Max Levy, Professor Mac Levy. Brooklyn Eagle, 1903

On New Year’s Day, 1897, Brooklyn’s premiere physical culturist, Professor Mac Levy, received a late holiday gift from the fitness gods. That evening he was at the Union League Club, on Dean and Bedford Avenues, giving the membership a lecture and demonstration of his journey from a consumptive and puny teenager to a fit and super strong modern day Hercules. Afterwards, he had planned to join friends downtown for some New Year’s Day cheer. They all met near the Elks Club on Schermerhorn Street, after which Mac Levy was headed for the trolley that would take him to his home on Union Street.

Because it was New Year’s Day, and because it was cold and miserable out, the trolley was nowhere to be found. The Professor was no longer in a good mood. He was walking up Court Street and had almost reached Union when two men stepped out from behind a building and demanded his money. It was late, and cold, and the police patrol was nowhere around, and he had been made to walk home. The old Max Levy would have handed his money over, and prayed he got home in one piece. Professor Mac Levy, the “young Hercules” whispered a prayer of thanks for this gift, and got busy. (more…)

Strongmen, 1

We have been trying to improve the human body since we became aware of its strength and beauty. Mankind has been exercising for a very long time. We may have started with “run for your life” being a literal cry to escape predators, but in the centuries that followed our trip from the cave to the city, that mantra is still popular, although perhaps “run for life” is more accurate. The ancient Greeks and other civilizations glorified the perfect physical body, after all, they established the Olympics, and left an artistic record of their pursuit of the body beautiful, an ideal many still strive to reach. The Romans incorporated that ideal into their civilization, as they did so many of the ideals of their conquered foes.

The Dark Ages in Europe obliterated that Greco-Roman philosophy. Between plagues and religious zealotry regarding the sinfulness of the human body, physical perfection took a rest of a few centuries. But the Renaissance restored the glorification of the body human, and as nations rose and fell, so too did the idea of fitness. Of course, the lower classes utilized physical strength much more than the upper classes, so those above were getting weak, compared to those below. That did not go without notice, and over the course of the next few hundred years, various programs of physical fitness were delineated and put into practice in different countries and communities. (more…)

Throop Ave. Presbyterian Church, BE, 1890

In the early morning of January 9, 1895, a fierce windstorm rushed down the Hudson Valley and vented its fury on New York City. Gale force winds knocked down trees and power lines, and blew away anything that was not secured. Out on Fire Island, the roof was torn right off a hotel. In Brooklyn two buildings came crashing down. One was in East New York; a theater that was in construction on the corner of Atlantic and Alabama Avenues. The wind cyclone around the walls of the building and knocked them down. One wall fell onto Atlantic Avenue, the other on top of a house. The occupants of the house were injured, but no one was killed. On the edge of the Eastern District, on the corner of Willoughby and Throop Avenues, a similar scene played out. But in this case, two people died. (more…)

Working platform for catwalk on the Verrazano Bridge, 12-27-62. Photo by Lenox Studios. Courtesy of MTA Bridges and Tunnels Special Archive

Prominent journalists Gay Talese and Sam Roberts are coming to the Transit Museum this Thursday to discuss the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which turns 50 next week, and Talese’s book, “The Bridge.” Published in 1964, Talese’s work explores the bridge’s construction, engineering, and the political drama that played out in Bay Ridge before ground was even broken for the 13,700-foot-long structure.

Before construction began, 5,000 homes and businesses had to be demolished, and Talese, then a reporter for the Times, covered residents’ impassioned protests against the bridge. Joe Spratt, an ironworker whose grandfather helped build the Verrazano, will join Talese and Roberts for the discussion. The talk will take place on Thursday from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Transit Museum, and tickets are free.

Photo via the Transit Museum, Courtesy of the MTA Bridges and Tunnels Archive

Throop Ave. Presbyterian Church,

January of 1890 saw another new year arriving in Brooklyn. All was normal; winter lay upon the city, but, as always, people were going about their business. In the Eastern District, a new church was being built for the growing congregation of the Throop Avenue Presbyterian congregation, under the leadership of their popular pastor, the Rev. Lewis R. Foote. The history of the church was told in Chapter One of this story. Nine days into that year, tragedy struck with the force of a tornado. (more…)

396 cornelia sk

The blog spotted an alarming development in the southeast corner of Bushwick, a mostly Caribbean enclave of perfectly intact circa-1900 bow-fronted two-family buildings. After falling into foreclosure, a house at 396 Cornelia Street, between Wyckoff and Irving, changed hands in June for $450,000 and then again in September for $725,000.

The new owner, an LLC, has filed an application with the building department to add two floors and a mezzanine, double the square footage, and turn the two-family into a six-family building.

We never thought this area would need landmarking, but this looks to us like the start of a trend that could destroy the historic streetscape and transform the neighborhood from affordable owner occupant owned housing for families to investor owned buildings with sky high rents for young 20 somethings priced out of the trendy part of Bushwick far, far away in the northern reaches of the neighborhood.

The mostly gray and yellow brick and stone buildings cluster around Irving Square park, south of Myrtle Avenue and north of the graveyards, and west of the huge Superfund site just over the Queens border in Ridgewood. Inside the circa-1900 and teens buildings are flats with modest floor plans and the usual period decoration, such as double parlors with pier mirrors. Similar homes can be found in east Crown Heights, Ridgewood and Sunset Park. In fact, whole streets of houses like these are landmarked in Ridgewood, and similar patterns of development are altering them in Sunset Park.

