02/27/15 3:00pm

720 Wash Ave, Natl theater, Ken Roe, Cinema Treasures 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former National Theatre, now supermarket
Address: 720 Washington Avenue
Cross Streets: Prospect and Park Places
Neighborhood: Prospect Heights
Year Built: 1921
Architectural Style: Unable to determine
Architect: Charles Sandblom
Other Buildings by Architect: Over 42 theaters mostly in Brooklyn, but also in Queens, the Bronx and Manhattan
Landmarked: No

The story:
Brooklyn is littered with former theaters. Any neighborhood worth its salt had at least three of four theaters in its history, and larger neighborhoods had many more. Everyone went to the local theater; there was something affordable to almost everyone, and something for almost everyone’s taste. When movies replaced live theater and vaudeville, many of the smaller theaters closed and were converted to other use, but there was still at least one decent sized movie theater around. Where else could parents safely get rid of their kids for a couple of hours?

When neighborhoods could no longer support a movie theater, for whatever reason, it seems that they generally become one of two sorts of places – a church or a supermarket. Many of the former theaters I feature here are generally churches, but here’s one that became a supermarket. Most people using it, or walking by have no idea what the building’s original use was. (more…)

98 Montague St. Pierrepont, Bossert Hotel, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

By the 1850s, Brooklyn was not just a growing town; it was a fast growing city. Among the necessary amenities for any city is a good hotel. Montague Street was at the center of cultural activity in Brooklyn Heights at the time, and was a perfect place for a large hotel. The plot on the corner of Hicks and Montague Streets was purchased by the partnership of builders Litchfield and Metchum, and in May of 1854, a fine looking six story Italianate-style hotel opened on the site. It was called the Pierrepont Hotel, and was modeled on the Prescott House in Manhattan.

The builders immediately turned around and sold the hotel. One of the first owners, Hamlin Blake, only owned the hotel for a day. Several other owners had the hotel thereafter, but one thing stayed consistent; their reputation for offering family-style comfort and an exceptionally fine meal. It was soon Brooklyn’s finest hotel during the Civil War years and just beyond.

The Pierrepont Hotel was both a residential and transient hotel, catering to businessmen and travelers to the city, mostly gentlemen, but they also accommodated families, especially those of Navy officers with business at the Navy Yard. During the Civil War, the hotel was popular with other military officers, as well. The hotel also had a collection of regulars who lived there, including many older single men. It was said that in the evening, one could see them all back in the rear in the bar and on the wide verandah behind it, in their chairs, smoking and telling each other tall tales and stories of past exploits. (more…)

02/26/15 3:00pm

225-247 E.31St, 225, NS, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 225-247 E. 31st Street
Cross Streets: Cortelyou and Beverly Roads
Neighborhood: Flatbush
Year Built: around 1905
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: The town of Flatbush, in Kings County, did not become a part of the City of Brooklyn until 1894. They liked their independence, and had remained a separate entity since the Dutch began farming there in the 1600s. The architectural development of the neighborhood was sporadic, and is a combination of all kinds of urban and suburban styles, ranging from mega-mansions on large lawns to huge block long apartment buildings, and everything in between.

I’ve always found Flatbush fascinating from an architectural perspective. In taking the bus through the various parts of the neighborhood, and later, driving, you can pass late 19th century row houses, early 20th century two family houses, wood-framed suburban houses and six story apartment buildings all in a three block radius. (more…)

02/26/15 10:45am

Pros Park, Troy, Garnet Baltimore, Composite 2

On July 4th, 1902, the bands marched, politicians waxed poetic, and the people celebrated on this, the grand opening of the Warren Hill Park, on top of Mount Ida, overlooking downtown Troy. The year before, after a few positive voices of agreement, along with the usual contentious wrangling and pompous posturing, the City Council of Troy voted in favor of purchasing the parkland to create Troy’s newest and most important public park.

After debating the issue for several years, the city finally owned the land. Now it was time to hurry up and wait. People wanted to see the view that had made Mount Ida famous, a panoramic vista that on a good day, allowed people to see for miles around. Troy lies in the Hudson River valley between the Catskills and the Adirondacks, and the view from the top of the mountain would allow you to see both ranges. It was a great place to take in the summer breezes and escape the hustle and bustle of one of the nation’s busiest and wealthiest cities. The only problem was that in the rush to get people in the park, they hadn’t yet gotten around to finishing it. In fact, it was barely begun.

