07/03/15 10:30am

4th July parade, findmypastblogspot.com 1

As all American kids learn in school, Independence Day celebrates July 4, 1776, when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. That announcement was made through the Declaration of Independence, one of this country’s greatest and most powerful documents.

There are some modern doubts as to whether it was actually July 4th, or the 2nd, or even another date, but it really doesn’t matter. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about the event, (which he thought was July 2) and said, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

“It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Americans took John Adams’ advice and have been celebrating Independence Day ever since. (more…)

07/02/15 1:00pm

KC Courthouse and Muni Bldg. undated 1

In Part 1, we met Clarence R. Van Buskirk – architect, engineer, preacher’s kid, and well-regarded Assistant Engineer for the Brooklyn Department of Highways. He would one day be the architect of Brooklyn’s most iconic structure: Ebbets Field Stadium. But before that, he needed to get out of deep trouble. In 1907, the Department of Highways was on the hit list of a local politician looking to make a name for himself by rooting out corruption. And he had Van Buskirk in his sights.

Bird S. Coler was the Borough President of Brooklyn, coming into office in the fall of 1905. But he had higher political ambitions, and was consumed with a fanatic’s zeal to weed out corruption in the borough. If it happened to further his political ambitions? Well, all the better.

Self-serving or not, he did have a point.

At the time, all of New York City was a hotbed of corruption of one kind or another, some forms more blatantly corrupt than others. Over at Brooklyn’s Department of Highways, where Coler first set his sights, the head of the department, Frank Ulrich, had continued a long-standing tradition.

He bloated his department with patronage jobs, played favorites with certain inspectors, accepted kickbacks, and hugely overbilled utilities like Edison Electric Company and Brooklyn Union Gas.

Ulrich overstepped and got caught accepting payoffs in exchange for jobs. He was indicted, arrested, and let out on bail awaiting trial. He submitted his resignation towards the end of 1906.

Coler called for a Grand Jury to determine if charges could be filed against anyone else in the department, especially Ulrich’s junior staff, which included Clarence Van Buskirk.

Investigators came to the offices and boxed up billing and other records pertaining to the utilities, and put them under lock and key, intending to remove them for review.

But in the early hours of February 25, 1907, at least two men entered the Department offices on the top floor of the old Municipal Building, broke into the locked desk which held the keys, and made off with the records. (more…)

07/01/15 1:00pm

1173-1179 Bushwick Ave, CB, PS 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 1173-1179 Bushwick Avenue
Cross Streets: Cornelia Street and Jefferson Avenue
Neighborhood: Bushwick
Year Built: 1880
Architectural Style: Transitional Italianate/Neo-Grec
Architect: Thomas F. Houghton
Other works by architect: St. Agnes Catholic Church and school, Carroll Gardens; Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church, Stuyvesant Heights; St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, Park Slope. Also row houses and other buildings in Stuyvesant Heights, Crown Heights North, and elsewhere
Landmarked: No

The story: At first glance, these transitional Italianate and Neo-Grec homes are just another group of four modest brownstones. But here, as in all of his work, architect Thomas Houghton created beauty in the details.

These four houses were designed by one of the East Coast’s premiere Catholic Church architects, best known for his churches here in Brooklyn, Manhattan and in Massachusetts.

Houghton learned from the best of the best, Patrick Keely, and became part of the family by marrying the boss’s daughter. (more…)

146-148 Lawrence St. Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Downtown Brooklyn has probably physically changed more than any other neighborhood in Brooklyn. That makes sense, since it has been the center of Brooklyn’s civic, retail, and entertainment life for much of the last century and a half.

Because of all of the changes, it’s sometimes hard to imagine what the streets looked like before the big stores came and cemented in many minds the idea that Downtown has always been a shopping hub.

It wasn’t always that way. The shopping district supplanted a residential neighborhood, one that had started to develop by the 1840s, as Brooklyn’s homes began to spread eastward, away from the harbor and the ferry.

This history has been easiest to see on the side streets. Gold, Duffield, Bridge and Lawrence streets between Fulton and Willoughby were all residential originally, and these blocks used to be the place to find many of the surviving remainders of this early residential enclave. But many of these buildings are now giving way to new mega-towers.

