A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
As anyone who has ever read my columns over the years, or taken one of my Central Brooklyn walking tours knows, the Lefferts family has played a large part in the history of Brooklyn. They were the descendants of Leffert Pietersen Van Haughwout, who came to Flatbush in 1660. The Brooklyn Lefferts family grew to be quite large and had several branches. One branch stayed in the Flatbush area, another settled in the town of Bedford Corners, and made it theirs.
By the 1740s, the head of the family was Jacobus Lefferts. Through inheritance, purchase and marriage, he and the family now owned most of what is today Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights North. They farmed this large acreage with the help of slave labor. Their homes were in Bedford Corners, near the intersection of today’s Arlington Place and Fulton Street. Jacobus died in 1757. He had two sons, Berent and Lefferts Lefferts, also known as “Squire Lefferts.” Berent, the elder son, was a soldier
and would be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His son Rem is credited with building the house in the photograph.
Squire Lefferts would become town clerk of Bedford, as well as the largest landowner around. In 1768, he built himself a fine large mansion on the corner of what is now Arlington Place and Fulton Street. The house sat on an angle, enabling him to see the crossroads of Bedford, as well as Rem’s house across the street. The house was commandeered by the British during the Revolutionary War, and was later passed down to Squire’s son, also named Lefferts Lefferts, but called “Judge Lefferts.” He was the last real owner of the vast estate. After his death in the 1850s, his heirs began the great sell-off of the land for development.
Today, none of what I’m going to talk about is in existence. The last of the Lefferts’ homes was torn down for “progress” over a hundred years ago. It still amazes me that city planners or even museums didn’t think that any of Bedford’s early heritage was worth saving. But fortunately, we do have some photographs, quite a few, considering, so we have a very good idea of what the old Lefferts homesteads were like.
Squire Lefferts’ fine manor was torn down in 1893. Before they demolished it, the papers made much of the history of the area and the house itself, describing each of the major rooms, and waxing nostalgic about Revolutionary War-era Brooklyn. They wrote about what a shame it was that the old manor was coming down, but that was progress, what can you do? The New York Times also mentioned that “the Lefferts owned a low roofed house, with small windows and double doors, 125 years ago, which still stands opposite the old mansion.”
The photograph on the left is that house. I don’t think their dating was accurate, because that would date the smaller house to the same year as Squire’s mansion. It looks much older, by at least 50 years. But who knows? It shows up in all of the detailed maps of the area, as does the Squire’s house, until it was torn down.
It’s fascinating to see how Bedford grew up around both houses. In the photographs of the Dutch Colonial Rem Lefferts house, you can see the backs of the row houses on Herkimer Street. The maps also clearly show Fulton Street growing up around the house, crowding it in. By the turn of the century, this was a major commercial strip, with storefront tenements running the length of the block, on both sides.
Perhaps that’s why it was no longer a real home. Turn of the 20th century newspapers tell us that the old Rem Lefferts house was now an antiques store. From the photographs, which were all taken by a very prolific Brooklyn photographer named Daniel Berry Austin, we have an excellent record of the exterior of the house, as well as some rare shots of the interior. He took the photographs in 1898, and came back for more in 1903. The photo plates now belong to the Brooklyn Museum, and original prints belong to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch.
They show a remarkably well preserved Colonial-era Dutch gambrel roofed farmhouse. The house was perfectly intact, inside and out. Inside, the owner of the antiques shop had stuffed every inch of the rooms with furniture and bric-a-brac, making the most out of the popularity of the Colonial Revival style of architecture and interior design that just happened to be original to the house. Of course, there were some unfortunate overwrought Victorianisms added, especially in the draperies and arrangements. But this was a store, not a home.
As can be expected, the ceilings were quite low, but in spite of the amount of stuff in there, the original lines of the house can still be seen. The exterior of the house is also very intact, with a stone foundation and back wall, clapboard siding and classic Dutch Colonial dormers. The gambrel roof extended down to form a porch. The house could have easily survived to the present day, had it been protected, or even moved, but it was torn down in 1908. A pretty non-descript two story building was built on the site, today home to a fish market and a produce store.
Although the Lefferts family WAS Bedford, for generations, there are no traces of them left here today. Their homes are all gone, and their family cemetery, on the corner of Bedford and Jefferson, was dug up and removed. The only thing that remains is the name. Lefferts Place, which is not even really all that near their homes, begins at Franklin Avenue, near Fulton Street. GMAP