146-148 Lawrence St. Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Downtown Brooklyn has probably physically changed more than any other neighborhood in Brooklyn. That makes sense, since it has been the center of Brooklyn’s civic, retail, and entertainment life for much of the last century and a half.

Because of all of the changes, it’s sometimes hard to imagine what the streets looked like before the big stores came and cemented in many minds the idea that Downtown has always been a shopping hub.

It wasn’t always that way. The shopping district supplanted a residential neighborhood, one that had started to develop by the 1840s, as Brooklyn’s homes began to spread eastward, away from the harbor and the ferry.

This history has been easiest to see on the side streets. Gold, Duffield, Bridge and Lawrence streets between Fulton and Willoughby were all residential originally, and these blocks used to be the place to find many of the surviving remainders of this early residential enclave. But many of these buildings are now giving way to new mega-towers.

Today’s Past and Present highlights the few surviving buildings on Lawrence Street. (more…)

Apartcot composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Ah, summertime in New York City as enjoyed at a bungalow by the sea!

A chance to get away from the heat and crowding of the city. An opportunity to feel the salty breezes of the Atlantic Ocean waft over you as you sit in a lawn chair on your own porch in front of your own little cottage, only a block or less from water.

Who wouldn’t want that? But who could afford it in New York City, unless you were rich?

Brooklyn has always had some great beaches. When Coney Island, Manhattan and Brighton Beaches became Brooklyn’s Riviera in the late 19th century, it looked as if only the rich swells would get to enjoy the sun and sand.

They flocked to the shore to stay in enormous luxury resort hotels where they were waited on hand and foot. They were entertained by John Philip Sousa and his marching band, and feasted on food from the finest chefs in the city.

But that all ended when Coney Island became a working-class amusement park. The rich abandoned the hotels for quieter places on Long Island or the Jersey Shore, and eventually the big hotels either burned down or were torn down.

Developers realized that there was opportunity here. Clearly, the working class wanted to enjoy the ocean as much as any upper class family did. If they built it, they would surely come.

But the question was how to build efficiently and cheaply. The answer was found in watching Henry Ford’s cars roll off the assembly lines – mass production. (more…)

951 Prospect Pl, Composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Most of the Past and Present pieces involve photographs of old buildings that are now either gone, replaced by something else, or transformed into something less than what they were.

Here we have something different. This is a building that was pretty great to begin with, was totally wrecked for a generation, but now is back, better than ever.

Number 951 Prospect Place was built as the standout corner building in a set of four, along Brooklyn Avenue, right across the street from one of Brooklyn’s prettiest small parks, Brower Park.

When developer Louis Meyer had these flats buildings built in 1906, this area was known throughout the city as the St. Marks District. A block away stood the huge, opulent mansions of some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest people. (more…)

Gowanus Houses Baby Buggy Brigade, composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Debates over the placement and cost of public housing are as ingrained in our city’s history as the buildings that surround us. Tenements and the abysmal conditions of our poorest areas were hot topics in the 19th century, and are still hot topics now.

Through hard fought reform, by the very beginning of the 20th century, tenants of these buildings were required by law to have indoor bathroom facilities, running water, fresh air and light. The fact that some thought providing those necessities was giving too much shows how we’ve progressed.

By the time the 1930s rolled in, the lack of quality affordable housing in our city was a dire situation, made much worse by the Great Depression. The need for government-financed public housing was clear.

In 1934, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was established. The Authority’s first project was called, appropriately, First Houses, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The first federally funded Brooklyn project was the Williamsburg Houses, completed in 1938. The Red Hook projects were the first to be funded with state money, through NYCHA. They were built in 1938-39. (more…)

3 Mile House, Restoration Plaza,Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

There was a time when Fulton Street, between New York and Brooklyn Avenues, was the end of the line. Or the beginning of a new line, depending on how you wanted to look at it. This was the frontier, near the line of demarcation between the town of Bedford, and therefore the City of Brooklyn, and Out There.

Since it was the frontier, it’s appropriate that this story should have stage coaches. They figure greatly in our story – the story of Charles Holder’s Three Mile House.

Native Americans cut the trail that became Fulton Street. It was part of a major trading route that lasted for centuries. The Dutch and then the English expanded the trail into the Jamaica Road. It wound its way from Long Island, through Queens, and across the length of Brooklyn, joining the farms of Long Island to the harbors at Fulton Ferry and Wallabout Bay.

As time passed, the Jamaica Road was paved with wooden planks, changing the name to the Jamaica Plank Road, a toll road that saw a great deal of traffic. The Plank Road eventually became Fulton Street. Although its name changes once it reaches Queens, Fulton Street technically still stretches from the East River to Montauk. (more…)

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…)