Building of the Day: 700-718 Putnam Avenue

700-718 Putnam St. CB,  PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 700-718 Putnam Avenue
Cross Streets: Lewis and Stuyvesant Avenues
Neighborhood: Stuyvesant North, part of Stuyvesant Heights
Year Built: 1891
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: John E. Dwyer
Other work by architect: Row houses, flats buildings, frame houses and other residential buildings throughout Brooklyn.
Landmarked: No, but part of a proposed Stuyvesant North Historic District

The story: Most of the row houses I highlight in this column were speculative housing. As much as we may think our houses are special, chances are the choices made inside and out are the same for the entire group surrounding it, and may have even been repeated in the same developer or architect’s work in other blocks, other neighborhoods. All of the detail we love, the woodwork, mantels, original lighting and fixtures, parquet floor patterns, bathroom fixtures, tiles and everything else came from catalogues and style sheets. That includes the elements on the outside of the house as well.

All of the architects and builders used the same resources. They were companies with factories in the New York City area, or were represented by local sales reps who made the rounds to all of the firms. Architects doing special projects could, of course, order custom elements, but for the work-a-day speculative row house, it was front parlor mantel # 3258, “the Baxter”, cost: $21.59 each. The architect had 12 houses here, another 4 there, and a different group of 8 over there, so we’ll need 24 units. Done.

The same was true for the ornamental elements on the outside of the house, as well. Stained glass windows, doors, decorative windows, railings, fencing, window bars and doors, exterior lighting – all were ordered from catalogues. Architectural elements, like cornices and ornamental sculpted elements like friezes, panels, doorframes, and running lines of terra cotta or carved stone were also mass produced.

The companies that produced the carved stone elements and the terra-cotta ornament have more or less disappeared forever. There are only a couple of functioning terra-cotta companies in the United States, and a few artisan stone carvers. All of the people who carved the wonderful elements on our buildings, or sculpted the clay models that became the terra-cotta ornament are anonymous and unknown. It’s really a shame we’ll probably never know their names, but their work survives.

That brings us to today’s houses. This group of Queen Anne row houses was designed in 1891 by John E. Dwyer. He was one of a group of working architects who consistently produced good work for the speculative developers who hired them. Men like Dwyer, Robert Dixon, I.D. Reynolds and Walter Clayton are not household names to Brooklyn architectural aficionados, but they show up in all of the brownstone neighborhoods, always with excellent work as evidenced in fine housing.

Dwyer designed this group for developer Eli Bishop. In fact, most of this entire block was developed by Bishop, using Dwyer and one other architect. I think Dwyer had a great time with it. All of his houses, on both sides of the block, have a wonderful sense of whimsy to them, and it all takes place at the front entrance. The Dwyer houses all have parlor floor front entrances with these delightful carved heads on both sides of the doors. They are at the base of twin half columns, and greet visitors at the doors with faces of medieval knights and ladies, Classical busts from Greek and Roman mythology, fanciful lions, and men and women from exotic lands, such as ancient Assyria or Turkey.

They could have been generic, but they have great personality, especially the knights, ladies, kings and queens. They have round, chubby faces, with great moustaches, curling hair, and a pronounced underbite. They have personality and charm, and they have survived in great shape. They are also catalogue items, and have been picked up by other architects and in other projects. I’ve seen these heads in Park Slope, and in Bedford Stuyvesant. There is a group on Decatur Street in Stuyvesant Heights, and another on Macon Street, near Nostrand Avenue. None of those houses were designed by Dwyer.

But it doesn’t matter. Dwyer put his spin on the houses, as did Amzi Hill, the architect of the Macon St. houses. The rest of the facades are different enough to tell you that two different stylistic hands were at work here. The same goes for the other places where these fantastic heads are. One catalogue, several architects, many different houses. That’s why our neighborhoods, while seemingly similar, are so very unique and different.

Morgan Munsey (Amzi Hill on Brownstoner) and I are leading a walking tour of Stuyvesant Heights tomorrow at 2pm. The tour, sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society, is sold out, but if you are in the neighborhood, look for us. We give tours of Central Brooklyn quite often, so check the MAS website, and sign up early for one of our other tours. We sell out most of the time. We hope to see you either tomorrow or sometime when it’s a bit warmer. We’re always proud to show you why we love Central Brooklyn. GMAP

(Photo:Christopher Bride for Property Shark)

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7 Comment

  • Arkady

    Fascinating piece! Someone once described the catalogue approach to selection of details as being like Chinese restaurant menus – one from column a, one from column b, etc. Do the catalogues still exist?

  • Montrose Morris

    Arkady, the Avery Library at Columbia has some, although I’ve never seen them. Andrew Dolkart, who runs the graduate preservation program was telling me about them. Once in a blue moon one turns up on Ebay, and they always go for BIG bucks.

  • “That includes the elements on the outside of the house as well.” This statement I find curious because
    seems that what often is distinguishing element or style of the architects you feature and have written about seem to be the elements on the outside of house. So those design of those exterior elements really aren’t their designs?

    • Montrose Morris

      They are the architect’s design, Pete, but I generally don’t talk about what’s inside unless I’ve been inside, or have photos. The armchair critics would have a field day if I said, ” # 700 -718 all have front parlor fireplaces.” And then it turns out that two of them have pier mirrors, instead, because their original owners wanted that, or the architect decided to switch up a few of the houses. I’ll stick to what I can actually verify.

  • and BTW – if you people ever do dare to leave your computers and venture outside – these tours are quite interesting and allow you to view homes in brooklyn with different perspective.

  • Another truly informative post. I’m joining the MAS so I can join one of your tours before it sells out. I so enjoy your research and writing.