04/23/14 3:00pm

409-417 Grand Ave, Google Maps

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 409-417 Grand Avenue
Cross Streets: Gates and Putnam Avenues
Neighborhood: Clinton Hill
Year Built: 1909
Architectural Style: Colonial Revival
Architect: John J. Petit of Kirby, Petit & Greene
Other work by architect: Houses in Prospect Park South and other Victorian Flatbush neighborhoods, commissioned homes in Park Slope, Stuyvesant Heights. Also designed Dreamland Amusement Park in Coney Island for William Reynolds
Landmarked: Yes, part of Clinton Hill HD (1981)

The story: It’s quite unexpected to come upon this group of three Colonial Revival houses on a block and neighborhood famous for its 1870s and 1880s era brownstones. Although they are a group, and share similar entryways, they are also quite different, lending one to believe that unlike most of the speculative housing in this neighborhood, these were built for three specific individuals. That would be correct. It figures, too, as the architect for this project was a man used to designing the eclectic and the different for his clients.

All three houses were built in 1909, long after the brownstones around them. They replaced other homes that stood there before. No. 409 was designed for Charles Pray, a textile broker, and one of the founders of the Huntington Country Club. They lived here for about 20 years. His house features blind round arched fanlights with laurel wreaths and splayed lintels. All three houses have their original ground floor entrances, entered by a short set of stairs.

No. 411 was built for Frederick De Mund MacKay and family. He was the most prominent of the trio. MacKay was from an old Brooklyn family, and was born in the family home on MacKay Place, in what is now Bay Ridge. He attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, and then went to work for the E. W. Bliss Company, a well-known munitions and machinery factory. He worked his way up to Vice President, a position he held for over twenty years. MacKay was also on the boards of several banks, charities and a member of all the right clubs. Considered one of the best-known horsemen in the city, he was also a director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. (more…)

04/22/14 3:00pm

142-144 Decatur St, The Decatur, SSpellen 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: The Decatur
Address: 142-144 Decatur Street
Cross Streets: Corner Marcus Garvey Boulevard
Neighborhood: Stuyvesant Heights
Year Built: 1888
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Architect: George L. Morse
Other work by architect: Temple Bar Building – Court Street, Franklin Trust – Montague Street, Abraham & Straus annex – Livingston Street, as well as many more row houses, flats buildings, churches, and office buildings.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Stuyvesant Heights Expansion, Stuyvesant Heights HD (2013)

The story:
While the developers of our brownstone blocks were busy filling them with rows of houses, the avenues in our neighborhoods were receiving attention, as well. It was on these streets that the city allowed commercial and civic buildings, and where churches and temples often stood, as well as rows of flats buildings, many with storefronts on the ground floors.

The formal concept of zoning didn’t come into existence until the early 20th century, but Victorian city planners already had a pretty good idea how to create mixed income and purposed neighborhoods. Sensible planning could provide everyone in those neighborhoods with the amenities and services they would need to be able to live, shop, worship, and perhaps even work, within easy walking distance. That is one of the strongest reasons why today these neighborhoods are still so desirable.

The mixed use flats buildings on the corners of blocks provided excellent opportunities for special buildings. These buildings anchored the block, and were visual gateways to the homes that lay beyond them, so it isn’t surprising that very often the fine architects who designed the houses also were called on to design many of these corner buildings. Very often, if a developer could get the desired lots, he would have an architect design the corner flats building, and then tie the design into the houses as they turned the corner. Many of Stuyvesant Heights’ blocks were designed in this manner. (more…)

04/22/14 10:30am

Turn of the century Wall Street, LOC 1

There have always been laws regarding stealing from other people, and in the late 1800s and early 1900s, those laws were in full effect in the courts. The jails and prisons were full of thieves. More and more, it seemed like the ranks of those who helped themselves to other people’s money and possessions were not just from the expected lower classes, but were their so-called “betters.” One could no longer believe that the thief in the night always came from poverty and the slums; in these dangerous days, it seemed that the biggest and boldest thieves sat next to you at the opera, in church, or smiled at you from across a desk.