Still, for an area to be landmarked, the homeowners in the area have to push for it. We don’t think that’s likely here.

Many of the owners in the area are nearing retirement age. We hope they will at least get a decent price if and when they sell.

Vertical Enlargement for 396 Cornelia []
Image by

brooklyn theater fire

Green-Wood Cemetery and Brooklyn Historical Society are hosting a lecture and tour about the tragic Brooklyn Theater Fire, a conflagration that killed hundreds at a Brooklyn Heights theater in 1876. After the fire, a mass grave was donated to Green-Wood, and a memorial was erected at the theater’s former site on Washington and Johnson Streets (now Cadman Plaza).

Historian Joshua Britton will give a free talk in the cemetery’s chapel examining how the blaze affected the city’s policies and Brooklyn’s cultural growth and development. Then there will be a guided trolley tour of the cemetery, which costs $20, or $15 for members. The event will happen Saturday, November 22 from 1 to 3 pm. Head over to Green-Wood’s event page to buy tickets.

Image via Bowery Boys

Throop Ave. Presbyterian Church, ebay

The Throop Avenue Presbyterian Church was founded in 1852 by Presbyterians who wanted to worship in the growing neighborhood known as the Eastern District. This part of Brooklyn contains most of modern day Bushwick, Eastern Bedford Stuyvesant, and parts of East Williamsburg. Most of this area would become heavily German Catholic and Lutheran, but back in 1852, there were enough Presbyterians to form a good sized congregation. The Presbyterian General Assembly approved the church, and by 1867, a church was built on the corner of Throop and Willoughby Avenues, Pastor-Elect John Lowry in charge. It was dedicated on October 18, 1867, with ceremonies officiated over by the Rev. R. S. Storrs, of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church. (more…)

Cresco Realty Co. BE, 1907 2

Developer Walter L. Johnson was a powerhouse. When he began building his Dyker Heights suburban community, he went with the best of the best. First of all, he had one of the best locations in Brooklyn to work with. His father had purchased the old DeRussy estate back in 1888 with the idea to develop it into an upscale suburban community. The estate was on high ground, with magnificent views of the New York harbor. You could see from the Narrows all the way out to Sandy Hook and beyond. The air was clean and cooling, and living here would be the best of both worlds; a seaside house with easy access to the big city. (more…)

Dyker Heights, Constantine Schubert house, Wiki. 1

Dyker Heights, one of the southernmost sections of Brooklyn, was developed as an upscale suburb. It was the vision of one family, the Johnson family. Patriarch Frederick Johnson bought the land that would become Dyker Heights in 1888. This was the DeRussy estate, established by Brigadier General René Edward DeRussy of the United States Army. He was a military engineer, responsible for the building of many fortifications and fortresses during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. DeRussy’s estate overlooked Fort Hamilton, which had been built to his specifications.

Frederick Johnson realized that this bucolic location, with its hills overlooking the harbor, the clean, cooling ocean breezes, and the vast amount of land, was ripe for development. By 1888, Brooklyn’s population was already moving further and further out from its central core downtown. Johnson knew it was only a matter of time, and he was sitting on a potential goldmine. His estate was part of the greater town of New Utrecht, one of the six founding towns that make up Kings County. He petitioned hard to have New Utrecht annexed to the City of Brooklyn, but died in 1892, two years before that happened. It would be up to his son Walter to take up the challenge. (more…)

meryl meisler bushwick burning

The Brooklyn Historical Society is hosting a panel on Bushwick’s 1970s arson wave, when the FDNY battled 100 fires a month, moderated by Jonathan Mahler, a New York Times reporter and author of “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning.” The panel, called “Brooklyn’s on Fire: Bushwick Is Burning,” will feature photographer Meryl Meisler, a tenant lawyer, an FDNY fire marshal, a community board manager and a displaced resident, who will recount their memories of a neighborhood scarred by fire, bankruptcy and urban neglect.

Meisler, who taught in Bushwick during the ’80s, recently published a book with photos of the ‘hood from the late ’70s and early ’80s. The panel will take place at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Monday, November 17 at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $5 or free for members.

Meisler will also discuss her book, “A Tale of Two Cities, Disco Era Bushwick,” at the Brooklyn Central Library on Grand Army Plaza from 7 to 8 pm this Wednesday, October 29.

Photo by Meryl Meisler

Dyker Heights 1897 BE Ad

As most people know by now, the city of Brooklyn developed from the six original towns settled by the Dutch, or in the case of Gravesend, the English, in the mid-1600s. Using their English names, they were Brooklyn, Bushwick, New Utrecht, Flatbush, Gravesend and Flatlands. England took over the whole thing soon afterward, calling the territory Kings County. Over the course of the next two hundred years, those towns grew to encompass smaller villages, adjacent cities like Williamsburg and Ridgewood, and stretched and moved around to become the boundaries of Brooklyn that we know today.

As the city grew, those separate towns, which once had space between them, grew closer and closer to each other, as farms and estates became streets and plots. The city spread out in all directions out from the Brooklyn Heights shoreline, as roads and public transportation made it easier and easier for people in the outlying areas to be connected to Brooklyn’s piers, and on to jobs and markets in Manhattan. (more…)