01/26/15 3:00pm

239 Nevins St. Scranton and Lehigh, SSPellen 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Scranton & Lehigh Coal Company Garage
Address: 239 Nevins Street
Cross Streets: Corner Douglass Street
Neighborhood: Gowanus
Year Built: Somewhere between 1924 and 1930, research has conflicting dates
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No, but part of proposed Gowanus Historic District, on the National Register of Historic Places

The story: The Scranton & Lehigh Coal Company was one of Pennsylvania’s large coal companies, supplying the Northeast with anthracite and other coal products. The engines that powered Brooklyn ran on coal; everything from heating homes and apartments, to heating the offices, schools, and churches of the borough, to the huge boilers that powered the many factories in the city. Coal was the fuel that kept it all going until well after World War II. Even today, a coal furnace still turns up here and there; they were long lasting, powerful, but simple heat producers. (more…)

01/23/15 3:00pm

1-19 Jardine Place, CB, PS 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Two-family row houses
Address: 1-19 Jardine Place
Cross Streets: Herkimer Street and Atlantic Avenue
Neighborhood: Ocean Hill
Year Built: 1890s
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival, some with Romanesque Revival details
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: The more you get to know Brooklyn, the more you realize it would probably take a lifetime to really get to know this enormous borough. Of course, we all know it was an independent city up until 1898. Only a few years earlier, in 1894, Flatlands became part of Brooklyn, completing the land mass of the borough we know today. Brooklyn was and is geographically huge, and its neighborhoods are as varied as the different original towns, time periods, and kinds of architecture allow. All of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods have interesting stories.

Ocean Hill, the neighborhood between East New York, Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights has some great residential architecture, as well as a vibrant history. Ocean Hill started to develop in the 1890s, and its boundaries cross Atlantic Avenue, creating a long neighborhood that abuts both Crown Heights and Bedford Stuyvesant. Because of school zones, poverty and demographics, Ocean Hill and neighboring Brownsville have been linked together since the 1960s and ’70s. But architecturally, the neighborhood is more aligned with its neighbors to the west, and less to Brownsville. (more…)

01/23/15 10:45am

41 Fifth Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue starts in the shadow of the Barclays arena at Flatbush Avenue, travels down and forms one of the borders of Green-Wood Cemetery, and then extends far out into Bay Ridge. In the past decade, this beginning part of the street has changed greatly from garages, mom-and-pop shops and neighborhood bars to trendy eateries and fancy watering holes mixed in with the turn-of-the-20th-century tenement buildings. But as much as some things change, other things don’t. It’s interesting to find a period photo and compare then and now.

Our period photograph, part of the collection of the New York Public Library, was taken in 1942 by Percy Loomis Sperr. He was a prolific photographer of the streetscapes of New York City. Beginning in 1924, through the 1940s, he took over 30,000 photographs of the city. He was called the “Official Photographer of New York,” and he lived in Staten Island. He wandered around every neighborhood, in every borough, chronicling the growth and changes in the city over the years. He especially liked to photograph buildings and infrastructure, and his photos offer clear views of the details of buildings, as well as the construction of bridges and highways. (more…)

01/22/15 3:00pm

2 Miller Ave, SSPellen

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Private house
Address: 2 Miller Avenue, aka 67 Sunnyside Avenue
Cross Streets: Highland Blvd and Sunnyside Avenue
Neighborhood: Cypress Hills
Year Built: sometime between 1904 and 1908
Architectural Style: Colonial Revival
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: Many years ago, when I still lived in Bed Stuy, I was in the company of a friend who was always house hunting for investment properties. He generally bought foreclosures, and pre-foreclosures, and flipped them. He was interested in several houses in Cypress Hills. At the time, I had never been to Cypress Hills, and since I’m never one to turn down looking at houses, no matter where they are, I joined him. We drove all around the neighborhood, and I thought Cypress Hills was really interesting, a combination of Victorian-era houses and blocks of houses dating from the teens and 20s. One of the houses he was interested in was this one.

At the time, it was empty and semi-boarded up. The grass was tall, but the gate was unlocked, so we wandered around the property and tried to look in the windows. It was an interesting property for several reasons. First of all, the house sat on top of a hill, with the property sloping down from Highland Blvd down to Sunnyside Avenue below, a pretty steep grade. The lawns, which were pretty large, extended on both Sunnyside and Highland, and the house was smack in the middle of the lot.

