Spies, hwdefault.com 1On a cloudy day in 1913, all but two of the members of the Musica family from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn stood on a pier in New Orleans, waiting to board a steamer to Honduras by way of Panama. To anyone watching, the family was large, but unremarkable; two aging parents, and their adult and younger children. The parents were from the Old Country, speaking rapid Italian while admonishing their younger children. The oldest son and daughter, in their 20s, were the standouts; dressed in stylish and expensive clothes, the picture of wealth and success. Around them were the trunks and boxes containing the family’s possessions, ready to be loaded onto the ship. This did not look like a family on a vacation, these people looked as if they were leaving for good. And they were; the Musica family was on the run, and the law was hot on their trail.

Part One of this story will give you the background on the early life of Philip Musica. He was born Filippo Musica in Italy, the eldest son of a barber named Antonio and his wife, Marie. The three immigrated to New York when Filippo was a child, and he grew up in the tenements of Little Italy. His father opened a barbershop, and later, a grocery store, and it was there that young Filippo became Phillip, striving to achieve the American Dream. By the time he was a teenager, he had dropped out of school to run the store, and had branched out into importing. He was bringing in shipments of Italian cheeses, olive oil, pasta and other specialty provisions, and his father’s shop soon became one of the most profitable Italian importers in New York. (more…)

945-bergen-street-012115

Fabian Friedland, the owner of Crow Hill Development and the Nassau Brewing Company at 945 Bergen Street in Crown Heights, just let us know the site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and so his company will be using federal and state historic incentives to restore and adapt the historic property.

The new rendering, above, shows how it will look when it is transformed into a 50,000 square foot mixed-use complex. There will be apartments on the upper floors, retail on the ground, and he is considering a restaurant in the brewery’s historic 1860s underground lager aging vaults. Crow Hill will also restore the building’s now-missing Nassau Brewing Company signage, as you can see in the rendering. (Click through to see how the building looks today.)

“The historic nature of the old brewery buildings first attracted me to the site,” Friedland said in a prepared statement. “After a long wait, I’m truly thrilled to bring these buildings back to life. The Franklin Avenue corridor of Crown Heights is a vibrant place to be right now. And it’s exciting to have our project reinforce the existing architecture and character of the neighborhood.”

Brooklyn-based Formactiv is the architect. New York City-based Crow Hill Development specializes in the adaptive reuse of historic buildings, and develops property in the Northeast.

Here’s a little historic background on the brewery from Crow Hill:

The Nassau Brewing Company operated at the site from the 1860s until 1916, when it was forced out of business due to competition from larger New York breweries including Schaeffer and Rheingold. The brewery was originally known as the Bedford Brewery until 1884, when its name was changed to the Budweiser Brewing of Company of Brooklyn. In 1898, Anheuser-Busch sued the brewery for trademark infringement, forcing it to change its name to the Nassau Brewing Company, an identity the restored complex will adopt and retain. The brewery produced lager beers under the colorful names Rialto, Frankenbrau, Private Stock, and Extra Bohemian. The surviving buildings represent the most significant structures that were once part of a sprawling complex covering the entire block. Below are massive underground brick vaults originally constructed for the aging of lager beer at near freezing temperatures. The tallest portion of the building contained a gravity cooling system using natural ice harvested from the Arctic, and was topped, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, by a “small lake” of beer.

We’re excited about this project and think the rendering looks great. What do you think?

Nassau Brewery Coverage [Brownstoner] GMAP
Rendering via Crow Hill Development

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the liberator brooklyn historial society

Brooklyn Historical Society is hosting several unique events to celebrate Black History Month in February, including a talk with rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep, documentary screenings and a tour of one of the largest private African Art collections in America. Harvard superstar professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will kick things off Thursday, January 22 with a look at five centuries of African American history. Unfortunately, it is already sold out, but it is not too late to check out historian Eric Foner’s book talk on January 27, when he’ll discuss little-known figures of the underground railroad. And every Sunday at 3 pm, there will be free screenings of the documentary “Brooklyn Boheme,” which explores the black arts movement in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill in the ’80s and ’90s.

As part of BHS’ ongoing series of events with hip-hop icons, Mobb Deep will sit down with Wes Jackson of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival on February 25, and they’ll discuss the intersection of literature and hip-hop. Finally, Clinton Hill native Eric Edwards will offer a tour of his extensive African art collection, which encompasses 1,600 pieces created over 4,000 years. Head over to BHS to see the full schedule of programs.

