Christine Adler, Brooklyn Eagle, 1905Sometimes I write about people who become so real to me I feel as if I know them. Telling their stories becomes much more than simply doing a lot of research and then condensing it. Often I feel a kinship with them because I may have experienced something they experienced, or have been in their homes, or in the places they visited, or in their shoes. Sometimes we did the same things, or sang the same songs. Sometimes literally.

Christine Adler was a turn of the 20th century classical singer. She lived for many years in Bedford, in a house that for a long time I dreamed would be be mine, and a house that I’ve actually been in. I’ve stood at the same mantel she must have stood by; I’ve climbed the same stairs, and looked out of the same windows. At the time, I had never heard of Christine Adler. That didn’t come till much later.

When I did discover her name, I found out that we also share a love of classical vocal music. She was a contralto, the lowest of female voices, although that means something different today than it did in her day. In her day, a contralto included what we call mezzo-soprano today, and includes some of the great operatic repertoire sung by characters such as Carmen, Delilah in “Samson and Delilah”, and Amneris in “Aida.”

I used to sing some of that repertoire too, back in the day, so when I read in the old Brooklyn Eagle pages that Mrs. Adler sang this piece or that piece, I know the piece, and I know what was needed to sing it well. Christine Adler also sang the equivalent of pop and show tunes, because she enjoyed working and entertaining, and she also was a gifted teacher. Although I’m too young to have been taught by her, I certainly could have been taught by someone that she had trained, albeit in that student’s later years. It’s possible; after all, my own real life voice teacher lived to be over 100 years old. So here is the story of Madame Christine Adler, a true diva. (more…)

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We were amazed to see the spiffy new look at 156 Broadway when we happened by recently during a snowstorm. Brookland Capital has been remaking the dilapidated 19th century building, at one point a cabinet factory, for about two years.

The first three units, out of a total of eight, went on the market in late December. Then three more listings went up two weeks ago, and now two of the units are in contract.

The units are pricey, but they look good. They are all studios, but with unusual double-height ceilings and lofted bedrooms. The four units on the second floor have two levels and the four units on the top floor have three levels.

The firm does not typically develop in Williamsburg, where prices are among the highest in the borough. Brookland Capital purchased the building in 2012 for $2,650,000. The asks for the units range in price from $750,000 to $985,000.

Curbed wrote about the building when sales launched in December. Bel Air Design Group is the architect.

Click through to see what the building looked like before. What do you think about the transformation of the exterior?

156 Broadway, #3C [Aptsandlofts.com] GMAP
Condo Conversion of Long-Derelict South Williamsburg Building Almost Done [Brownstoner]

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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…)

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A mutual friend forwarded these photos, taken by a neighbor about two months ago, of the inside of the Carpenter Gothic church at 809 Jefferson Avenue. The photographer commented:

Friends of mine belong to this church and tell me that they struggled with the situation for a very long time but ultimately decided they couldn’t afford to save a very deteriorated structure. It is very sad, indeed. I don’t know who could have saved this building. To anyone in the neighborhood, this is not a surprise. We will always wonder what could have been done to save it, and let this inspire us to prevent further loss of these old gems.

Click through to see the stained-glass windows in the balcony over the entrance.

809 Jefferson Avenue Coverage [Brownstoner]

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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…)

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Unfortunately, the construction boom has reached one of Brooklyn’s most notable structures: The pre-Civil War-era Carpenter Gothic (or New England Gothic) wood frame church at 809 Jefferson Avenue in Bed Stuy. The structure, which appears on an 1854 map and could be as old as the 1840s, is one of Bed Stuy’s oldest buildings.

It’s in a very old area in the northeast of the neighborhood that at the moment is sleepy and bare and dotted with the occasional mid-19th-century wood frame building. The area is not landmarked, and not likely to be, and we won’t be surprised if in 10 years it’s utterly transformed with Williamsburg-style glassy mid-rise apartment buildings.

Interior demo began in January, and the whole thing will be gone by the end of this month, according to DNAinfo. (more…)

Shirley Chisholm, 1028 St. Johns, GS,PS

When Congress convened in January of 1969, there was only one new female face among the men and women of the 91st Congress. She stood out for several reasons, the most obvious being that she was the only black woman in the room. She was also a small woman, slight of build, with big hair and thick glasses. She was not overly awed by the panoply around her. Shirley Chisholm had come to Washington to work. She was representing a newly created, and long overdue district in Central Brooklyn, that of greater Bedford Stuyvesant. Prior to this new district, Central Brooklyn had been gerrymandered into other larger districts with white majorities. For the first time ever, a black Congressman, in this historic case, a black Congresswoman, was going to represent this community’s many needs in the halls of power. It was going to be an uphill battle. But 1969 was one of those years.

Today, we are very cynical about what goes on in Washington, and with good reason, but almost 50 years ago, it was a different place. There was more respect for Congress and its power to change the country for the better. But in many ways, Congress was still the same. There was rampant cronyism, partisan in-fighting, powerful outside influences, racism, sexism, and the good-old boy network. Shirley Chisholm had to fight her way through it all. And like her experiences in politics in Brooklyn, Shirley knew how to be effective, and how to work with the most unlikely of people.

This is the story of Ms. Chisholm’s political and personal life, and it’s also a walking tour of the places that had meaning to her in her hometown of Brooklyn. (more…)

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Demo has started at 91 Pennsyvlania Avenue, the historic bank building in East New York we told you about last week. So far, only the interior has been demolished, and as far as we could see, the outside has not been touched. But it is probably only a matter of days before demo starts on the exterior.

