Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Row houses
Address: 74-76 Union Street
Cross Streets: Van Brunt and Columbia streets
Neighborhood: Columbia Waterfront District
Year Built: 1850s
Architectural Style: Gothic Revival
The story: The Atlantic and Erie Basin docks, less than a block from these houses, brought prosperity and jobs to what was then called “South Brooklyn.” Goods came overseas and down the Hudson from the Erie Canal to Brooklyn’s piers, making this one of the busiest seaports in North America. The size and scope of Brooklyn’s waterfront activity cannot be emphasized enough – it was the fuel that made Brooklyn one of the largest and richest cities in America.
While the piers and ports were still relatively new, some of those who owned businesses on or near the water wanted to live close to work. The lower end of Union Street, which was named for the Union Stores, a warehouse complex near the docks, was developed initially as homes. The first houses were built in the late 1840s and early 1850s, and include these two houses. By 1887, city maps show masonry row houses stretching along this side of the street in one uninterrupted line from one end of the block to the other. Today, these houses are almost lone survivors.
It’s amazing that any residential buildings survived the massive industrialization of this area in the latter quarter of the 19th and on into the 20th centuries. Even rarer still is the survival of Gothic Revival houses. There just aren’t that many of them to begin with, as it was a fleeting architectural trend that didn’t catch on with the public the way the simpler (and cheaper to build) Greek Revival and simple Italianate styles did.
These houses are very similar to a pair of houses built in 1852-53 on Vanderbilt Avenue in Wallabout. All of them were probably built by vernacular builders working from plan books and pure experience. The houses share several stylistic details. Both groups have the same distinctive peaked roof lines with Gothic style decorative bargeboards. The bargeboard trim is amazingly intact on both of the Union St. houses. At one time, both houses also had a pointed arch window on the top floor and drip moldings on the window and door lintels, but all of that trim was removed from 76 Union. You can still see the ghosts of the trim and window. 74 is remarkably intact.
The early records are spotty for this area. It is mentioned in 1850 as a developmental site. In 1869, the street was scheduled to be paved with cobblestones, and in 1874, the owner of 76 Union advertised for a “young Protestant girl” for a housekeeping position. At that time, both houses were probably the homes of middle class business owners or merchants who wanted to be close to their jobs. But by the 1880s, that was already changing.
By 1887, industry was creeping onto Union Street. Across the street, a large wallpaper factory took up half of the block, stretching to Van Brunt Street. This was no longer a quiet residential enclave, and the homes began disappearing to industry, or were sold by their owners to new owners who promptly made all of them multiple-family dwellings. The neighborhood became working class, with most of the population working at the docks or in nearby factories. By 1900, the neighborhood was mostly Italian.
The papers didn’t like the Italians. They didn’t like lower class Irish or blacks, either. It shows in the way any kind of crime or altercation was written up for these groups. It was never, “the man was a victim,” or “the man brandished a knife,” it was always “the Italian was a victim” or “the Italian brandished a knife,” as if someone’s nationality or race would be the reason why bad things happened. It’s just what “those people” do.
Unfortunately, there was a lot of it in this neighborhood from the 1880s to about the 1940s. There were crimes of passion, opportunity, and revenge. There were also tragic accidents. James Fay, who lived at 74 Union, died in 1900 at his job at Ellis Island when a part from a falling elevator struck him in the head. A year later, at the same address, little four year old Giuseppe Lobrano died of heart failure. His father had given him a penny for candy; he had run to the corner store and was returning home when a dog jumped up at him, scaring him so much, he began convulsing. He was rushed home, but died soon after. The coroner determined the child had died of freight.
There was also a love story of operatic proportions. In 1883, 74 Union was home to Giovanni and Eliza Sezzo.
According to the papers, he was a well-regarded leader in the Italian community here. His wife Eliza was quite beautiful, and totally devoted to him. But Giovanni was a jealous man, and neighbors noticed that his attitude towards her began to change. He was especially jealous of the attention a handsome Italian ship captain gave his wife. The Italian vessel had been in port a few weeks before, and Giovanni hadn’t liked the captain, or his flirting, one bit. He and his wife became very cold to each other.
One evening Sezzo came home and told his wife he was tired. He was napping on the couch when she shook him awake. She had a glass of green liquid in her hand and she announced it was “Paris green,” a poison. She told him she was going to kill herself, and she’d be out of his way forever. She then drank some of the liquid. Giovanni jumped up and knocked the glass out of her hand, smashing it, and ran to get help.
By the time he had returned with a doctor, Eliza had started to feel the effects of the poison, and was writhing on the floor. The doctor administered the antidote, and she quickly began to recover. Sezzo threw himself at her feet, apologized for his jealous behavior, promised to never be jealous again, and told her how much he loved and cherished her. There was no more talk of suicide. As Shakespeare would say, had he been Italian, “Tutto è bene quel che finisce bene.” (All’s well that ends well.) GMAP
(Photo: Kate Leonova for PropertyShark)