Photo of an Abolitionist banner via Brooklyn Historical Society and Massachusetts Historical Society

Music, Edwardian lady, hairandmakeupartist.com 1Financial scandals, con games and rip-offs have been news since the invention of greed; so they’ve been around a long time. As our media and the 24 hour a day news cycle brings us news more quickly, every big Ponzi scheme, every large stock manipulation, every case of massive embezzlement brings headlines as the “scandal of the year/decade/century.” There have certainly been some doozies; Bernie Madoff being the one most people remember recently, but he certainly wasn’t the first, or even the most ambitious con artist we’ve seen. His profit may have been higher because of the times we live in, but he came from a long line of very smart, ambitious and audacious takers.

One of the greatest entries in the Con Man Hall of Fame has to be a man named F. Donald Coster. His great scandal of the century broke in 1938, here in New York City in the middle of the Great Depression. But Coster wasn’t his real name, and names are very much a part of this story. His family name was really “Musica,” and he and his family were a well-tuned chamber ensemble of white collar crime that went back well before 1938. Here’s their story: (more…)

Tiffany Place, 1904 map, NYPL

Some of Brooklyn’s most charming blocks are those one or two block little streets that are tucked in just about every neighborhood. There are all kinds of reasons why they exist; some are developer-designed enclaves that were added to the street grid, while others are streets that were created to accommodate a specific business or industry. Still others were added because the topography allowed for just one more small street in order to make sense in directing traffic or creating lots of a certain size. Whatever the reason, they are great, especially if few people outside of the neighborhood know about them. Who wouldn’t want a secret street?

The bisection of Red Hook by Robert Moses’ Brooklyn Queens Expressway created some new streets, and made others harder to get to. But even before the highway was cut, the neighborhood once known as South Brooklyn already had a few one block streets. It is home to four “places”: Tompkins Place, Strong Place, Cheever Place and Tiffany Place. The first three are purely residential streets in Cobble Hill, but Tiffany Place, on the other side of the BQE cut, has long been a mixture of residential and manufacturing.

Tiffany Place…what a great name. It must have been named after one of the great Tiffany’s of Gilded Age fame. If not Louis Comfort Tiffany, than surely it was named after his father, the founder of the famous jewelry store in Midtown Manhattan. That Tiffany, the one whose bling inspired thousands of people to name their daughters for a fabulous emporium of gold, silver and expensive jewels. The name means quality and riches. Who wouldn’t want to live on a street with the Tiffany name? (more…)

Trolley, Accident Nostrand Putnam. Brooklyn Memories 1931

If you go on line to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Eagle archives and enter “trolley accidents,” in the search function, there are 644 entries under that topic, from 1891 to 1950. Granted, not all of them are about trolley accidents in Brooklyn, and some of them are repeated stories about the same incidents. Some are just general mentions or stories about changes needed or implemented, but no matter how you want to cut it, trolley accidents were a rather common occurrence.

Like any mass transit conveyance, trolley cars had mechanical failures and human failures. People were often careless; ordinary citizens of all ages, and employees alike. The trolley companies, and there were a lot of them, all were trying to make a profit, and corners were sometimes cut. In the days before stringent safety laws and strong labor unions, all kinds of things went wrong, often maiming and killing people in the process.

I could tell stories about all kinds of accidents and tragedies that took place in the course of the trolley’s long history in Brooklyn, but I find the period when the trolley and the car had to share the road to be the most interesting. As a transportation of the past literally collided with the transportation of the future, we can reach some insight into our present day transportation situations. (more…)

Trolley,WB trolleys, 1907 postcard

Public transportation in Brooklyn began with stage coaches, called omnibuses. They ran along the major streets, and had fixed routes. They began running around 1827, and helped expand the borders of the bustling town of Brooklyn by taking passengers outwards away from the harbor and Heights. They were pretty reliable, but small. The average omnibus could only hold 15 passengers, and that’s with several of them hanging on to the sides and riding on top or with the driver. A passenger would signal the driver to stop by pulling a cord which was attached to the driver’s leg. Could this be one of the origins of the phrase “pulling my leg?”

As demand for better and larger forms of public transportation, other than trains, grew, the horse drawn trolley cars were developed. Some bright entrepreneur looked at a railroad car, the track, and the poor horse, and put them all together: enter the horsecar. Brooklyn’s network of horsecars began in 1854. They were already running over in Manhattan, and had been since 1832. Since the cars ran on metal wheels along a fixed track, and not bumpy cobblestone streets or muddy side streets, it was much easier for the horse to pull a larger load. This was a great improvement over the omnibuses.

There were limitations, of course. The horses were still pulling heavy loads, and most only lasted about five years before they were done and broken. They needed a lot of food and water to fuel them, and so added to the pollution on the streets and had to be cleaned up after. And they were slow – at best clopping along at a human’s fast walk. Still, they allowed people to commute from places like the town of Bedford, in Central Brooklyn, for example, to the ferry in a reasonable time. This created a commuter class that could live further and further away from Brooklyn Heights and downtown, and still work in Lower Manhattan. (more…)

Wash Hull, Julia Hull,composite

Architect Washington Hull had a lot of successes in his personal and professional life. He also had some profound failures. He was a Brooklyn boy, with a lot of talent as well as a healthy ego and a rather pugilistic personality. All of those factors resulted in a life that was certainly interesting, as well as news fodder for an eager press. He helped design and build the largest one-family home in New York City. His mansion for copper tycoon William A. Clark was an enormous castle designed for a man whose own ego, not to mention wealth, knew few boundaries.