Scaffolding has gone up on two sides that abut the sidewalk. The windows are out and the building appears to now be an empty shell. The building, designed by one of New York City’s most important architects, Richard Upjohn, Jr., has stood on a prominent corner in East New York since 1889. It is being torn down to make way for a seven-story medical office building.

The area is the focus of the Mayor’s affordable housing plan and will be rezoned for residential and taller buildings in the spring, which officially begins March 20, 31 days from now.

Historic East New York Bank Building Will Be Torn Down and Replaced by Medical Mid-Rise [Brownstoner] GMAP

Shirley Chisholm, 28 Virginia Place, NS, PS

Congresswoman Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was one of the most important people to ever come out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She was the first African American woman ever elected to the United States Congress in 1968, and a few years after that historic “first,” was the first black major-party candidate for President, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, in 1972.

She was born in Brooklyn, went to high school in Brooklyn, and graduated from Brooklyn College. She went over to that overrated island on the other side of the East River to get her Master’s degree in Education from Columbia University’s School of Teaching. But even then, she was living in Brooklyn, and worked here, got married, and went into Brooklyn politics. She was as authentically Brooklyn as the Brooklyn Bridge. What better way to honor her in my architectural history column than to take you on a Walking Tour of Shirley Chisholm’s Brooklyn, while I tell you more about this fascinating woman’s life and career. (more…)

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We’re sorry to report that the former East New York Savings Bank at 91 Pennsyvlania Avenue will be demolished to make way for a seven-story medical building. A demolition permit for the four-story Renaissance Revival building was issued in December.

One of New York City’s most important architects, Richard Upjohn, Jr., designed the bank, which was built in 1889 and occupies a full block on Atlantic between Pennsyvlania and New Jersey avenues, smack in the middle of the soon-to-be-rezoned East New York business district. The property was a Building of the Day last year.

An application for a new-building permit filed last week calls for a seven-story building with 121,000 square feet of space, as well as 153 parking spots. It will house “ambulatory diagnostic or treatment health care facilities,” according to schedule A filings. Udo Maron of Array Architects is the architect of record.

The 34,000-square-foot structure last changed hands for $5,500,000 in 2005, according to public records. Jonas Rudofsky of real estate firm Squarefeet.com appears to be the owner and developer, according to permits.

With so much empty and underutilized land available in East New York, we think it’s a shame the developer chose this particular location. This building looks ideal for adaptive reuse, such as a mixed-use condo development. We haven’t seen a rendering yet but we’re not hopeful it will be better than the building there now.

Building of the Day: 91 Pennsylvania Avenue [Brownstoner] GMAP
Photo by Kate Leonova for PropertyShark

Shirley Chisholm, Prospect Place, composite

When I was growing up, I knew who Shirley Chisholm was. I come from that generation of African American children whose parents made sure we knew who all of the “firsts” were. Kids growing up today take the many achievements of African Americans for granted, and that’s a great thing, because we should be able to achieve whatever we want without notice or fuss. We shouldn’t have to be able to make a list of the number of black nuclear scientists, cancer researchers, neurosurgeons, fashion designers, Oscar winners, hockey players or even Republicans; we should be able to be well represented in all facets of American life.

But when I was in my formative years, during the 1960s, we were just getting to the point where there were a lot of “firsts.” The Civil Rights Movement, which happened right before my eyes on our black and white television, was both sobering and inspiring. We grew up checking the pages of Ebony magazine, the black version of Life, which always had articles about those black folks who had arrived – pioneers in all walks of life, “firsts” or sometimes only “seconds” or “thirds” in every field we had managed to conquer. Shirley Chisholm was one of those proud pioneers, and as a female, she was of special interest to my mother, and thus, to me.

But it wasn’t until I actually moved to Brooklyn that I realized what that all meant. It’s easy to be somewhere else reading about great people of any nationality, time or location and be inspired, but when you live where they lived, walk past the buildings they were educated, worked or lived in, and see the world they saw, you get a special affinity for what it was like to shape that landscape and those people into history. While I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Shirley Chisholm’s stomping ground, and so in honor of her achievements, I’d like to propose a Shirley Chisholm Walking Tour. (more…)

Cyclorama in Brooklyn, Scientific American, 1886

The Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, was one of the pivotal turning moments in American history. Those who took part in the battle, on both sides, were affected by it for life. So too were the families of all who died, or came home maimed and tortured by the experience. The Pennsylvania battleground became a powerful symbol of the horrors of war, especially civil war, where the enemy is not a foreign nation or ideology, but one’s own countrymen. The battle had moved a President to its fields to honor those who fought, and those who gave their all. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the few speeches schoolchildren still memorize today.

Twenty-some years after the end of the war, its effects were still on the national psyche. In Northern cities like Brooklyn, the generals and officers in the war came back and became politicians, city officials, bankers, heads of railroads and utilities, lawyers and businessmen. The veterans of the war were everywhere, in every walk of life. The G.A.R, the Grand Army of the Republic; the Union veteran’s organization, was a popular meeting place for men to meet and be with the only people who really understood them.

The public was fascinated by the war in general, and the Battle of Gettysburg, in particular. There were lectures given by former soldiers, as well as military strategists. They talked about troop movement, charges, the generals and their mistakes or brilliant moves, and always, the wounded and dead. One man was so fascinated by the war that he decided to illustrate it in such a way that it could be understood by a wider audience of people. In this day before motion pictures, he decided that the best way to show this battle of battles was to paint some of the major moments and paint them large. (more…)