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…)

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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…)

Kings County Pen, 1901 postcard 1

In Part 1 we met Edward B. Coombs and George H. Nason, the last elected coroners of the independent City of Brooklyn. Coroners did not have to be pathologists back then. They were elected officials who presided over inquests into suspicious deaths and billed by the case. These public officials found themselves on the wrong end of a corruption scandal in 1897, and by 1898, Coombs was on trial for fraud. Our story continues:

As Edward Coombs’ fraud trial continued, the jury heard damning testimony about faked invoices and inquests. Coombs, with the help of trusted subordinates, had fabricated records for over a hundred inquests that had never occurred.

These reports were submitted with the names of people, many of them babies and children, who had died of disease and natural causes, making inquests unnecessary. Coombs simply changed ages and a few details, and used a family’s grief for his own profit.

Coombs had concocted fake addresses, jurors, witnesses and other details to pad out his invoicing. In a city of millions,  he probably figured no one would notice a few extra inquests, especially during the chaos of unification with the rest of New York City. But the District Attorney’s office had caught on.

The District Attorney was trying to clean up corruption at all levels of city government in order to deliver a clean slate at unification. To their horror, the D.A.’s investigators were finding corruption everywhere. (more…)

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, the three-day weekend that gives us a much-needed excuse to go to the beach, have a picnic, or just enjoy a lazy day at home. It can be easy to forget that, though, that it’s meant to be a day to remember those who died while serving our country.

We’ve selected a few interviews with living veterans to learn more about the experiences of those who served in the military.

The videos linked in this post are interviews with veterans conducted by the Brooklyn Public Library for the Veterans History Project. Signed into law by President Clinton in 2000 after unanimous support in Congress, the Veterans History Project collects firsthand stories by wartime veterans for posterity. With the help of schools, libraries, veterans service organizations, and community groups, these remembrances are recorded, where they will be sent to the Library of Congress’s American Folklife Center.

The story above is from an interview with Vietnam veteran Donald MacIver, Jr. at the Central Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. This is part three of a four-part interview series detailing MacIver’s experiences before, during, and after the war. We cued up his gripping story of a daring helicopter mission that went wrong, and how soldiers deal with the wartime loss of their comrades.

Click through to hear more local stories from Brooklyn recorded for the Veterans History Project. (more…)

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A 2009 Memorial Day concert in Green-Wood Cemetery by Green-Wood Cemetery

We celebrate Memorial Day with food, festivities and perhaps even a day at the beach, on the semi-official start of the summer season. Some of us plan to go shopping, taking advantage of all of the Memorial Day sales at practically every large department and discount store.

Because the experience of war, losing someone in war, military service, or even having a relative in the service is so foreign to most of us, nowadays, it’s hard to conceive of this convenient holiday on the last Monday in May being anything more than just a blessed day off, a break in the schedule of hard work that we are all too familiar with.

But it was not always so.

My parent’s generation were veterans of World War II, with the Korean War following right on its heels, so war and national and personal sacrifice were things they were very familiar with. I grew up in a small town upstate where patriotic parades took place on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, with the school band marching down the village streets, followed by the local chapter of the American Legion, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the 4-H, the Grange, church groups, and anyone else who wanted to participate.

Looking back, I’m surprised there was anyone left to line the streets, but there always was a crowd, waving flags and cheering. I started out marching with the Girl Scouts, and by high school was in the marching band, along with my brother. My Dad, a WWII vet, marched with the American Legion.

Our parade began at the school, wound through the town, and ended at the village cemetery, where a very solemn ceremony of wreath laying took place, accompanied by prayer, a 21-gun salute fired by proud veterans, and ended with the lonely and poignant sound of taps echoing across the hills. My brother was one of the two trumpet players on opposite sides of the cemetery, one playing the echo to the other.

The Vietnam War was still dragging on, but on that hill above Gilbertsville, time stood still, the ground was sacred, and even as a rebellious generation, we knew and honored those traditions. (more…)

KC Courthouse, undated photo 1

If you are a fan of procedural cop shows, you are no doubt familiar with the character of the coroner or medical examiner. Since the days of “Quincy, M.E.,” we have grown to love the crusty and quirky personalities tasked with investigating the deaths of thousands of people in a given city.

Over the years, our TV coroners and medical examiners have changed. In today’s shows most of them seem to be black women. But no matter who is cast, on television they are invariably dedicated and brilliant doctors with a passion for finding the facts of a person’s death. They are immune to politics or profit, and serve only the law and the truth.

Well, back in 19th-century Brooklyn, things could be different. Our tale concerns the last mayor of Brooklyn, his administration and the two doctors who served as the last coroners of Brooklyn. (more…)

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What did your Brooklyn row house look like originally? What year was it built? Who was the architect? Was it a two-family, one-family or something else? These are all questions original blueprints can answer. You may want to know because you are renovating, you have a passion for old houses, you are a new owner or you’re just curious.

Finding your original blueprints requires some legwork, ingenuity and persistence, as Brownstoner reader chemosphere recently discovered when researching his house in Flatbush.

He posted about the process, what he found and questions about the 100-year-old shorthand he was trying to decipher in a few separate posts in the forum. He has kindly allowed us to use those posts and the pictures of the blueprints he found to discuss in more detail how to find and read your original blueprints. (more…)