Today’s Past and Present highlights the few surviving buildings on Lawrence Street. (more…)

06/29/15 1:00pm

971-975 Bedford Avenue, EBSB, SSpellen 2

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally East Brooklyn Savings Bank, now Chase Bank
Address: 971-975 Bedford Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner DeKalb Avenue
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1920-1922
Architectural Style: Neo-classical
Architect: Koch & Wagner
Other works by architect: Ralph Bunche House, Kew Gardens; Ridgewood Masonic Temple, Bushwick
Landmarked: No

The story: The East Brooklyn Savings Bank was founded in 1860. Like most local banks of this period, it was started by area businessmen and merchants as a place where they could conveniently park their money, while offering the neighborhood banking services.

Savings banks were always popular in growing neighborhoods, in part because you didn’t have to be rich to have a savings account, just thrifty. And thrift paid off, as savings banks offered interest. The banks grew rapidly.

Soon after the bank incorporated, the first branch opened on the corner of Franklin and Myrtle avenues. It was a small building, and the bank soon moved to a larger building across the street at 643 Myrtle Avenue, where it stayed until 1922.

That building still stands, although the founders of this bank would never recognize it.

As time passed, the East Brooklyn Savings Bank grew, and eventually opened branches in Bay Ridge and other neighborhoods far from its base. It was among Brooklyn’s most successful savings banks. (more…)

06/26/15 11:45am

820 President Street, KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: The Verona
Address: 820 President Street
Cross Streets: Corner 7th Avenue
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1888
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: John G. Glover
Other works by architect: Graham Home for Old Ladies; Van Glahn Brothers’ stables, homes and warehouses, all in Clinton Hill. Row houses and tenement buildings in Park Slope and Clinton Hill, Acme Hall in Park Slope
Landmarked: No, but part of a proposed expanded Park Slope Historic District

The story: In an effort to get high-class folk to move into apartment buildings, developers and their architects in the late 19th century had to go all out to avoid elements that would remind people of tenements.

It’s ironic that an educated and amazingly well-traveled American audience would not approve of something so urbane and European as a finely appointed apartment. Wealthy Parisians, Londoners, and Venetians had been living in them for centuries.

The late 1880s gave Brooklyn’s more upscale neighborhoods their first luxury apartment buildings. Joining buildings like the Alhambra, the Arlington and the Montague was this one – the Verona. (more…)

06/25/15 1:00pm

C.R. Van Buskirk, Ebbetts Field composite

Some of Brooklyn’s greatest architectural treasures were designed by people whose names we either never knew or can’t remember. Most people don’t really care about architecture anyway, but in spite of that, a few names become part of the cultural conversation.

Some of them we manage to remember: the Brooklyn Bridge – that Roebling guy. He died.

The Brooklyn Museum – um, oh yeah, McKim, Mead & White. White was the guy who had the mistress on the red swing in his private playroom and her husband shot him. That’s easy to remember. Unfortunately it’s less easy to remember that White didn’t actually design the museum, McKim did. But still, not bad.

So what about one of Brooklyn’s most famous icons? What about the ballpark with the name that can cause a native Brooklynite of a certain age to get teary and wax nostalgic? We know the name of the team and the exploits of the players in that temple of baseball. Their names are whispered the way one speaks of a saint in church.

But who was the architect of this sacred space? Who designed Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Clarence R. Van Buskirk, that’s who. Well, maybe. More on that later. But first, who?  (more…)

06/24/15 1:00pm

137-149 Lafayette Ave, SB, PS 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Altered row houses
Address: 137-147 Lafayette Avenue
Cross Streets: Cumberland Street and Carlton Avenue
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: Original buildings, 1860s; major alterations, 1934
Architectural Style: Originally Italianate, now Colonial Revival
Architect: Unknown; 1934 alterations, Horace B. Mann
Other works by architect: With partner Perry R. McNeille: “Kinko” houses in Crown Heights North and Park Slope, suburban houses in New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and the Fieldston Historic District in the Bronx
Landmarked: Yes, part of Fort Greene Historic District (1978)

The story: How times and fashions change! When the row houses of Fort Greene were built, primarily in the 1860s and ‘70s, a single-family house was seen as the optimal family home. But 80 years later, things had changed.

Apartments were the new homes of choice. But the lack of available land for new buildings, and a paucity of available funds during the middle years of the Great Depression, meant that developers needed to get creative in order to meet that need.

The front page of the Brooklyn Eagle’s real estate section on Sunday, September 23, 1934, featured extensive coverage of a project that was midway to completion on Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene. (more…)

06/23/15 1:00pm

Apartcot composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Ah, summertime in New York City as enjoyed at a bungalow by the sea!

A chance to get away from the heat and crowding of the city. An opportunity to feel the salty breezes of the Atlantic Ocean waft over you as you sit in a lawn chair on your own porch in front of your own little cottage, only a block or less from water.

