Brooklyn Bridge, postcard 3

Here’s an updated look at the most important thing to happen in Brooklyn since Henry Hudson landed at Coney Island. Many people call it “The Great Mistake.” Was it?

With Brooklyn’s much-hyped status as the hippest place on Earth comes some nostalgic feelings about “The Great Mistake,” as many called the consolidation of New York City. On that fateful day, January 1, 1898, Brooklyn the city disappeared, and Brooklyn the “outer borough” was born. (As were the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.)

The decision to join all of the counties surrounding Manhattan into one central city was not made easily, quickly or lightly. Politicians, businessmen, city fathers and ordinary citizens argued and lobbied for or against this for almost 20 years.

Consolidating New York City took a tremendous amount of money and power, along with the consideration of business interests, tax revenues, city bureaucracies, social issues and civic identity. Some people thought it was inevitable and progressive — but for others it was the end of the world as they knew it, the Death of Brooklyn. (more…)

empire-stores-06

Empire Stores in 1968

The austerely impressive Empire Stores along 53-83 Water Street reveals New York City’s storied founding purpose as a port city. The complex of seven nearly 150-year-old warehouses bears “mute testimony to the prosperous commercial activity of Brooklyn during the second half of the 19th century,” in the words of the Landmarks designation report.

Today, it is a construction site, slated to open next year as a 500,000-square-foot multipurpose facility. The red-bricked, iron-shuttered walls will house various gourmet eateries as well as high-end office space, stores, a rooftop garden and exhibition space, but for most of its life, before being abandoned, Empire Stores stocked a different kind of luxury good. As a cargo warehouse, coffee beans, sugar, molasses, and the likes from Africa, South America and Cuba were the main occupants of the building. (more…)

First Nat Bank, Chicago, 1883, officemuseum.com 1

Bryce Arthur Whyte was as English as Queen Victoria. He had a plummy upper-crust sounding name. He was handsome, with a slight blonde mustache and carefree air, well-mannered and, apparently wealthy.

Whyte came to America in 1888, the son of a Liverpool merchant who had made a great deal of money in the East India trade. He decided to make money — so that he wouldn’t be bored, as he told friends — and got connected with the founders of the Wallabout Bank.

When the Bank opened its doors on the corner of Clinton and Myrtle Avenues later that year, Bryce A. Whyte was an assistant clerk, responsible for taking in and recording deposits.

Bankers are not by nature a trusting people. The bank had asked for and received a guarantee of trustworthiness for young Whyte. The Guarantee Corporation of North America, located in Manhattan, put up a $10,000 bond as security for his honesty.

But unbeknownst to everyone in his new American home, all was not well in Whyte’s well-presented life. (more…)

waterst-tower-070815

Since construction on the Manhattan Bridge began in 1901, the bridge’s Brooklyn-side tower has been beautifully framed by the brick warehouses on Washington Street near the water. The steel structure photogenically rises up out of the East River, the Empire State Building visible in the distance.

Visitors and tourists are ever standing in the middle of Washington Street to snap the same iconic shot — which caught a photographer’s eye even before the bridge’s span was complete.

(more…)

369th, 15th NY, WWI, Wikipedia

Rufus L. Perry, Jr. was one of Brooklyn’s best known attorneys in the early 20th century. He represented a varied group of clients in both criminal and civil court. He was a true son of his father, a respected clergyman living in what is now Crown Heights North. The fact that the Perrys were African American is just part of this forgotten history. We met the father in Chapter One. The son’s early accomplishments were chronicled in Chapter Two. Our story continues:

Rufus Perry, Jr. spent his entire life rising above the expectations of the white world around him.

He was the Valedictorian of his NYU Law School class and spoke at commencement in 1891. He could speak and write fluently in five languages. None of his classmates could claim that ability. He wrote his bar exams in Latin, probably sending more than one professor back to his dictionary.

He opened his law practice after passing the bar, representing black clients, which was expected, but he had a full roster of white clients as well, both male and female.

In 1910, at the age of 26, Rufus married 24 year old Lillian Sylvia Buchacher. Unfortunately, no other information is available about her. All we know from census records is that she and her parents were all born in New York City.

Interracial marriages were few and far between back then, and were not looked at favorably at all. Two years later, Rufus converted to Judaism, taking the Hebrew name “Raphael.”

He was black, Jewish, with a white wife, and with way too much smarts for the son of a former slave. When he decided to go into Brooklyn politics, his friends and enemies lined up accordingly. But first, a little background: (more…)

Rufus L. Perry, Composite

During the latter part of the 19th century, Rufus L. Perry Sr. was one of Brooklyn’s most prominent ministers. Like most of Brooklyn’s leading Protestant clergymen, he had a doctorate, was widely published, and his sermons were quoted in the religion pages of the Brooklyn Eagle. The fact that he was African American, and had been a slave in childhood, was seen as remarkable. Chapter One of our story recounts his life.

