Building of the Day: 839 St. Marks Avenue

839 St. Marks Ave, Dean Sage House, 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Dean Sage House, now Institute for Community Living
Address: 839 St. Marks Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Brooklyn Avenue
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1869-1870; institutional additions were added in the 1930s
Architectural Style: High Victorian Gothic
Architect: Russell Sturgis
Other work by architect: Theodore Roosevelt Senior house (demolished) in Manhattan; Battell Chapel and Farnum, Durfee and Lawrence Halls on Old Campus at Yale University; other buildings in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York
Landmarked: Yes, part of Crown Heights North HD (2007)

The story: This house is one of the jewels of Crown Heights North. It was built for lumber magnate Dean Sage in 1869-70, and was designed by one of America’s foremost architectural scholars, critics and writers, Russell Sturgis. He wasn’t a bad architect, either. At the time the house was built, this part of Brooklyn was still considered the suburbs, and was sparsely settled by those seeking a quiet retreat away from the big city, but still accessible by train or coach. This area fit the bill nicely. While most of the other country villas in the area were wood framed houses, Dean Sage’s very solid stone mansion was the most impressive of all.

Dean Sage was the eldest son of Henry W. Sage, an upstate man who had created a lumber empire by shipping logs along the Erie Canal from Canada, where they were processed and sold by his company in Albany. In 1857, Henry moved to Brooklyn, where he became a member of Henry Ward Beecher’s Plymouth Church. He was a very devout man, and generous with his money. He believed in education, and donated generously to Cornell and Yale Universities. He founded Sage College for Women at Cornell, and built the Sage Chapel. At Yale he endowed a lecture chair in Lyman Beecher’s name at the Divinity School.

Dean Sage carried on his father’s philanthropy, as did his younger brothers, one of whom went to Yale, as did one of his sons, much later. The Yale connection may have introduced Dean Sage to Russell Sturgis, who was lecturing there, as well as designing many of the campus’ newest buildings, which now make up the oldest quadrangle at Yale, the Old Campus. Sturgis was already one of the most important architectural scholars and critics in America. His books on architecture, art and medieval life were required reading in colleges and amongst the intellectual community of the day. In between designing Farnum and Durfee Halls at Yale, Sturgis designed this large stone mansion for Dean Sage.

Sage and Sturgis probably got along famously, as Dean Sage was also a bibliophile and author. Sage had a very important collection of books in his library, and much later than this house, was the author of one of the most valuable books of his day, “The Ristigouche and Its Salmon Fishing. With a Chapter on Angling Literature,” a book with a very limited printing of only 105 copies, printed in Scotland, and published in 1888. This volume about fishing in the Ristigouche River in Canada was expertly and lavishly illustrated by some of the best artists of the day, and bound in leather and gold gilt. Today it’s a rare collector’s item, and is the first thing to appear when you Google “Dean Sage.”

The house is rock-faced brownstone. It’s laid in a random ashlar, aka rough-cut stone, pattern. It’s not a fancy house on the outside, or an overly ornate design, but it’s quite elegant in its massing and detail. There is fine wrought iron and terra cotta trim in the front, and large grounds surrounded by a beautiful iron fence all around. The house once had a generous porch in the front, which greatly improves the design. It can be glimpsed in an old photograph of the house. One would imagine that the details on the inside would have met the standards of a lumber magnate; he probably had the finest of everything shipped in.

One of Dean Sage’s many friends was Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. He stayed here at the house in 1875, and the two men exchanged letters and a friendship for many years. The Sage’s raised five children here before moving upstate again in the late 1880s or early ‘90s. He took over his father’s lumber company in 1897. Dean Sage spent a great deal of time at his summer home, along his beloved Ristigouche River in Quebec. He died quite suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage while fishing there in 1902.

There were at least four other wealthy owners of this house in the next forty years. The first was Henry Franke, a wealthy German-American banker. He and his family lived here in the 1890s. They were quite active in social activities and Mrs. Franke was on a lot of committees and attended a lot of luncheons.