For some reason, an upscale apartment building on Decatur Street in Stuyvesant Heights became home to three men who became the wolves among the sheep of Brooklyn society’s pasture. 88 Decatur Street was home to J. Edgar Anthony, Benjamin F. Chadsey and Charles A. Bliven. They never lived there at the same time, but there must have been larceny in the water, because all three of them, the first two lawyers, the other a stock broker, made the news for all the wrong reasons. Although the circumstances of their cases were different, all three men were guilty of the same offence: they all coveted clients’ money, and siphoned some off for their own use. And then they all got caught.

Please see the links below for the first episodes of the story. Today’s tale is about our last miscreant, broker Charles A. Bliven. The first two men hailed originally from upstate New York, but unlike the other two men, Mr. Bliven’s life story was not told to the papers. Anthony was from the Utica area, Chadsey from near Albany. From a cursory look at family research and the proliferation of stories on this case in upstate papers, Bliven was an upstater too. There seemed to have been a great deal of Bliven family members in the Capital District/Mohawk Valley area. And the mark, in this case, was from Troy. It really was a small world. (more…)

04/21/14 3:00pm

450 Union St. Google Maps 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Formerly Thomas Paulson & Son, Inc., now the Green Building
Address: 450 Union Street
Cross Streets: Corner Bond Street
Neighborhood: Gowanus
Year Built: 1931
Architectural Style: Utilitarian factory
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No, but part of proposed Gowanus Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places

The story: Gowanus has a lot of great factory buildings, with the best of them, architecturally speaking, dating back to the 19th century. According to some sources, this one dates back to that time, as well, but some research shows that that is not true. It was built in 1931, but that takes nothing away from its size, placement in the overall street grid, and charm.

In 1849, when the Gowanus was first being developed, this part of the area was a swampy part of the Gowanus Creek. The canal was dredged and the bulkhead was built around 1869, raising up the land. The first company to use the site may have been the Cement Drain and Water Pipes Company, which shows up on a map after 1869. No buildings stood on the location.

The block of Bond Street between Union and President was taken up by the T.H. Lidford Coal and Wood Yard, which shows up on Brooklyn city maps from at least 1888 until 1904. The entire block consisted of wood framed buildings, including two very long buildings that held the company’s supply of coal. One of these long buildings occupied the same space as today’s building. (more…)

04/18/14 3:00pm

1635 Bergen St. GS, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Berean Missionary Baptist Church
Address: 1635 Bergen Street
Cross Streets: Utica and Rochester Avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights/Weeksville
Year Built: 1894
Architectural Style: English Gothic
Architect: Benjamin Wright
Landmarked: No, but should be

The story: On August 11th, 1850, a group of Brooklyn abolitionists got together to found a great experiment; a fully integrated Baptist church congregation. Many of Brooklyn’s churches were nominally integrated, that is black people could attend many white churches. The black congregants were usually relegated to the back pews or the balcony, and did not participate in the social and fellowship activities of the church. They certainly did not become deacons or trustees, choir members or ministers. Although many white churches were bastions of anti-slavery activity, and lauded the fact that they hosted speakers like Frederick Douglass, and other black anti-slavery heroes, it was a fact of life that true social equality was a long time in coming, even in God’s house.

This new church was called Berean Baptist, and was originally a small wood-framed church in the vicinity of Prospect Place and Utica Avenue, a couple of blocks south of the present location. This part of Brooklyn was still largely unsettled land, except for the growing African American communities of Weeksville and Carrsville, which were settled by black folks beginning in the late 1830s. These were independent towns where black people could live on their own terms, with their own homes, businesses and institutions. (more…)

232-238 Bainbridge St. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Since wooden houses are in the Brownstoner news lately, today’s Past and Present shows some that are no more. They were lovely little frame houses on Bainbridge Street, between Malcolm X Boulevard (formerly Reid Avenue) and Sumner Avenue. These houses were from this eastern part of Bedford’s early development, back when the neighborhood’s streets were sparsely developed, and mostly had small groups of frame houses on rather odd shaped lots.

