Past and Present: The Ludwig Nissen Mansion, St. Marks Avenue

810 St. Marks, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

As the town of Bedford expanded south of Atlantic Avenue, its wide streets began to attract buyers who desired to live in a very upscale neighborhood similar to Clinton and Washington Avenues in Clinton Hill. These were very wealthy people who were captains of industry in all of the new businesses that were contributing to Brooklyn’s growth and wealth. St. Marks Avenue, between Rogers and Kingston Avenues became the new “millionaire’s row.” Huge stand-alone mansions on large plots of land dotted the streets, with only five or six houses on each side of the block.

These houses were initially developed as suburban style living in the city. All of this first suburban development began in the 1870s. Large wood framed houses joined a few more monumental dwellings such as the Dean Sage house, on the corner of St. Marks and Brooklyn Avenue. 810 St. Marks was one of these large wood framed mansions. We don’t have any definitive photographs or drawings, but we do know that it was built for John G. Searles, one of the “Sugar Kings” of Brooklyn.

Mr. Searles was the secretary/treasurer of the American Sugar Refining Company, a powerful conglomerate that would become better known as Domino Sugar. They were the largest sugar refining company in the world. Searles had the house built in the late 1870s, early 1880s. The family lived here up until his death, right around the century’s end. Mysteriously, he went bankrupt at the end of his career, and the family lost this, as well as other properties. It was purchased by the Brevoort family, but they did not live here.

In 1904, Ludwig Nissen purchased the property. Nissen came from an old aristocratic German family from one of the many German kingdoms in the Hapsburg Empire. One branch of his family had produced Polish nobility, and other side, diplomats and statesmen. But when young Nissen immigrated to the United States in 1872, he arrived friendless, pretty much penniless and unable to speak English.

He had a number of jobs, from storekeeper to barber, but found success as a jeweler, eventually owning a very lucrative diamond business, Ludwig Nissen & Co. By the turn of the 20th century, he was one of the leading diamond merchants in the city, with a large business on John Street, in lower Manhattan. He married Katie Quick, of Manhattan, and moved to Brooklyn in 1886, eventually building a house on Dean Street, very near here. He became interested in Brooklyn politics, and served as Civil Service Commissioner of Brooklyn for several years.

Nissen was one of the incorporators and director of the Sherman Bank, in Manhattan. He also became a Vice-President of the Oriental Bank. He served as Commissioner for Brooklyn to several important Expositions and trade fairs, and was president of the Union League Club and the Hanover Club. He was also a Mason and president of the Manufacturer’s Association of New York. He was also the president of the Diamond Protection Association, a trade group. With all that under his belt, it was time to build a house that was more fitting for his station. This was it.

The Searles mansion was too old fashioned, so Nissen had it torn down. In its place, he had this huge mansion built in 1904. It was based on the design of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Twin Oaks palace in Potsdam. He had his (so far, unnamed) architect go to Germany and take photographs and notes to incorporate them into the design. Nissen even had the famous “twin oaks” planted on the property. I’ll be revisiting the property and the house at another time. Suffice it to say, it was lavish. It was also next door to the home of Nathan Straus, one of the owners of Abraham & Straus.

The Nissen family lived here until the early 1930s. Ludwig died in 1929, and Mrs. Nissen died two years later. The heirs sold the property to Abraham Shapiro, a developer. Shapiro had been buying up all of the mansions he could get his hands on, here on Millionaire’s Row. One by one, the families either died off, or moved on, as the neighborhood became less posh, and more middle class. Most of the really rich families moved to estates on Long Island, or to the new luxury apartment buildings of Park Avenue. Shapiro tore them all down, and built the large apartment buildings you see there today.

But he loved this house, and moved in himself. He didn’t live here for very long, and so sold it to the Russians. The Russian consulate established The Soviet School here, a private school for the children of Russian diplomats and businessmen. The school was here for a number of years, beginning around 1936, and then the house was locked up and abandoned.

By the end of World War II, there were only one or two of the old mansions left on Millionaire’s Row. Apartment buildings now stood in their place, up and down St. Marks. This one was the very last to go. I’ve spoken to people who remember it on the street when they were children, it was known, of course, as the “old haunted house.”

In 1976, it was finally torn down, and the Marcus Garvey Senior Residence was built on the plot once occupied by the Nissen and Straus mansions. The Straus carriage house still stands, used by the homeowners of the cottages facing Prospect Place. Ludwig Nissen may be long forgotten, but he still does have a legacy in Brooklyn. A great patron of the arts, he donated much of his large collection of paintings and other artworks and decorative objects to the Brooklyn Museum. Even more pieces were given to the museum after his death. I don’t know if any are on display now, but if you happen to notice any, remember the man who had a palace recreated on St. Marks Avenue. GMAP

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: New York Public Library

Photo: New York Public Library

Ludwig Nissen, from the book "The Successful American" 1899

Ludwig Nissen, from the book “The Successful American” 1899

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark

4 Comment

  • As I recall there was at least one other big house adjacent to this one on St Marks Avenue when I grew up nearby in the 1950s and 1960s.

    Elders need housing, no doubt, but what a an architectural horror to stack them up.

    An idea could have been to renovate and link the old houses for new purpose.

    Now that would be a place rising to the elderly’s dignity.

  • morralkan

    Yes, NOP, I distinctly remember a very large, grand house still on that block when I used to drive by there with a friend, I believe in the very early 70′s. I know I had my tonsils removed in the office of a doctor who lived and had his office on that block. That would have been back in the early 50′s. I remember going to the Brooklyn Children’s museum originally housed in a pair of mansions where the current museum now stands. This house is really beautiful.

    I don’t really know how it came up in conversation, but about 20 years ago, when I was in Husum, Germany (very north, on the North Sea), one of the local people asked me about this particular house. I said I would try to find information about it, but came up dry. (OK, I didn’t do major research, I guess.)

    • This stretch of St Marks was still one of the grandest streets in all New York City — until they put up that housing complex.

      Old and broken down mansions can still contribute to the “streetscape” — as they did in my time.

      Pity that Crown Heights landmarks designation took such a long time coming.

      With all the development now occurring, wouldn’t houses like this be ripe for restoration/recycling? And at what price points!

  • My wife’s father was the caretaker of the “Nissen Mansion” at 810 St Marks Ave. (from the early 1940′s to about 1948) then owned by Mr. Abraham Shapiro. Her family lived in the house all that time. It was a spacious house with a grand ballroom, two kitchens, bowling alley in the basement, a fireplace in every room, wood paneling throughout and much more. Mr. Shapiro never lived in the house but his daughter and her family lived next door in another mansion owned by Mr, Shapiro.