Frank M. Lupton and family lived here next, starting in 1900 or 1901.He was a very successful publisher with offices in the Lupton Building in Lower Manhattan. He and his wife and daughters were often in the papers for their charitable and social events. Unfortunately, Frank Lupton suffered from severe stomach ailments. In 1910, after coming back from a European trip, seeking medical help that was not forthcoming, he committed suicide by slashing his throat. One of the servants found him in a bathroom, the penknife still in his hand. He had waited until his family was all out of town. His widow and children stayed here for at least another six years before they moved on.

The family of Benjamin Price was next, in 1916, and by the early 1920s, the house now belonged to the family of Dean C. Osborne. Sadie Osborne, his wife, was a generous and dedicated supporter of the Children’s Museum, which was just across the street in the park. She was president of the Auxiliary Club for the Museum, and later became the first female Chairperson of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

In the 1930s, the neighborhood was changing. All of the mansions of the very wealthy people who had populated St. Marks Avenue, and given the neighborhood the name “the St. Marks District” had moved on, and the mansions were being torn down, one by one, for apartment buildings. Fortunately, that would not be the fate of the Dean Sage house, although it was never a private home again. It became a senior citizen’s residence.

A large new addition was tacked onto the back and side of the house, taking up most of the rear grounds. Over the years, the house lost its front porch, and the inside was no doubt considerably changed. The house is now part of the Institute for Community Living, and houses at least 24 developmentally disabled adults. They still have a very large side garden space to enjoy, one of the largest yards around, giving one an idea of the scale of the neighborhood when it was filled with large mansions.

When Crown Heights North was landmarked in 2007, this was one of the gems we worked so hard to protect. The Dean Sage house is one of the five oldest houses in Crown Heights North, and certainly one of the most important because of its architect, owners, and the history that surrounds it. GMAP

(Photo: S. Spellen)

Russell Sturgis, architect and scholar. Photo:archleague.org

Russell Sturgis, architect and scholar. Photo: archleague.org

Photo: early 20th century. Note the porch. New York Public Library

Early 20th century photo. Note the porch. New York Public Library

Photo: S. Spellen

Photo: S. Spellen

6 Comment

  • That’s a shame about the porch being lost. Nice work.

  • hairyone

    Good article, Montrose, but I’m confused. At the beginning you’re talking about Dean Sage, and then in later paragraphs you’re talking about Russell Sage. What is the relationship between the two, and which of them lived in the house? Or were they the same person?? This is further complicated by Mr. Sturgis, who has the same first name. Please untangle this.

    • Montrose Morris

      I did have a moment of dyslexia, and had originally written “Russell Sage” when talking about Sam Clemens and their friendship, but I fixed that last night. At any rate, Russell Sage, the financier, has nothing to do with this story. He may have been a relative of Henry and Dean Sage, but if he was, it was not mentioned in the general research on this Sage family. They all hailed from the Albany region, so it’s likely they were related, but I did not have time for a long search, as that’s rather tangental to the story, albeit interesting. Dean Sage-Russell Stugis-Russell Sage, it does get confusing. But no Russell Sage here. My mistake. Hope that clears this up.

      • hairyone

        Yes, it does make things clearer. Years ago a dear friend of mine attended RPI, and dated a “Sage Girl.” That was my first acquaintance with Russell Sage, and I was curious to know if he had lived in Brooklyn. Thanks.

        • Montrose Morris

          Russell Sage never lived in Brooklyn. For that matter, he had nothing to do with the college that bears his name. That was his wife, Olivia Slocum Sage, who gave his money to found the college after the old skinflint died. All of the foundations, schools, housing developments and charitable giving done in his name was Olivia. He’s probably still spinning in his grave at the thought of all that money going to the less fortunate. He lived on 5th Ave in Manhattan in a huge house with hardly any furniture, as he wouldn’t give his wife enough money to furnish the house. When he got sick, she began managing his money, and was so good at it, it let her continue. After his death, she was stinking rich, and spent the rest of her life giving it away. She did fund several Brooklyn charities, including the Sands Street YMCA. I love Olivia, she was a great lady.

  • absolutely beautiful, wish some of the original components weren’t lost. This is why I love Brooklyn.