple of fine old mansions on it.

The rest of the block was taken over by extremely good, and very large, row houses. The greatest architects of the day worked on these, including Montrose Morris, George P. Chappell, Magnus Dahlander, and a very young Frank Helmle. There was still some room on the northeast end of the block, and it was there that Nicholas Toerge purchased a large lot, and hired architect Peter J. Lauritzen to design his dream home. Lautizten, a Danish-born architect, was doing some fine work in Brooklyn at the time, and had just finished the new Union League Club blocks away in Grant Square, on the corner of Bedford and Dean Streets, as well as the Hanover Club in Williamsburg. He was also building fine homes for some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest in the neighborhood, further up on St. Marks Avenue, and in Bedford and Williamsburg.

The new house would be the largest freestanding house on this block. It sat on a lot 70 feet wide and 150 feet deep. Lauritzen placed the house 30 feet back from the sidewalk in order to give it a large front lawn. It was made of stone and brick, and had large, open front and side porches, shaded by large roofs. The house was 38 feet by 65 feet, and was three stories and a basement. It had a large side tower with a steep pointed turret; covered, like the roof of the house, with what the paper called “a new color” in Mediterranean tile.

After crossing the porch, one entered into a large entry hall with a fireplace and a center staircase, which was wrapped in the finest quarter sawn oak. From there one entered a reception room, leading to the parlor, which was done up in Santo Domingo mahogany. Behind the parlor was a library, with hazelwood woodwork. To one side of the library was a conservatory, with plate glassed windows and a glass roof. Behind that was an enclosed porch which was used as a summer breakfast and dining area. The dining room was reached by a set of double pocket doors on the side of the library. It was finished in fine white ash with tall wainscoting and built-ins for dishes and dining ware. A butler’s pantry was next to that, with the kitchen at the rear of the house.

A private stairway led the Toerge’s upstairs to the bedrooms on the second floor. There were three bedrooms, a playroom, and two bathrooms, one being en suite to the master bedroom. The bathrooms all had tile floors and the latest in plumbing and sanitary accoutrements. Upstairs on the top floor were two guest rooms, three servant’s rooms, and closets and other storage. The basement level had a large billiard room, the men’s smoking room, which were underneath the parlor and library, and under the kitchen was the laundry, the mechanicals for the house, more storage, and the servant’s bathroom.

It was quite some house, cost a pretty penny, and was, from the illustration in the paper, and the description, the finest house on the block. I know, I’ve been in about half of them, and this one would have beaten them all in luxury and space, not that some of the rest aren’t absolutely spectacular themselves. But I digress. The Toerge mansion would be their home for the next forty years, pretty remarkable considering that most of the very wealthy St. Marks Avenue homeowners changed homes and neighborhoods more often than most of us can imagine. Nicholas Toerge liked Lauritzen’s work so much, he commissioned another home from him, in the lot next door.

Next time: The Toerge’s were quiet people. Until a civil court action put them in the news. Litigation always gets nasty, especially when a son sues his father. The story continues next time. Above illustration from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1890.

Many thanks to Herr Hans Huber, in Germany, for telling me about his family connection to the Toerge family. I hope I will be filling in at least a couple of details for you. There is more to come.