The main entrance to the house was on the Miller Street side, accessible from the street by a steep set of stone stairs. You could get to the house from Highland, after walking across the large lawn, but you still had to walk around to Miller in order to get in. The entrance was a fine looking Colonial Revival portico. I remember looking in the sidelight windows and seeing beautifully patterned Lincrusta wallpaper in excellent condition in the hallway. Ok, hooked, he should buy it. (more…)

01/22/15 10:45am

Spies, hwdefault.com 1On a cloudy day in 1913, all but two of the members of the Musica family from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn stood on a pier in New Orleans, waiting to board a steamer to Honduras by way of Panama. To anyone watching, the family was large, but unremarkable; two aging parents, and their adult and younger children. The parents were from the Old Country, speaking rapid Italian while admonishing their younger children. The oldest son and daughter, in their 20s, were the standouts; dressed in stylish and expensive clothes, the picture of wealth and success. Around them were the trunks and boxes containing the family’s possessions, ready to be loaded onto the ship. This did not look like a family on a vacation, these people looked as if they were leaving for good. And they were; the Musica family was on the run, and the law was hot on their trail.

Part One of this story will give you the background on the early life of Philip Musica. He was born Filippo Musica in Italy, the eldest son of a barber named Antonio and his wife, Marie. The three immigrated to New York when Filippo was a child, and he grew up in the tenements of Little Italy. His father opened a barbershop, and later, a grocery store, and it was there that young Filippo became Phillip, striving to achieve the American Dream. By the time he was a teenager, he had dropped out of school to run the store, and had branched out into importing. He was bringing in shipments of Italian cheeses, olive oil, pasta and other specialty provisions, and his father’s shop soon became one of the most profitable Italian importers in New York. (more…)

01/21/15 3:00pm

446-510,445-507 Willoughby Ave, NS, PS 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 446-510, and 445-507 Willoughby Avenue
Cross Streets: Nostrand and Marcy Avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: Between 1879 and 1886
Architectural Style: Neo-Grec
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No, but should be

The story: Between around 1875 and 1885, developers descended on the once quiet village of Bedford, and began a building frenzy of amazing proportions. They built thousands of speculative brownstone row houses on most of the residential blocks between Herkimer Street and Park Avenue, roughly between Bedford and Throop Avenues. Almost all of the houses they built during that ten year time period were in the many variations on the Neo-Grec style of architecture.

Of course, there were thousands of houses built before and after that, in many other different styles, but if you take a walk around Bedford, it’s easy to see how the Neo-Grec houses dominate the greater landscape. Bedford Stuyvesant has the largest collection of these Neo-Grec houses in the entire city. They were the ideal speculative house style. They could be easily adapted into the purchased lots, and made wider or narrower, taller or shorter as needed, without sacrificing the desired pleasing aesthetics of the house. (more…)

01/20/15 3:00pm

21 Devoe Street, SSpellen 3

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Detached wood framed row house
Address: 21 Devoe Street
Cross Streets: Lorimer Street and Union Avenue
Neighborhood: East Williamsburg
Year Built: Before 1880
Architectural Style: Probably Italianate under the siding
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: With all of the hype around the Williamsburg being the epicenter of hip and happening Brooklyn, it’s often easy to forget that the neighborhood is much more than the modern towers and converted factories along the shoreline, or the homes and shuls of a huge Ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. There’s also a large portion, technically in East Williamsburg, on the Greenpoint border, with blocks of streets made up mostly of wood framed houses in various states of authenticity and condition. Devoe Street, between Union and Lorimer is one of them. Like many neighborhood streets, its building stock is a combination of older wood framed houses and newer infill construction.

I never spent a lot of time in Williamsburg, so wandering around there is always interesting. I stumbled across this street this last summer, in my quest for a parking space. And there was this little house, made up to be a pink castle. It’s hard to tell what it looked like under the siding, but I’m going to go with Italianate. (more…)

01/20/15 10:45am

Music, Edwardian lady, hairandmakeupartist.com 1Financial scandals, con games and rip-offs have been news since the invention of greed; so they’ve been around a long time. As our media and the 24 hour a day news cycle brings us news more quickly, every big Ponzi scheme, every large stock manipulation, every case of massive embezzlement brings headlines as the “scandal of the year/decade/century.” There have certainly been some doozies; Bernie Madoff being the one most people remember recently, but he certainly wasn’t the first, or even the most ambitious con artist we’ve seen. His profit may have been higher because of the times we live in, but he came from a long line of very smart, ambitious and audacious takers.

One of the greatest entries in the Con Man Hall of Fame has to be a man named F. Donald Coster. His great scandal of the century broke in 1938, here in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression. But Coster wasn’t his real name, and names are very much a part of this story. His family name was really “Musica,” and he and his family were a well-tuned chamber ensemble of white collar crime that went back well before 1938. Here’s their story: (more…)

01/16/15 3:00pm

236 Carroll Street, SSpellen 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row house
Address: 236 Carroll Street
Cross Streets: Corner Court Street
Neighborhood: Carroll Gardens
Year Built: Before 1871
Architectural Style: Italianate
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: The name Carroll Gardens is not an old one. It was adapted in the 1960s to give the neighborhood a separate identity from its two large surrounding industrial areas, Red Hook and Gowanus. Up until that time, and for some old-timers still, it was called South Brooklyn or Red Hook. Developers began building houses here after the street grid was laid down in 1835, so this is one of Brooklyn’s oldest developed neighborhoods.