That was not the fault of the city’s parks landscape engineer. Garnet D. Baltimore had already scoped out other cities and their parks, including Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and had great ideas on how to make Warren Hill Park a masterpiece. But first he needed to have his plans and a budget approved. Mr. Baltimore was a scrupulous record keeper, and the Troy newspapers faithful commentators, so we know what he had to go through to get the job done. For more background on the park and the man, check out Part One and Part Two of this story. (more…)

02/25/15 3:00pm

295 Gates Ave, NS, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former private house, then club house, now church
Address: 295 Gates Avenue
Cross Streets: Franklin and Bedford Avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1869-1870? Perhaps altered or replaced later
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: Possibly Amzi Hill
Other Buildings by Architect: Row houses, mansions, flats buildings and tenements throughout Bedford Stuyvesant and Stuyvesant Heights. Also in Clinton Hill, Crown Heights, Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope
Landmarked: No

The story: There used to be many more large mansions in Bedford Stuyvesant. If you walk or drive around the neighborhood, it’s possible to come across one or two on a block you never would have thought they’d be on. Many of them just didn’t survive the economic changes, and many of those that did are merely shadows of their former selves. They’ve been chopped up, covered up, covered over and made into lodges, schools and most often, churches.

Gates Avenue was once one of central Bedford Stuyvesant’s premier streets. It’s a long street, stretching from Clinton Hill to Bushwick, and was once home to some very successful and wealthy people, the most successful being John Gibb, whose enormous mansion is just down the street. When Gibb had his house built here, other wealthy people followed, moving into superior speculative housing, much of it developed by Mr. Gibb himself. Other people had houses built themselves.

That appears to have been the case for this house, which was built for Captain Frederick Bolton Langston, a wealthy ship captain. Amzi Hill, who designed many of the earlier houses in this neighborhood, as well as the Gibb mansion, may have designed this house.The house looks more Queen Ann than Italianate, the prevailing style of the day, so perhaps it was added on to in the 1880s, or replaced by an new facade. The records are not forthcoming, although the papers do emphasize that the Captain moved to this address in 1870. (more…)

02/24/15 3:00pm

347-359 Flushing Avenue, CB, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Industrial buildings and garages
Address: 347-359 Flushing Avenue
Cross Streets: Classon and Kent avenues
Neighborhood: East Williamsburg
Year Built: Teens for the handsome brick garage, undetermined for the rest
Architectural Style: Taxpayer
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: Ok, there is nothing significant or outstanding about these buildings. In fact, with the exception of the larger garage, which has some style, these are basic taxpayers: utilitarian buildings built to house rather humble pursuits. But, I chose these for a reason, because there is still a story here. A number of stories, actually, both past and present.

Before the BQE, back in the 1800s, this part of town was pretty much residential. Small tenement buildings, many with storefronts on the ground floor lined this side of Flushing Avenue, as well as a couple of houses. The people who lived here worked in the nearby factories, and at the Navy Yard. The buildings that stood where this group stands now were numbered 347-359 Flushing, and there were at least seven buildings here at the turn of the century. (more…)

02/24/15 10:45am

Prospect Park, Troy postcard 1

After the great successes of New York City’s wonderful parks, such as Manhattan’s Central and Riverside Parks, as well as Brooklyn’s Prospect and Fort Greene Parks, every city in the country was envious. Cities are judged by their public buildings and public spaces, and by the beginning of the 20th century, almost every municipality and its civic movers and shakers wanted to have exemplary parks. Parks were places that every citizen, high and low, could enjoy the beauties of nature, fresh air, and room to relax.

For many urban areas, that was key to a better quality of life and a happier populace. Thanks to the philosophies of the City Beautiful Movement, city fathers also thought that parks, like great public buildings, would inspire the lower classes to civic pride, and therefore industrious behavior, better citizenship and moral uplifting. Parks were also a chance for city fathers, committee heads, wealthy donors, and ambitious landscape designers to shine. They all knew they were creating places that would live on after they were long gone. (more…)

02/23/15 3:00pm

187-189 Amity Street, KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 187-195 Amity Street
Cross Streets: Clinton and Court streets
Neighborhood: Cobble Hill
Year Built: 1847-1855
Architectural Style: Greek Revival (187-189), Anglo-Italianate (191-195)
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: Yes, part of Cobble Hill Historic District (1969)

The story: Cobble Hill was originally settled by the Dutch way back in the late 1600s. It became an area renowned for its fruit trees and orchards. Skipping forward to the early 1800s, the area, now known as South Brooklyn, still had farms, especially along the areas facing the river where Henry Street is today. Several Manhattan merchants and businessmen bought the old Dutch farms with their magnificent views of the harbor.

They created their suburban retreats there, and could still commute to work via the Fulton Ferry, established in the 1820s. The South Ferry was established in 1836, an even more convenient commute. But it soon became apparent that the land was worth more as a development site, and one by one, the children of these gentlemen farmers cashed in. Streets were laid out, and houses starting going up, beginning in the 1840s. (more…)

02/20/15 3:00pm

396-414 Bergen St. NS, PS, 402

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 396-414 Bergen Street
Cross Streets: Fourth and Fifth Avenues
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1878
Architectural Style: Italianate
Architect: John Monas
Other Buildings by Architect: 355-363 and 391-407 Bergen Street, as well as other buildings in Park Slope
Landmarked: No

The story: John Monas is listed in the records as the owner, builder, architect and carpenter of this group of houses. He also built and developed two other groups of houses on this block: 355-363 Bergen, which are three story and the basement/ground floor row houses, and 391-407, which, like today’s buildings, are called two story and a basement homes. All of them are very similar in style, materials and ornamentation.

