08/26/14 10:45am

Arthur D. Howden Smith, Brooklyn Eagle 1908Many writers have found Brooklyn to be an amiable place to live while penning works of great importance, or at least works that pay the rent. Whether that work is a great novel or autobiography, or just a self-important blog post, writers have put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, here in Brooklyn since there has been a Brooklyn. One of those writers is someone I stumbled across while researching a group of houses for a Building of the Day column. He wrote in the early to mid-20th century, and in the height of his popularity, was practically a household name. By the time he died, he was only worth a few lines in an obituary column. His name was Arthur D. Howden Smith, and for many years, he was a resident of 907 Sterling Place in Crown Heights North.

For a man who spent part of his career writing the autobiographies of others, Arthur D. Howden Smith did not leave all that much information about himself behind. According to press releases, he came from an old aristocratic New England family. His family was in the shipping business, or as one release put it, “he was descended from owners of sail.” He was born in 1898 or ‘99, and spent some of his childhood in Port Richmond, Staten Island. By the time he was a teenager, he was living at 907 Sterling Place with his family. (more…)

08/21/14 10:45am

Tag fire, Brooklyn Eagle, 1916The day after the tragic fire at the Tag house, an advertisement in the Brooklyn Standard Union announced, “Six Women Die in Brooklyn Blaze: It Could Be Your Home Tomorrow!” This half page ad was for the Pyrene Company, which manufactured fire extinguishers. The ad went on to say, “In Casimir Tag’s Brooklyn home this morning, six women were burned to death…Six out of ten fires are in homes. And yet the home, the place which guards our most precious possessions, is least protected from fire. Every home should have something to put out fires from the start…Until the Pyrene Fire Extinguisher was invented a couple of years ago, there was never any practical fire protection for the home…The holocaust in the Tag household may be re-enacted tomorrow in your home. This is a time for action. Put a Pyrene in your home today.” Talk about exploiting a tragedy for financial gain.

Part One of our story tells the tale of banker Casimir Tag and his family. He was one of Brooklyn’s wealthiest bankers in the early 20th century, a man who worked hard and became the president of not one, but two Manhattan banks. He and his wife Hannah raised a large family of six children. His death in 1913 left Hannah the wealthiest widow in Brooklyn, and head of the family home, a large five story brownstone at 243 Hancock Street, on the most impressive block in the upscale neighborhood of Bedford. (more…)

08/20/14 4:00pm

green-wood cemetery battle of brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge Park and Green-Wood Cemetery are both holding re-enactments and activities to commemorate the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, the largest battle of the American Revolution. On Saturday afternoon, reenactors from Glover’s Marblehead Regiment will show how sailors saved George Washington’s army during the battle. You can watch them from 12 to 2 pm on Pebble Beach in Brooklyn Bridge Park.  (more…)

08/19/14 10:45am

Tag house, Brooklyn Standard Union, 1916

After a day of making wedding plans, and stacking presents in a spare bedroom, the Tag household took to their beds on the cold and frosty evening of February 3rd, 1916. Mrs. Hannah Tag and her two daughters, Caroline and Helen, lived in the large 5 story townhouse at 243 Hancock Street, in the upscale Bedford neighborhood. They had lived here since 1893, the first family to occupy this grand home. At that time, Hannah’s husband, banker Casimir Tag, had been one of Brooklyn’s most successful financial men, the president of two banks and a board member on several more. His background and the story of the family house and neighborhood can be found in Part One of this story.

Casimir died in 1913, leaving his widow and six children in financial comfort. The Tag children were all now adults. The eldest son, Charles, was a medical doctor, with a home right behind the Tag house, at 284 Jefferson Avenue. The eldest daughter had gotten married on Hancock Street, and lived elsewhere. So did the other two sons. Only Caroline and Helen were left at home, and the wedding preparations were for 25 year old Caroline’s nuptials, which were to take place here at the house in two more weeks. Caroline’s older sister Helen, who was 31, was lame, and could not walk for any length of time. She stayed home most often, and was an artist. (more…)

08/14/14 10:45am

Casimir Tag, house, Hancock St.

Casimir Tag was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Over the course of his years, he turned that spoon to gold, and had the kind of life that many dream of, but only few ever have. When he left this earth, he left his large family well secured and financially set for life. He and his wife imbued their children with fine values and a generosity of spirit that would serve them more than admirably in the years to come. But none of us ever know what life has in store for us. We don’t know what tragedies or triumphs will occur that we never planned for, or suspected would ever happen, or even deserve. This is the story of the Tag family and the disaster that changed their lives forever. (more…)

coney island whip postcard

Green-Wood Cemetery will host an exhibit next month celebrating the life of William F. Mangels, the master mechanic and designer of several turn-of-the-century Coney Island rides, including The Whip, The Tickler, The Wave Pool, and The Human Roulette Wheel.

