(Shingle Style Queen Anne house, 115 Buckingham Rd, Prospect Park South)

America has had a love/hate affair with the Queen Anne house. For many people, the classic wood framed Queen Anne is an oversized white elephant, a house that is too big, needs too much work, has too much frou-frou all over it, and costs a fortune to paint, to heat, and and a full time job to maintain. They are filled with old fashioned wood-trimmed everything, are hopelessly outdated, and have nothing modern about them at all. They are money pits, and some people wouldn’t live in one of those old haunted wrecks if they got one free.

For others, they are gracious examples of the finest of the 19th century’s industrial past. They are roomy, not cramped homes, with spacious wrap around porches, large lawns, and great curb appeal. They can have turrets with wonderful mushroom and witch’s hat roofs, cut outs, and second story porches, and are a wealth of different building materials. Inside, they are a testament to craftsmanship, with fine woodwork, stained glass, fireplaces, chandeliers and roomy kitchens. Yes, they need constant work, and can cost money and time to keep up, but to own one is a labor of love, and a chance to be a caretaker of history. I guess it’s obvious which group I fall into. For what it’s worth, my brother is one of the first types. Same family, same upbringing-go figure. (more…)

(Herkimer St. between Nostrand and New York Avenues, Bedford Stuyvesant.)

When trying to determine what architectural style a building is, there is a tendency to call anything Victorian, that you can’t otherwise identify, as “Queen Anne.” It’s almost a joke when you are walking around with fellow architecture geeks. “What would you call that? I can’t quite put a name to it…must be Queen Anne.” “Yeah, Queen Anne.” Well, poor Queen Anne! Her name is synonymous with the catch pile of architectural nomenclature and style. How in the world did a little-known (to Americans, anyway) queen of England become the name of an entire period of architecture that took place almost 200 years after her death? What is Queen Anne architecture, anyway? I have to share a hilarious typo from antiquehome.org as to the definition of QA: “Popular from about 1860 to 1890 in England and somewhat later in the US, the Queen Anne style lent itself to the excesses of the Victorian age with its turrets, oriel windows, and medieval influences. Beloved by lumber barons and railroad maggots alike, many of the largest and most spectacular homes of the early 20th century were built in this style.” Ha! (more…)

(Photo: Brooklyn Eagle, 6/3/1900)

It has always been a truism throughout history that if you have money, life can be good. This doesn’t end with humans, either. It has also proved to be the good life for a treasured animal, this living with people with money. By 1900, horses were no longer necessary for every day transportation. Most people, even the wealthy, were familiar with public transportation; the trolleys, elevated trains, commuter lines like the LIRR, and the beginnings of the underground subway system. The automobile had been invented, but was a couple of years away from mass production. But for the wealthy, with their mansions in the wealthy enclaves of the Heights, the Hill, the Slope and the St. Marks District, carriage houses and stables for their horses and coaches were still de rigeur, and what stables they were! The Brooklyn Eagle ran a series of articles about men about town and their stables. They highlighted two, one in Clinton Hill, and the other in Park Slope. The articles are an interesting commentary on their times, and how being a rich man’s prized horse, or his groom, was not a bad Brooklyn life, at all. (more…)

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Smith, Gray & Company or later, Smith-Gray, was one of the largest manufacturers and retailers of boys and men’s clothing in New York. Today, we think nothing of going to a department store and choosing from a wide range of clothing for boys and men, but this was not always so. I’ve been doing some research and photography in Williamsburg lately, and the Smith, Gray Company was an important part of the development of the Broadway area of Williamsburg, as well as downtown Brooklyn. The men who started, and ran the company, and the story of their successes, hardships and business are a great Brooklyn tale, all connected by some impressive commercial architecture. It’s a story of a great idea, some fine business acumen, cast iron and clock towers, devastating fires, investigations, insurance, witty ad campaigns, fashion and bankruptcy. (more…)

(Photo: kitchenclarity.com. Large 19th century kitchen)

In the course of looking for topics for this column, I come across some interesting little snippets that give us an insight into what life was like in Brooklyn and New York City, a hundred years ago. I recently came across this short article called Architecture and Servants, in the Real Estate Record and Guide, January 28, 1893:

The importance of the servant girl as a factor in our modern life is illustrated in no better way than in the effect she has on the planning and construction of the modern dwelling house. It is not enough that the quarters allotted to the domestics have been immeasurably improved in the last ten years; nobody begrudges them that, but their demands extend to the other parts of the house and must be complied with or they will leave, and this last threat has been enough to assure the fulfillment of their demands. Possibly the most startling of the dominance of the servant girl is to be found in the entire abandonment of the idea introduced a few years ago of having the kitchen on the top floor.

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19th century Brooklyn architects were a uniquely diverse set of men, with different backgrounds, education, national origin, and degrees of talent. A list of the top twelve would have to include Rudolph L. Daus, a man with an interesting, and international story. He was born in Mexico in 1854. A German Catholic, his family may have been part of a large group of Germans who settled in the Mexico City area during the middle of the 19th century. They were no doubt, well off, and young Rudolph would receive his education in the United States, Berlin and France. In Paris, he studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he excelled, winning the Achille LeClerc Medal, as well as other honors. In 1879, he came back to NY, and worked at the studios of two American Ecole alumnae, Richard Morris. Hunt and George B. Post, both extremely significant architects in their own right. Hunt was one of the premiere architects of the Gilded Age, who designed Carnegie Hall and Biltmore, the Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, NC, while Post was the designer of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the NY Stock Exchange. Daus set up his own practice in 1884 in downtown Brooklyn, and worked there until he retired at age 54. (more…)

