Polo at PP, composite

We continue our weeklong look at Brooklyn’s greatest treasure, Prospect Park.

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The first polo game in Prospect Park was played on June 11, 1879. It was between the Westchester Polo Club and a club from Queens.

Up until that day, “polo” had a totally different meaning to Brooklyn’s sports lovers. It meant ice polo, a game we now call hockey. It had been played in Brooklyn for several years, inaugurated by the Crescent Athletic Club and other well-to-do sports clubs.

They played in the Clermont Rink in Fort Greene, against clubs from nearby colleges like Yale and Columbia as well as other sports clubs.

As Brooklyn was getting richer, so too were her sports. Polo, the game with horses, had been played in Persia for centuries. A version of it traveled to the east, and was in play for hundreds of years in India before it was encountered by bored aristocratic British officers stationed there in the middle of the 19th century.

Two British soldiers started a polo club to introduce the sport — basically hockey on horses — to their countrymen, and the game took off and has been popular ever since.  (more…)

Prospect Park Lake composite

We continue this week’s look at Brooklyn’s natural treasure: Prospect Park.

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Because it was so carefully planned and executed almost 150 years ago, Prospect Park today looks as if it has always been there. Which, of course, was the whole idea.

If you don’t know the park’s history, you could easily think that all the landscapers needed to do was to enclose the park with a fence, cut some roads and pathways, build a couple of bridges and a grand entrance or three, and mow the lawn.

But in reality, Prospect Park is as constructed as the sets of Lord of the Rings in New Zealand. Every aspect of both the park and the Shire was carefully thought out and crafted. (more…)

99 Sutton, ICC, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The International Cork Company was established here by James Alberti in 1907. The company’s first factory was a large two-story building at 29-45 Rodney Street in Williamsburg. The company made cork stoppers for beverage bottles as well as for medicines and pharmaceutical use. They were well known in the industry for the quality of their medicinal corks.

By 1908, the factory employed over 200 people, three quarters of whom were the young women and girls who made the corks. The other 50 or so were men who performed the other company tasks, including all of the supervisory positions.

International Cork was a family business. Founder James Alberti was joined by his son Emilio, who became president. James Alberti Jr. was vice president and general manager, and his younger brother John was secretary and treasurer. (more…)

1054 Bushwick Ave, Ibert House, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

From the Brooklyn Collection at the Brooklyn Public Library comes today’s Past and Present offering. For at least 70 years, the Ibert house stood on the southeast corner of Bushwick and Gates Avenues, at 1054 Bushwick Avenue.

When it was no longer someone’s home, it became a popular gathering hall for organizations and parties. Then it was torn down, replaced by today’s Ridgewood Masonic Temple. And we almost lost that one, too. Here’s the story:

Martin Ibert Sr. was a very successful merchant in Bushwick. His business, called Martin Ibert & Sons, was a flour and feed store operating at 158 Graham Avenue, founded in the 1860s.  He sold hay and feed for horses in addition to milled flour for people.

The Ibert family had another branch that was in the brewery business. Frank Ibert ran a very successful brewery, which was also in Bushwick, on Grove Street between Evergreen and Central Avenues. It was called, simply enough, the Frank Ibert Brewery Company.

At some point, one of these men, or perhaps even an earlier Ibert, built this house and gave it its name, the Ibert Mansion. The house was called that in the caption of this photograph taken in 1911. (more…)

Brown Mansion, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Finding this great photograph of a long-gone mansion in Flatbush was the easy part. Finding out where it was and who the “Brown” mentioned was would turn out to be a bit more difficult. The only name that could possibly be harder to track would be someone named “Smith.” There were a lot of Browns in Brooklyn, and since there was no date or address, it took some doing, and a bit of luck. But in the end, the mystery was solved.

The location: The Brown mansion was at 694 Flatbush Avenue, near the corner of Parkside Avenue. Although this neighborhood is now called Prospect Lefferts Gardens, in the 19th century it was just plain old Flatbush.

The Lefferts family homestead was nearby, as were the homes of many of Flatbush’s older families. This was a wealthy area, and also a very desirable one. It was close to public transportation, with Flatbush Avenue the major roadway between the harbor at Fulton Landing and the oceanfront at what is now Floyd Bennett Field.

Flatbush remained an independent town and not part of the City of Brooklyn until 1894. It had its own town government, raised its own money for roads and infrastructure and collected its own taxes. Because much of it remained farmland until the 20th century, Flatbush life was very different that the more urban life on the other side of the park.

But that was changing. (more…)

Sylvan Electric Baths composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

For as long as mankind has been around, we’ve been trying to find ways to alleviate our aches and pains. In late 19th and early 20th century America, advances in science combined with ancient cures had been shown to produce results.

Mineral and hot springs baths were one popular way to sooth aching limbs and calm agitated organs. The resort towns of Sharon Springs, Saratoga and other locations in upstate New York were popular places to get the cure. Fortunes were made by spa owners, and entire towns dedicated to hosting the guests of these spas flourished for many years.

But you had to have time to go there, and you had to be wealthy, or at least well-off. Didn’t everyone deserve to benefit from nature’s cures? And if you lived in New York City, wouldn’t it be great if there was a place in the city itself where you could take a treatment, and then walk back out onto the street and continue your busy day? Some savvy entrepreneurs thought so, and decided to bring the spa experience to Brooklyn. (more…)

81 Fenimore St. PLG, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Like an archeological dig, Brooklyn is made up of layers. In Flatbush, the fields the Canarsee roamed became cultivated farmland under the Dutch. That in turn gave way to freestanding homes on large plots, which were incorporated into the land deed of Lefferts Manor, and turned into smaller row houses.