The lots are the legacy of the Dutch families who owned this land beginning in the late 1600s. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the land that makes up Bedford belonged to the Lefferts family and their relatives by birth or marriage. It didn’t take clairvoyance for them to see that urban development was in the future, and when the city incorporated in 1834, and began planning outward expansion from downtown, the family began parceling off their land, and selling to developers and individuals.

The house in the photograph was probably built in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Back then, it would have been surrounded by fields, and the land bought from, or leased from old Lefferts Lefferts, the family patriarch himself. It’s a classic gambrel-roofed Dutch farmhouse. We can’t really tell now, but the small addition on the right may even be the original house, and the larger structure built on to it later, as the family fortunes got better. Such is the case with several of our remaining Dutch houses in Brooklyn and Queens, which look exactly like this. (more…)

04/17/14 3:00pm

207A-209 18th St. KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 207A-209 18th Street
Cross Streets: 4th and 5th Avenues
Neighborhood: Greenwood Heights
Year Built: Before 1888
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No, but these blocks should be

The story: In 1844, the city of Brooklyn voted to extend open up 18th Street from 9th Avenue, now Prospect Park West, and the Gowanus Bay. For the next 40 years, the neighborhood remained undeveloped and was a dumping ground for all kinds of things, including bodies. The body of a baby was found here in 1846, seen abandoned by a couple who drove away in a wagon. But it would not be an undeveloped scrub land for long. Industry was growing at the waterway, and after the Civil War, the blocks began to be with row houses, most of them wood framed. The blocks were relatively close to Green-Wood Cemetery, a popular tourist attraction as well as burial place; so traffic here on 18th and on the other Green-Wood Heights blocks was busier than one might think.

These two buildings were built sometime after the Civil War, but before 1888. Stylistically, I’d put them in the mid-1880s. They, and the rest of the row going towards 5th Avenue, are in place when the maps for 1888 were published. There was a wood framed house or building on the large lot to the left of 207A that is now the buff colored Renaissance Revival flats building. There was also a greenhouse complex on this side of the street, closer to 5th. Wood framed row houses dominated both sides of the block, at this point, and a large Methodist Church was in place across the street from here, up a bit towards 5th. That church is now gone Today it’s a Greek Orthodox Church.

On first glance, one might think these two buildings are an odd pair. 207A is a four story house and 209 is only three. The windows are not even lined up with each other. But they do share many similar features, and were obviously built at the same time, by the same builder. I hope to find the architect and builder one of these days. This neighborhood is not well documented. Stylistically, the house shares elements of the Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, and Neo-Grec styles, with a bit of terra cotta thrown in, making it a Queen Anne catch-all confection. (more…)

Kings County Penitentiary, 1906

On a chilly day in late November, 1905, thirty-six year old Benjamin F. Chadsey was taken to the Raymond Street Jail in Brooklyn. He had been brought back to New York from Indiana after being on the run for two years. In 1903, he faked his suicide, and disappeared on the evening before he was to go to trial on a charge of grand larceny. Chadsey had been one of Brooklyn’s up and coming legal talents, an aggressive and arrogant pitbull of a lawyer who loved his fancy clothes and his diamond jewelry. That was all showmanship, because he was also highly efficient and had a large private practice with a lot of clients. He was also a rising star in the jungle of Brooklyn politics, and was called upon often to stir up the Republican faithful with his gifts of oratory and persuasion. Benjamin Chadsey was the last person anyone would expect to be dishonest, or to run from his troubles. But here he was.