Who wouldn’t want that? But who could afford it in New York City, unless you were rich?

Brooklyn has always had some great beaches. When Coney Island, Manhattan and Brighton Beaches became Brooklyn’s Riviera in the late 19th century, it looked as if only the rich swells would get to enjoy the sun and sand.

They flocked to the shore to stay in enormous luxury resort hotels where they were waited on hand and foot. They were entertained by John Philip Sousa and his marching band, and feasted on food from the finest chefs in the city.

But that all ended when Coney Island became a working-class amusement park. The rich abandoned the hotels for quieter places on Long Island or the Jersey Shore, and eventually the big hotels either burned down or were torn down.

Developers realized that there was opportunity here. Clearly, the working class wanted to enjoy the ocean as much as any upper class family did. If they built it, they would surely come.

But the question was how to build efficiently and cheaply. The answer was found in watching Henry Ford’s cars roll off the assembly lines – mass production. (more…)

06/22/15 1:00pm

293-299 Cumberland St. SSpellen 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Wood-framed row houses
Address: 293-299 Cumberland Street
Cross Streets: Lafayette and Greene avenues
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: 1853
Architectural Style: Greek Revival, with alterations
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: Yes, part of Fort Greene Historic District (1978)

The story: The Greek Revival style of architecture began to grow in popularity in the United States in the 1820s. By the 1830s and ’40s, the features we most readily associate with the style — the white temple-style buildings, the columns and the pediments — had been blueprinted in architectural style books.

These books became the guides that thousands of American builders, both known and unknown, used as the basis for their own designs. Greek Revival vernacular buildings became common from the Ohio Valley to New England, throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, and throughout the South.

This particular group nestled here on Cumberland Street is actually two pairs of attached row houses. Their presence is quite wonderful and unexpected in a neighborhood predominated by brownstone row houses. (more…)

06/19/15 1:00pm

457 Rugby Rd, SSpellen 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Detached single-family wood-framed house
Address: 457 Rugby Road
Cross Streets: Dorchester and Ditmas Avenues
Neighborhood: Ditmas Park West
Year Built: 1910-11
Architectural Style: Queen Anne with a hint of Arts and Crafts
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No, but filed with LPC for consideration, and should be.

The story: Developer Louis H. Pounds, through his Manor Realty Company, purchased the land that currently makes up Ditmas Park and Ditmas Park West in 1902 from the Ditmarsen family, which had farmed here since the late 1600s.

Flatbush was Brooklyn’s new suburbia at this time, with several important developers overseeing the transition as old farmlands became lots with fine homes for Brooklyn’s wealthier set, who wanted to be within reach of the city, but not in it.

Many of these developers, including Pounds, were looking at the model set forth by Dean Alvord, the master developer of posh Prospect Park South, only blocks from here.

Alvord’s development of PPS had begun in 1898, and by the time Pounds began working on Ditmas Park, Alvord was well on his way, with wide streets filling up with grand, enormous houses. (more…)

06/18/15 1:00pm

139 Bainbridge St. BPL, 1928

The big white house on the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Bainbridge Street in Stuyvesant Heights is one of the most beautiful on this street of fine townhouses and large mansions. In Chapter One we learned who built it. In Chapter Two it was home to the Sutton family, torn apart by the miserable marriage of Francis and Louise Sutton. The house was a casualty of the dissolution of their union, and by 1919 had passed into new hands. Our story continues:

This story is also about two remarkable sisters, pioneers who chose to spend their lives helping women and girls in need of support and care.

Myrtis and Mary Fish hailed from Oswego County, NY. They came with their parents and a brother to Brooklyn as children, and were educated in Brooklyn public schools. All three Fish children became respected in their chosen professions.

They were distant relatives of the powerful and wealthy Fish family of Manhattan. Hamilton Fish was the most famous member, and was a senator, a governor of New York, and Secretary of State to President Ulysses S. Grant.

Myrtis Fish graduated from the New York School of Law, and was said to be the first female attorney licensed to practice in Brooklyn and Long Island. Her brother Lawrence also became a lawyer, and was a municipal court judge in Brooklyn.

Myrtis became a probation officer, and for over 20 years was the female probation officer for the Brooklyn Night Court.

Fish felt strongly about helping the women she saw pass through the courts and in her sphere of influence. She wanted to establish a place where girls and women could find a place of refuge and help.

She enlisted the help of several wealthy society ladies, and, most importantly, her sister. (more…)