That’s what happened here on Fenimore Street, as it happened throughout many Brooklyn neighborhoods, but in this rare instance, we have photographs.

Our period photo shows 81 Fenimore Street. The photograph was taken in 1910. It shows a large wood-framed house on the property. The style was Second Empire, with a central tower with an even taller mansard roof and widow’s walk. The view of Brooklyn from the mansard windows must have been fantastic. (more…)

Brooklyn Eagle Building composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper began as the paper of record for a growing city, and was at its finest as the city grew into a great metropolis. The paper reported about Brooklyn life, events and people continuously for 114 years.

The Eagle began back in 1841 as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat. Its owners were Isaac Van Anden and Henry Cruse Murphy. The two men had originally planned to publish the paper as a morning paper, which along with news, would be an arm of Democratic Party politics.

In 1842, Henry Cruse Murphy became Mayor of Brooklyn. The paper continued to grow, covering not just local news, but extending its range to international and national news as well. That was rare for most morning dailies.

The editor of the Eagle between 1846 and 1848 was poet Walt Whitman. Whitman was a printer by trade, in addition to being a writer and poet, and had worked for several different newspapers in NY and Long Island before coming to the Eagle.

He only lasted two years at the paper because he fell out with Isaac Van Anden. Whitman was a supporter of the “Free-Soil Movement” wing of the Democratic Party, and Van Anden was a strong supporter of their opposition, the more conservative wing of the party.

Crossing one’s boss over politics is never a good idea, and Whitman was encouraged to move on. During the Civil War, the paper continued to support the Democratic Party, quite a stand in what would be a very Republican city in later years. That would later change, as the times changed. (more…)

950 St. Marks Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I freely admit to a fascination with St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights North. Along the length of the street, between Rogers and Albany Avenues, lay opulent real estate belonging to some of the wealthiest people in Brooklyn during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These residences often make up this Past and Present column because with rare exception, they are all gone. Only photographs, written descriptions and perhaps a few undiscovered photographs remain. Here’s another to add to the list.

Not only is this enormous house gone; the photograph shows it after a disastrous fire that gutted it in 1898. This 1905 photo shows the house just before it was torn down, and replaced by the handsome flats buildings that stand now. In fact, nothing in this photo is still standing, except the row houses in the background.

That’s another thing about St. Marks Avenue that makes it so fascinating and unique. The huge mansions are gone, but with few exceptions, they were all replaced by attractive, even elegant buildings. We may not have the houses of the rich to gawk at anymore, but we did get some fine architecture in return. (more…)

President, 7th, 8th Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

One of the fun parts of writing this particular column is matching a vintage photo or postcard to its present-day site. Sometimes a perfect match is possible, and other times, the scenery has changed so much, it’s impossible to tell exactly where a building or event was located. The clues or markers that place or date a photo just don’t exist any longer. But that’s not the case here.

The historic photograph was taken in late February or early March of 1906 on President Street, between 7th and 8th avenues. This is the north side of the street, closer to 8th Avenue. The men are tearing up the sidewalk area to lay down new sidewalks and curbs.

My vintage photo had a caption, President Street, 1906, which narrowed down the street and date. A bit of research turned up public notices in the Brooklyn Eagle announcing road and sewer work throughout the borough, as well as the “regulating, grading, curbing, flagging and laying cement sidewalks” on many blocks, as well.

The paving and road work were spread out with great planning, so traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, could get around without too much difficulty. The notices began appearing at the end of February, 1906, and continued through March. One by one, block by block, the city infrastructure was improved. (more…)

PS 60, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Public School 60 was built for the growing number of students in what is now the Greenwood Heights neighborhood. It was built in 1886. Like all of the public schools built during this period of time, it was designed by James Naughton, the last and greatest of the city of Brooklyn’s public school architects. He was the last man to hold the position of Superintendent of Buildings for the Board of Education of the City of Brooklyn. He died about the same time his position was eliminated in 1898, when Brooklyn became part of greater New York City.

Naughton designed great school buildings of all sizes and configurations. He is on record for designing and building at least 100 school buildings across the borough during his twenty year tenure. He didn’t have the 20th century engineering and technological advances that his successor, C.P. J. Snyder had, allowing for walls of windows, and bigger spaces, but Naughton managed to get the largest windows he could in his schools, allowing for lots of natural light and air. This building is similar to many of his schools in other parts of Brooklyn, although many of them are no longer standing. This building closely resembles PS 79, which was at Kosciusco and Sumner, long gone, and P.S. 65 in Cypress Hills. That one is still with us. (more…)

525-531 Gates Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I found this photograph recently, showing a group of storefronts on the ground floor of some handsome Bedford Stuyvesant flats buildings. It’s in the collections of the New York Historical Society, and dates from 1920. I find these slices of the past fascinating, as well as very often quite sad, as invariably, the past often looked a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the present.

This photograph is part of a large group of pictures taken by William D. Hassler, who lived from 1877 to 1921. For several years, he was employed as a photographer for Joseph P. Day, a large real estate auctioneer who conducted business in New York City and Pennsylvania. Hassler took hundreds of photographs of individual and groups of buildings for Day in the years between 1910 and 1921. Almost all of the photos show ordinary buildings, not fancy mansions or people. They are a fascinating look at some of the vanishing details of the city. (more…)