The man who had once sported bespoke suits with diamond stickpins and fingers glittering with diamond rings was now standing in handcuffs before a judge, surrounded by the police and District Attorneys who had to go out to the suburbs of South Bend Indiana to get him. The private detective, J. Edward Orr, who had tracked Chadsey down once before in San Francisco had found him again. But this was not the old Chadsey they knew. The man standing before them was sickly looking, emaciated and gaunt. He had shaved his signature moustache and would have looked years younger, had he not been looking over his shoulder for the last two years.

The judge stared down on him without a lot of pity. The charges against Chadsey were serious, but had he not skipped bail and disappeared, he probably would have been let off easy. Wealthy and well-connected men convicted of much larger thefts usually did not suffer the same consequences as those of lesser breeding. But faking your death, and thumbing your nose at the same authorities you once ate dinner with and invited to your home makes for bad feelings, and Brooklyn’s legal world was more than happy to throw the book at Chadsey. For the time being, though, they tossed him back in jail. (more…)

04/16/14 3:00pm

245 Front St. SB, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row house
Address: 245 Front Street
Cross Streets: Bridge and Gold Streets
Neighborhood: Vinegar Hill
Year Built: 1852-55
Architectural Style: Greek Revival
Architect: Unknown.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Vinegar Hill HD (1997)

The story: Like stumbling upon Brigadoon, Vinegar Hill is hidden from most people’s view, tucked away between Dumbo and the Navy Yard, cut off from Downtown Brooklyn by the ramps of the BQE and the approaches to the Manhattan Bridge. The residential buildings of Vinegar Hill were built at the same time as parts of Brooklyn Heights, share architectural styles and features. But the distance of a mile, and the development of the Navy Yard made all the difference in the histories of these neighborhoods.

Shipbuilder John Jackson purchased a large parcel of land after the Revolutionary War, and opened a shipyard on Wallabout Bay. He built his shipyard at the base of Hudson Street, and then built homes nearby for his workers. In 1801, he sold 40 acres of his waterfront land to the United States government for the Navy Yard. He then built more houses, and called the area “Vinegar Hill” in honor of the last major battle between the Irish and English, in 1798.

Meanwhile, the Sands family, brothers Comfort and Joshua, were buying up land like crazy. At one point they owned most of Dumbo, all of the land to the west of Jackson’s holdings. They were very wealthy land speculators and merchants. Comfort Sands was one of the founders of the Bank of New York, and Joshua was one of the members of the Board of Trustees of the Village of Brooklyn. They parceled their land off into lots very early, in 1787, but did not build in the Vinegar Hill area until the 1830s.

By the late 1830s, early 1840s, the descendants of John Jackson had sold off all his remaining Hudson Street plots. The Greek Revival homes built here date from the late 1840s, early 1850s, and represent the boom years for Vinegar Hill as a neighborhood of shops, businesses and homes. Most of the residents were Irish, giving the neighborhood the nickname of “Irishtown,” although many others also lived here as well. Most of the people here, no matter what their ethnicity, worked at the Navy Yard, the waterfront, or for industries that supplied both. (more…)

04/15/14 3:00pm

1301 Grand Street, Google Maps 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Charles J. King Iron and Scrap, formerly Louis Bossert & Son Co.
Address: 1301 Grand Street
Cross Streets: Gardner Avenue and New Town Creek
Neighborhood: Bushwick
Year Built: Unknown
Architectural Style: Eclectic factory
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: Louis Bossert was a lumber man. He was one of the thousands of German immigrants who came to the United States and settled in Bushwick and Williamsburg in the mid to late 19th century. Bossert was an officer during the Civil War, and began a lumber business after the war. It was a fortuitous move, as Brooklyn had a series of building booms for the next fifty years, and Louis Bossert & Son was there to meet the needs of their customers.