“William F. Mangels: Amusing the Masses on Coney Island and Beyond” will feature plenty of historical Coney Island artifacts, such as a Marcus Illions carousel horse, original sketches and vintage photos,  a 22-foot-long shooting gallery, a Whip car, a Pony Cart, a Speed Boat, and fire engines. The exhibit will open September 7 in Green-Wood’s chapel and run through October 26.

Image via Green-Wood Cemetery

08/13/14 11:30am


The war memorial in Saratoga Park has been restored! A reader tipped us off the finish line might be in sight. “Big news!!!” he emailed. “The Victory and Peace statue is resting on the pedestal again behind the chain-link fence!!!” When we stopped by recently, we could see the pedestal and the honor rolls of World War I dead on each side through the green fence, but the statue wasn’t there yet.  (more…)

08/12/14 10:45am

Ragpickers, NYC, thehistorybox.com 1

Today, we are used to seeing the people who somehow manage to make a living recycling cans and bottles. We hardly notice them as they root through trash cans looking for those precious five-cent drink containers. Perhaps we even separate them out for them, and hang the cans on the fence, so they won’t disrupt the garbage. The people who are really serious about this occupation can be seen pushing grocery carts heaped high with bags of cans, often on their way to a recycling facility, where if they have been diligent, they can make $25 or $30 a day. It’s certainly not an easy life, but as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Their collecting cousins are the guys with an old pickup truck who roam around picking up all kinds of metal for the scrap dealer. They are experts on metal, and can tell you how much is being paid for iron, copper, brass and steel. Finding a large amount of copper is like finding the mother lode – money in the pocket. In many cities with a lot of abandoned buildings, copper pipes don’t last long. For that matter, neither do radiators, iron pipe, or any kind of metal. My house in Troy, which had been empty for a number of years before we got it, was stripped of everything metal including the doorknobs, which were literally ripped out, leaving ragged holes in the wood. We had to replace everything. (more…)

08/11/14 4:00pm


Brownstoner columnist Suzanne Spellen and longtime commenter Morgan Munsey will explore Clinton Hill’s architectural history and discuss its many noteworthy buildings in two walking tours taking place later this month and in September. They will point out 19th century mansions, gracious row houses, stately churches and apartment buildings designed by some of Brooklyn’s most well-known architects.

The two-hour Society of Clinton Hill tours will take place at 11 am on August 23 and September 28. Afterward, tour participants can attend a reception at a home in Clinton Hill. Tickets cost $20 per person and can be purchased through Eventbrite.

Photo by Society for Clinton Hill

08/08/14 9:00am


Two Trees is busy saving industrial and architectural artifacts from the various Domino buildings and will use them to create a High Line-style “Artifact Walk” and permanent exhibition at the development. Two Trees has tapped Landscape architecture firm and High Line designer James Corner Field Operations to create the park grounds for the Domino development, The New York Daily News reported. (more…)

08/07/14 10:45am

Ragpickers, NYC, 1896. Alice Austen 1

The story of Brooklyn is a story of immigrant success. Beginning with the Dutch in the 17th century, Europeans have come here, worked hard to carve lives for themselves and families, and most have prospered and thrived. Some groups did better than others. Some groups were wanted, others were not. All in all, a complicated mixture of nationality, drive, skills, language, bigotry, religion, acceptance, political opportunity and a dash of luck have resulted in the polyglot mosaic that makes up the American experience.

Unfortunately, human society is built on class and caste, no matter how egalitarian we may boast of being, and someone is always going to be on the bottom. For centuries the bottom was reserved for black people who were brought here as slaves. The end of slavery meant menial work for most, and equality for very few. It would take many more centuries to change that impression, and the job still isn’t done. When large amounts of Europeans began immigrating to the US, room had to be made on the bottom for new groups. (more…)

08/05/14 10:45am

Grant Square, SSpellen 3

In August 29th, 1943, a letter from George H. Trumpler was published on the op-ed and letters to the editor page of the Brooklyn Eagle. It was nestled in the middle of the page, below a political cartoon showing General Mountbatten of England aiming a large cannon towards Japanese controlled Burma from his position in India. This was indeed a world war, in full swing in both Europe and Asia, and the United States was a year and a half into it.

But the big concern at home, at least on this page of the paper, was Brooklyn receiving federal funds to repair highways. There were also two editorials endorsing, in separate columns, women entering the engineering fields and Negroes being appointed by the city to local rationing boards in their communities. Progress, as well as war, had come to Brooklyn.

Even with all of that, the recent debate about the status of General Grant’s statue was still in the news. Two years after it had first been proposed, the decision whether or not to move Grant’s statue to Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan had still not yet been officially made. Parts One and Two of our story will catch you up on the details. (more…)