This fantastic and rather overdone palace of 120 rooms is no longer standing, but it’s still in the memory of New Yorkers. Clark was the father of eccentric heiress Huguette Clark, who downsized from the family pile to 42 rooms over three apartments on 5th Avenue at 72nd Street. She led a strange and troubled life, and was the topic of a best-selling book called “Empty Mansions”, by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.

Washington Hull’s own life read like a novel sometimes. Aside from the mixed blessing of building a home for one of the Gilded Age’s most powerful and picky men, Hull also won a prestigious contest to design Brooklyn’s new Municipal Building in 1902. But just as he was about to begin to build, the contract was snatched out of his hands by the new, incoming Brooklyn Borough President Martin Littleton. He declared the Hull’s contest design and city contract null and void, and the architect who dreamed of designing a Brooklyn civic building for the ages saw his dream dashed on the rocks of political one-upmanship. (more…)

Wash Hull, Parfitt Design, BE, 1910

In 1903, a young Brooklyn architect named Washington Hull won a competition to design the new Municipal Building for the borough of Brooklyn. His design was deemed the best, with competition from the Parfitt Brothers, William Tubby and other important Brooklyn architects. The Borough President at the time, J. Edward Swanstrom, made the announcement at the end of November, 1903. Unfortunately, he had not been returned to office by the voters, and a month and a half later, Swanstrom was gone, and new Borough President Martin Littleton took over.

Littleton had great ambition, and a larger ego, and he immediately put out the notice that he would be reviewing everything that his predecessor had put into effect, and he would be making changes if things didn’t meet his exacting standards. One of those projects was the new Municipal Building. Three months after taking office, Littleton made the announcement that he didn’t like Hull’s design, and he wanted to void the prize and Hull’s signed contract and have a do-over.

Littleton held a press conference where he announced that he was going to get a better design. He owed it to the people of Brooklyn, he said. The story of this competition can be found in Part Two of this story. Needless to say, this did not go over well with Washington Hull, who was left holding a lucrative contract that wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. (more…)

Wash Hull, Muni Building, Arch and Design, 1903

In 1903, a young architect born and raised in Brooklyn won the most important architectural competition of the new century. Against all odds, this relative newcomer beat out well-known and experienced architects like the Parfitt Brothers, William Tubby and Rudolfe L. Daus, and was awarded the commission to design the Borough of Brooklyn’s new Municipal Building. Washington Hull was the talk of the town.

You can catch up on Mr. Hull’s upbringing and early history in Part One of this story. He was still establishing his solo career after working as a draughtsman and head of that department for McKim, Mead & White. He left that firm along with two co-workers, and they started their own office as Lord, Hewlett & Hull.

They seemed to be golden, winning a couple of good commissions, including a Reading Room building for Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights and a precinct house in Kensington. They also came in second in a competition to design the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And then they landed the big one: the multi-million dollar mansion for Senator William Clark on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; a building that was to be the largest, most expensive house in New York City. (more…)

Wash Hull, composite

This story is the stuff of novels and movies. A hometown boy, educated in Brooklyn schools, goes on to college and returns home, ready to perform Great Deeds in his chosen profession. He has some initial success working for the top company in his field, he gets married to a beautiful woman and has five lovely children, and he is recognized in his profession as a rising star. One day he is asked to join a competition. If he wins, he will achieve one of the greatest pinnacles of his profession’s success, and he will be a household name. Against all odds, and against incredible competition, he wins, and his name is plastered all over the papers. But before he can proceed with his project, he is shot down by political machinations, his name is stepped on, and his star falls rather rudely to earth. What happens next is both tragic and mysterious. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Brooklyn architect Washington Hull. (more…)

jewish delis bhs

Traditional Jewish delis have dwindled in Brooklyn, but Brooklyn Historical Society is inviting three deli owners to discuss how they’ve survived and thrived as the borough has changed around them. Deli historian Ted Merwin will talk about the “the glories, challenges, and traditions of serving up corned beef” with the owners of Junior’s in Downtown Brooklyn, Jay and Lloyd’s Kosher Deli in Sheepshead Bay and Mile End Deli in Boerum Hill. The panel will happen tonight at 6:30 pm at BHS headquarters at 128 Pierrepont Street. Tickets cost $10 or $5 for members.

Image via Brooklyn Historical Society