By the end of the 19th century, in the 1890s, if not sooner, Louis Bossert’s lumber company was located here on Grand Street, along the Newtown Creek. The company was huge, with lumberyards, planing mills, warehouses and offices. Having the canal just behind the plant enabled Bossert to move goods by barge, and deliver large amounts of lumber to projects in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn with ease. This building was the headquarters and office of the company.

Lumber yards often had fires, so this may be the reason the Bossert HQ looks like a fireproof fortress. I was not able to find the date it was built, or the architect, and since the design is so eclectic, it’s also hard to date, but I’m going to go with early 20th century, in the ‘teens. By that time, Bossert’s plant was well established, and this building consolidated their operation, and replaced the company’s offices on Union Street. It’s an interesting building, certainly not pretty, but strong in personality. (more…)

19th century steamship, hasselisland.org 1As the cynical and world-weary people we can be today in 2014, it doesn’t really surprise us when those who are entrusted with much, or are held up as paragons, fail spectacularly. Sadly, we see it almost every day. But 100 years ago, life was simpler. Back then, (and now, as well, to be honest), people expected certain criminal activities like thievery and dishonesty from the classes and groups they felt were beneath them. But they held the upper classes to a higher standard, one of dignity and success through hard work and privilege. Therefore, when one of their own was suspected of, or caught doing wrong, the stories fascinated the newspaper reporters and their editors, as well as the general public. The fall of a prominent lawyer, or a banker, was news for days.

We met Benjamin F. Chadsey last time, the scion of an important Albany area family, and an up and coming lawyer here in Brooklyn at the beginning of the 20th century. He lived here in Brooklyn with his wife at 88 Decatur Street, in an upscale apartment building in Stuyvesant Heights. Like another occupant of the same apartment house, J. Edgar Anthony, the topic of our first story from this building, young Chadsey was also an attorney who worked in estates, wills and trusts. Mr. Chadsey had a fine reputation in the law, and was a rising star in the world of Brooklyn Republican politics. Benjamin Chadsey, it was said, could persuade you to vote for anyone, and his silver tongue was put to use at political rallies all across the city. He was soon on a first name basis with some of New York’s most important Republican political figures.

Unfortunately, Chadsey was arrogant enough to think that he knew best in the matters of his clients, as well as the voters, and had been playing loose with some of his client’s money. He had been administering the estate of Daniel M. Collins, a wealthy Brooklyn Heights jeweler. The deceased Mr. Collins’ wife suspected that her brother-in-law and Chadsey had conspired to cheat her out of her inheritance, and that Chadsey had grossly overbilled her for services rendered. The widow retained another lawyer, and filed suit. A judge agreed, and had chastised Mr. Chadsey, and ordered him to pay back about $900 in overcharged fees. That may not seem like much in today’s money, but in 1902 it was around $20,000 worth, certainly enough for most of us to file suit. (more…)

04/14/14 3:00pm

267 Lewis Avenue, CB, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row house
Address: 267 Lewis Avenue
Cross Streets: Madison and Monroe Streets
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: Sometime between 1882 and 1888
Architectural Style: High Victorian Gothic
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story:
When I first started this column, it was a paragraph or two about a building. As time went on, and also as more on-line resources became available for researching, I was able to get more info, and the columns grew. But sometimes there are great buildings in Brooklyn that just don’t have a lot of info available on them. But there they are; often anomalies in the middle of a block, a building that I think is unusual, or spectacular, or just eye catching for some reason. Some research into its architect, date, occupants or events turns up nothing much. But still there is a great building there, and sometimes we just have to call attention to them because at the rate Brooklyn is changing, they may not be here the next time you pass.

I saw this house on my way out of Brooklyn last week, as I rolled down Lewis towards the parking lot that is the BQE. I did not have time to stop and take pictures, except from the side, at the light. The bay that juts out is quite eye catching, even from a car, and the brickwork at the top caught my attention. The building looks as if it could be a school or some kind of institution, but it’s not, it’s “just” a house. (more…)