Unlike today, where developers, architects and builders generally live far outside of the communities in which they build, the builders of our brownstone neighborhoods were by and large, local residents. This is especially in the early developmental days of the 1860s and 1870s. This was true in most neighborhoods, and especially true in Park Slope. The majority of the earlier Italianates and Neo-Grec houses inside and outside of the historic districts were built by men who lived within blocks of their work.

The practical side of that was that they were close to their projects, and didn’t have to commute very far to keep track of what their men were doing, and they also kept their money close to the cuff. But this also meant that they had a stake in building their neighborhoods, shaping the streetscape, and making their projects buildings that they were proud to live next to, and around. They could point to their rows of brownstones and say, “I did that.” (more…)

02/20/15 10:45am

706 Nostrand Ave,Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Every time I see a new photograph of a long vanished building on St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights, it makes me want to have access to a time machine, so I could see what these blocks looked like at the turn of the 20th century, as they are now almost entirely covered with large apartment buildings. Here’s another great photo of a long gone building, published in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1902.

It shows 706 St. Marks Avenue, which was a huge property on the southeast corner of Nostrand Avenue. This house was in many ways typical of the houses on this and the following block. It was a huge single family house, with a lot of grounds around it. This particular property framed the entrance to the famed St. Marks District, an exclusive enclave of wealthy people living in suburban splendor. (more…)

02/19/15 3:00pm

255 Butler St. KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally publishing plant for R. G. Dun & Company
Address: 255 Butler Street
Cross Streets: Corner Nevins Avenue Street
Neighborhood: Gowanus
Year Built: 1913-14
Architectural Style: Vaguely Renaissance/Gothic Revival early 20th century factory
Architect: Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker
Other Buildings by Architect: American Express Building, 65 B’way, Manhattan, Grace Church Neighborhood House, Provident Loan Society Buildings, both Manhattan. Also Sanitarium additions to Seaview Hospital, Staten Island, and Dollar Savings Bank, Bronx
Landmarked: No, but part of proposed Gowanus Canal Historic District for the National Register of Historic Places

The story: The R. G. Dun Company was founded in 1841 as the Mercantile Agency by Brooklyn Heights merchant and financier Louis Tappan. He established the company as a network of correspondents who would be reputable, reliable and neutral reporters of companies and their credit worthiness. It was one of the first companies to give its subscribers business information, and helped create the modern business world. In 1849, Tappan turned the company over to his clerk, Benjamin Douglass. He capitalized on the telegraph and other modern means of transportation and information gathering, and was able to greatly expand the company across the country.

He created the profession of credit reporters; skilled in interpreting and reporting on financial measures. Four of Douglass’ many reporters went on to have impressive careers as President of the United States. They were Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland and William McKinley. In 1859, Douglass turned the business over to his brother-in-law, Robert Graham Dun. He changed the name to the R. G. Dun Company, and further expanded the company during the Civil War and beyond, so that by the 20th century, R. G. Dun was one of the most respected national and international credit reporting firms. (more…)

02/19/15 10:45am

Pros Park, Troy, Composite

As our Brooklyn readers all know, Prospect Park was designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Central Park. That park opened in 1857 with great fanfare and much success. As well it should; Central Park is one of the great urban parks, and Olmsted and Vaux created a masterpiece of natural and enhanced landscaping that America had never seen before. When the City Fathers from across the East River in Brooklyn went to inspect the park, of course, they wanted one too.

One of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, James S.T. Stranahan, was appointed to head a parks committee that would oversee this great project. In 1860, they picked an engineer/architect to map out the project. His name was to Egbert L. Viele, and he had actually been the original architect picked to design Central Park. That is until someone called in Olmsted and Vaux, who blew Viele out of the water with their far superior plans for the park.’

Viele would get his chance in Brooklyn. He accessed the site chosen, a huge tract of swampy and hilly land not far from Green-Wood Cemetery, up until that time, the largest park area in the city. Viele planned to include many natural features in his park, including the city’s Mount Prospect Reservoir, atop Mount Prospect, the second highest point in Brooklyn. The park would extend west towards the highest point in Brooklyn: Battle Pass, which was part of Green-Wood. Down below lay Gowanus, the site of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first decisive battle in the War of Independence, fought in 1776.

But it was the Civil War that defeated Egbert Viele. All plans for the park had to be shelved until the end of the long war, and by that time, Stranahan and his committee had years to mull over his plans, and decided to get a second opinion. As we know, they asked Olmsted and Vaux, and before the committee’s very eyes, the partners had totally redesigned the park site, dazzled the committee with their plans, and got poor Egbert fired. (more…)