But as remarkable as Rev. Perry’s life story and accomplishments were, the world hadn’t seen anything yet. His eldest son, Rufus L. Perry Jr., was about to break the mold.

Rufus Jr. began his life on May 26, 1868, born here in Brooklyn to Rev. Perry and his wife Charlotte. The family lived in a home in what is now Crown Heights North, on St. Marks Avenue, between Albany and Schenectady avenues.

Life for black folks in late 19th century Brooklyn was not easy. The law prohibited many overt forms of discrimination, but the reality was that most black people in Brooklyn lived on the fringe of society.

The schools and everyday life were segregated, and most African Americans were laborers or relegated to service jobs, while a small black middle and upper-middle class struggled to find acceptance and equality in the workplace and society.

The Perry family was part of this emerging black upper-middle class, which consisted of clergy, doctors, lawyers, undertakers, business owners and teachers.

Rev. Perry and his wife raised their children to believe that they were the equals of anyone. They were encouraged to aim high, and become whatever they wanted to become in the world. They should not allow other people’s prejudices to hinder their progress. Young Rufus took that to heart. He was also really, really smart. (more…)

Ebbetts Field , opening ball, 1913, Wiki 1

In Chapter One, we met architect Clarence R. Van Buskirk, mired in a corruption scandal in Chapter Two, but victorious designer of Ebbets Field in Chapter 3. Today, our story concludes.

Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, opened with an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the Yankees, held on April 5, 1913. A few days later on April 9, the Dodgers played their first league game here against the Philadelphia Phillies. Charlie Ebbets’ daughter threw out the first ball, as seen above.

A great deal of planning went into Ebbets Field, with architect Clarence Randall Van Buskirk and his partner, Alexander F. W. Leslie, taking field trips to other stadiums, and meticulously planning with their client, Charlie Ebbets.

Ebbets was determined to have the best stadium in baseball.

But when the stadium opened, they realized it wasn’t perfect. Even after all their research, Van Buskirk and Leslie had still forgotten a few things.

(more…)

494-humboldt-street-4-071615

In one of the oldest parts of Brooklyn are the remnants of a now mostly forgotten colonnade row — not the famous one in Brooklyn Heights but another one in what is now Williamsburg.

In the 1830s, ’40s and ’50s, Greek Revival was the fashion, and all over the U.S. people were throwing up facsimiles of Greek temples, even if behind the impressive facades were perfectly ordinary, even humble rooms. An unknown builder here erected a row of houses on Humboldt Street — we can’t say exactly when or even how many — all with tall Doric columns running two stories, from rooftop to porch, over a low basement.

The houses were wood frame, covered in clapboard, and their large windows and doors were topped by impressive triangular neo-classical pediments. (more…)

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…)

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…)

139 Bainbridge St. BE, 1903

The house at 139 Bainbridge Street was built in 1903 by developer William Clayton for an upscale buyer. The architect was Axel Hedman. He designed a house with all of the most modern amenities of the day. Please check out Part One of our story for the details. The house was purchased by exporter Francis M. Sutton, who lived there with his wife Louise and their three children. But this was not a happy home. Our story continues:

In 1912 Louise Sutton filed for a divorce from her husband of 19 years. The story made the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle on February 20, 1912.

Through her attorney, Louise Sutton told the judge that her husband was having an affair. She said that many of his business trips involved assignations with other women, some of which took place at a resort hotel in White Plains and at a hotel in Manhattan.

She also told the judge that although she and her children lived in a palatial home on Bainbridge Street, she was actually destitute. Her son Sherwood, who was 19, was at Princeton, but the other two children, Doris, 17, and Francis Jr., 14, lived at home. (more…)

139 Bainbridge St. CB, PS

Much of the section of Stuyvesant Heights in the vicinity of Stuyvesant and Bainbridge avenues used to belong to the Prosser family. They came to this part of town in 1857 and bought up a huge swath of land from the Lefferts family.

Thomas Prosser, the family patriarch, made his fortune from iron and steel. During the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, Prosser met Alfred Krupp, a highly successful German iron manufacturer. The two men became friends for life.

American iron and steel manufacturing was no match for Germany’s in terms of output or technological capability at that point, and both men could see a lucrative business opportunity. A westward-growing America needed German steel for railroads and other production.

Prosser was soon signed up as the American agent for Krupp. That relationship lasted up until the beginning of World War I.

During the Civil War and the Railroad Age of the postwar years, Krupp iron was essential to a growing intercontinental economy. Thomas Prosser, and later his sons, got a piece of every dollar that Krupp made in the USA. (more…)