The expansion of the Red Hook docks and the businesses that accompanied that helped spur interest in the neighborhood as a residential area. As the 19th century progressed, the growth of the Gowanus area also made this central residential neighborhood attractive to the owners of the nearby businesses. In the 1840s, Carroll Park was purchased as a private garden for the wealthy homeowners surrounding it.

The park didn’t get real development in that department until the 1870s, when many of the houses around it were built. However, knowing that the park would one day be there encouraged developers to build large townhouses on wide lots around the park, similar to those in Brooklyn Heights. This house was built at that time, sometime in the late 1860s, and finished before 1871, when an ad for its sale appears in the Brooklyn Daily Union. (more…)

01/16/15 10:45am

J. Kayser, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

We all know that they used to make things here in Brooklyn, but it’s rather mind-boggling how much manufacturing went on in neighborhoods that are now largely residential. Clinton Hill is a fine example. We know that there was a lot of manufacturing going in in the Wallabout area, but in reality, factory and warehouse buildings did not end at Park or Myrtle Avenue, they continued on to DeKalb and in places, beyond. The area around Pratt Institute was very industrial, which made sense, as many of the Pratt Institute’s students were headed towards careers in industries of all sorts. What better place to put an industrial institution but in the heart of the city’s industry?

One might also think that this industry died in the early 20th century, but that too would be a fallacy. Many of the factories around Pratt were going strong until after World War II, and on into the 1960s. In fact, the war gave many of them more business than they had ever had, depending on what they produced. We’re not talking small businesses, either. Some of these companies were huge, with large manufacturing facilities, some of which consumed blocks, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of space. One of the largest of these was the Julius Kayser Company, located on Taaffe Place, between DeKalb and Willoughby Avenues. (more…)

01/15/15 3:00pm

199 17th Street, SSPellen 3

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Semi-detached row house
Address: 199 17th Street
Cross Streets: 4th and 5th Avenues
Neighborhood: South Slope
Year Built: Before 1880
Architectural Style: Simplified Italianate
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: When Brooklyn developed, it wasn’t always in solid waves, with housing spreading out like Lego blocks across the map. Some areas were farms that were slowly subdivided into lots. Some neighborhoods grew as towns, like Bedford; a crossroads that slowly grew to be much more down the road. Other towns grew totally off the standard rectangular street grid, like Weeksville.The streets that make up the South Slope had an interesting path to development. Houses here were built in fits and starts. Some of the land was farmland, although not particularly good farmland, it was hilly and rocky, the legacy of glacial activity.

The street grid was established well before the Civil War, but insurance maps don’t show a whole lot going on here until after the war. Some parts of the neighborhood had a reputation as a dumping ground, where one could conveniently get rid of all kinds of things, including an occasional body. For many years these blocks were just scruffy fields. Then as Green-Wood Cemetery grew in size and popularity as a tourist destination, and Park Slope began to flourish, this area began to be developed, as well. (more…)

Tiffany Place, 1904 map, NYPL

Some of Brooklyn’s most charming blocks are those one or two block little streets that are tucked in just about every neighborhood. There are all kinds of reasons why they exist; some are developer-designed enclaves that were added to the street grid, while others are streets that were created to accommodate a specific business or industry. Still others were added because the topography allowed for just one more small street in order to make sense in directing traffic or creating lots of a certain size. Whatever the reason, they are great, especially if few people outside of the neighborhood know about them. Who wouldn’t want a secret street?

The bisection of Red Hook by Robert Moses’ Brooklyn Queens Expressway created some new streets, and made others harder to get to. But even before the highway was cut, the neighborhood once known as South Brooklyn already had a few one block streets. It is home to four “places”: Tompkins Place, Strong Place, Cheever Place and Tiffany Place. The first three are purely residential streets in Cobble Hill, but Tiffany Place, on the other side of the BQE cut, has long been a mixture of residential and manufacturing.

Tiffany Place…what a great name. It must have been named after one of the great Tiffany’s of Gilded Age fame. If not Louis Comfort Tiffany, than surely it was named after his father, the founder of the famous jewelry store in Midtown Manhattan. That Tiffany, the one whose bling inspired thousands of people to name their daughters for a fabulous emporium of gold, silver and expensive jewels. The name means quality and riches. Who wouldn’t want to live on a street with the Tiffany name? (more…)