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As in many professions, there are hierarchies of education. At the end of the 19th, and into the 20th centuries, there were several ways to become an architect. Some people skipped the school/higher education thing and went to work as apprentices to established architects. If you had the talent, or the money or influence, you could apprentice to a real master, and get a first rate education, with on the job training. Montrose Morris, among many others, did this, and did quite well for himself. Others went to school, at places like Cooper Union, Columbia, MIT, and various other finer American institutions of higher learning. Nothing shabby there, either, as architects like Cooper Union’s James Naughton can attest. Many of our finest architects came to this country from Europe, and studied at their universities before coming to the US, men like Swedish architect Magnus Dahlander, or Englishman Albert Parfitt. And then you had the creme de la creme, a la Francaise: L’ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. This school is legendary among architects of that period, and gave rise to an entire style of architecture which bears its name: Beaux-Arts. (more…)

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I am fascinated by lighting. A long time ago, soon after coming wide-eyed to the city, when I was starting out in theater arts, as well as interiors, I discovered the importance of good lighting, and the amazing results the right lighting could bring to a set, a display or a room. The first lighting designer I ever met, those long years ago, told me about how he made a good living going to wealthy people’s homes and lighting their artwork. I had only recently moved to NY, and the notion of someone paying someone else to position some lights totally amazed me. The jobs you can get in NY! I’ve since learned how valuable good lighting can be, both commercially and in the home. The past five articles have been about the history of home lighting, and I’ve only touched the surface of a huge body of information. When you get to the 20th century, and the wonders of electricity, as well as the immense talent working in the decorative arts, well…it would take weeks to highlight every style, mention all of the vastly talented people who designed some of the iconic shapes we still know well, or talk about advances in decorative and task lighting that have changed how we live. I can’t do them all, but there are some highlights. (more…)

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When I moved to Brooklyn, I rented a three and a half story Neo-Grec brownstone in Bedford Stuyvesant. It was built somewhere in the late 1870’s or early 1880’s. I know now that I was spoiled. This house had had only a few owners, and had never been broken up in any way, and was an intact one family house. That had some drawbacks in terms of maintenance, many of which my former landlady never really took care of, but it had some wonderful perks. One of those perks was a wealth of period detail, including lighting. Every major room in the house had what I thought were the original lighting fixtures, pan lights in brass, with four or five sockets hanging downward from arms, with white milk glass shades dangling from short chains. The light fixtures themselves hung pretty low, and were suspended from the ceiling, surrounded by ornate Eastlake plaster medallions. Each individual light could be turned on by a pull chain, but there was a push button wall switch.The back parlor, the bedrooms and the hallways had wall sconces, which were rather plain, and had sockets with the same colored glass shades to match the ceiling fixtures. They faced down, and all were controlled by a pull chain at the socket. I loved that house, and loved the lighting, but I only learned years later that the lighting was from the 1920’s, not the 1890’s, or around the turn of the century. (more…)

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Walk into a room, flick a switch and the lights come on. What a wonderful innovation that we take for granted. When electricity first developed, it certainly was not taken for granted. It was a marvel of technology, one so fascinating and fearful that the world of electricity got its own pavilion at the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition. Visitors saw the wonders of Nicola Tesla’s alternating current and marveled at his corporate sponsor, Westinghouse, as they contract the lights for the entire fair. Thomas Edison and General Electric had lost the bid to light the fair with direct current, but still had exhibits there, as well. Fair goers were introduced to phosphorescent lights, the precursors of fluorescent lighting, as well as neon lights. The White City was lit by electric lights, so much so that it glowed. It was an exceedingly bright and exciting world, and the Fair showed that electricity was not something to be feared, but rather a force to be harnessed to our will, controllable from its mighty generators down to the lighting of our lamps. (more…)

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An open fire, candlelight, whale oil lamps, coal and petroleum derived kerosene, and coal or petroleum derived gas. All of these fuels gave task and decorative light to the homes of the 18th and 19th century. Each successive lighting source represents not only the passage of time, but the advances of science. Someone figured out that beeswax and the wax derived from the stearin in animal fats made a candle that burned cleaner and brighter than tallow. They also figured out that placing a candle in front of a reflective surface like silver or metal sheets, mirrored, or crystal glass, resulted in a brighter light. In fact, the more candles and the more crystal, the better. In 1783, a Swiss scientist living in France named Francoise-Pierre Argand invented the tubular wick lamp. Something so simple a principle as allowing air to travel through the center of the wick resulted in a brighter, cleaner burning oil lamp. Argand improved upon this by adding an oil reservoir that delivered a steady supply of oil, and a glass chimney, which further pooled oxygen into the wick area, causing a cleaner, brighter burn. (more…)

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Lighting has changed much in the last couple of centuries. We’ve gone from the wan light of a single candle to the overly bright light of gases trapped between glass, fueled by electricity. In the first part of our history of lighting, we looked at candlelight, liquid fuel derived from animal fats, such as whale oil, and the first fossil fuel derivative; kerosene. Lighting fixtures have ranged from a single candle in a holder, to multi-candled chandeliers and fixtures, to lanterns and lamps of glass and metal, with thick wicks to burn liquid fuel. Last time, I mentioned the painted glass globed “Gone With the Wind lamp” as the quintessential mid-19th century kerosene fixture. I was wrong. It was pointed out to me by one of our readers, Commodore Stephen Decatur, that the use of that lamp in the movie was an anachronism. The painted glass GWTW lamp was not in use in the 1860’s, because it was not introduced until the 1890’s. Thank you Commodore, I hate imparted the wrong information. Hollywood, humph! Happily, I can say that that supports my statement that in spite of lighting with gas and electricity, kerosene lamps remained a popular lighting source long after newer alternatives were being introduced. The next innovation in lighting in the 19th century would be natural gas. (more…)