Red Hook Brooklyn -- 764 Court St Electric Welding Co

This month marks Brownstoner’s Steel Anniversary. We’re taking some time to look back at our past, even as we design a new future.

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Modern steel-frame construction dates back to the 1880s. The idea of using iron or steel to support a building had been around for a while, but prior to 1885 it was only used for small elements, such as in the framework of an oriel or bay, and only used in structures of only a few stories. (more…)

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- Bedford Academy Physical Education History

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Bedford was one of the town of Brooklyn’s oldest communities, with Dutch, then English settlement here in the mid 1600s. By the end of the 19th century, it had developed as a large, sprawling and successful neighborhood.

Bedford’s importance could be measured by its wealthy and upper-middle-class residents and their fine homes, as well as the abundance of churches, schools, clubs and organizations, and retail and industrial spaces.

Brooklyn’s first high school, Girls High School, was in Bedford, as was the even more impressive Boys High School, several years later. The headquarters of the Brooklyn Public Library was here too, along with many large elementary schools.

Like most upscale neighborhoods, Bedford also had its share of private learning institutions. Almost anyone with impressive credentials and a building could open a school, and if they were fortunate to generate a large following, that school could grow.

The classified section of the Brooklyn Eagle in the late 19th century has advertisements for a multitude of private academies and schools, with offerings including general studies, foreign languages, accounting, music and dance, religion and military studies.

Some of the private homes that served as schools are still standing today. But schools more often had their own public buildings, and today many of those are gone. (more…)


A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Most of my Past and Present entries tell the story of what happened to buildings that are no longer — but this one is about a much-hyped building that never was.

Houses of Worship in Prospect Heights

With very few exceptions, Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods live up to the 19th-century epithet “City of Churches.” Many of our neighborhoods can boast of a church seemingly on every other corner, and some have more than one on a corner.

Prospect Heights is therefore an anomaly. It’s a later-19th-century community, developed at the same time as parts of Park Slope, Crown Heights North and Bedford Stuyvesant, but unlike those neighborhoods, very much lacking in large houses of worship. (more…)

Crown Heights Brooklyn -- 1183 Bergen St History

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The pink house on Bergen Street was still standing when I moved to Crown Heights North in 2000. Only two blocks from my house, I saw it often. It was in rough shape then, but hadn’t been boarded up yet.

According to a 1976 survey of Crown Heights North by the LPC, this house, at 1183 Bergen Street, between New York and Brooklyn avenues, was the second oldest house in the neighborhood.

It was built, they figured, somewhere between 1860 and 1865.

The oldest house in Crown Heights North is the George and Susan Elkins House, at 1375 Dean Street, a couple of blocks away. The Elkins house is only 10 years older, built around 1853.

Both houses were the last remnants of this neighborhood’s suburban past, the two oldest surviving houses in Crown Heights North.

The Bedford branch of the Lefferts family owned most of the land making up Crown Heights North. They stopped farming and began selling it off in the late 1840s and ’50s. The street grid had been marked out in the 1830s, and this land was advertised as a great place for a suburban villa community. (more…)

Bay Ridge Brooklyn Bay Ridge Branch Brooklyn Public Library History

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

By 1880, Bay Ridge was developing as one of Brooklyn’s premier suburban neighborhoods. Its greatest asset was that wonderful view of New York Bay and the Narrows — close to New Jersey, while simultaneously tied to Downtown Brooklyn and on to Manhattan by trolleys, roads and ferries.

Many of Brooklyn’s moneyed folk were looking to Shore Road as a grand location for second homes. The largest of these homes was owned by Henry Murphy, a lawyer, past mayor of Brooklyn, Congressman, U.S. Ambassador to The Hague and one of the most influential voices in advocating the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. (more…)

Downtown Brooklyn Grand Opera House History

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Many of the grand store buildings built during the height of Downtown Brooklyn’s days as a pre-eminent shopping mecca are still with us. The Offerman Building, the buildings of Abraham & Straus, Namm’s, Loeser’s, Woolworth’s and Oppenheim & Collins still stand, even though all are now inhabited by new stores and businesses.

But if you look at old maps and photographs of the Fulton Street corridor, between Court Street and Flatbush Avenue, there’s one category of businesses that is totally gone: the theaters.

The only remaining vestiges of Brooklyn’s large theater district are those around and including the Brooklyn Academy of Music — but in the hundred years between the end of the Civil War through the 1960s, they were scattered along Fulton Street and its nearby side streets.

Some were later movie theaters, like the Albee, the Duffield, the Fox and Loews, but a fair number were legitimate stage theaters. One of the finest of these long-gone theaters was the Grand Opera House. (more…)


A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

A search through the photo archives of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection can often turn up mysteries. Take today’s period photograph, dated 1937. It shows the side elevation of a large brick building in the Queen Anne style, located on a crowded street.

The caption notes that this is the Adams Street Courthouse and Police Station, near Myrtle Avenue in downtown Brooklyn. The wooden tracks of the El train that snaked up from the Brooklyn Bridge to swing around Borough Hall and on to Fulton Street can be seen in the foreground.

We know that this building is long gone, but exactly where was it? A look at the maps reveals the answer.

This was 318-322 Adams Street, just down and across the street from the post office, between Myrtle Avenue and Johnson Street. Today, this address is part of the block-long Supreme Court Building site at Cadman Plaza. (more…)

Robert Graves Wallpaper Company Brooklyn History

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

If you’ve ever restored an old house and come upon 19th- or early-20th-century wallpaper, it could have been made by the Robert Graves Company of Brooklyn.

Between 1843 and 1929, the Robert Graves Company produced some of the metropolitan area’s finest wall coverings. It did it all: one-of-a-kind commissions and limited editions for interior decorators, as well as more modest mass-produced papers for middle-class homes.

Robert Graves was born in Ireland. Unlike many of his fellow Irish immigrants, he did not arrive on our shores with nothing. His father, Sir William Graves, was a well known artist. Robert came to America as a successful wallpaper manufacturer. (more…)

1005 Bedford Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

While this may look like the world’s fanciest traffic-court building, it started out with a calling more sacred than the adjudication of parking tickets. 1005 Bedford Avenue — at the corner of Lafayette Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant — was the home of Temple Israel, one of Brooklyn’s oldest Jewish congregations.

Temple Israel, established in 1869, was a place of worship and community for Brooklyn’s German Jewish residents. It held its first services in the old YMCA, located downtown at Fulton Street and Gallatin Place.

In 1872 the congregation purchased its own building, a now-landmarked church on Greene Avenue, where the community grew. By the time it had to move again after a number of years, many members of this German Jewish community were doing quite well.

Membership included wealthy merchants such as Abraham Abraham — one of the founders of Abraham & Straus — and the congregation was able to afford to commission one of the city’s best architectural firms to design a new temple. (more…)

275 Clinton Ave, Clinton Apts. Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Joseph Fahys was born in France in 1832. His father died young, and Joseph and his mother immigrated to the United States in 1848, settling in New York. He apprenticed himself to Ulysses Savoye, in Hoboken, one of the first watch case manufacturers in the United States.

He worked for Savoye for five years, learning the business, and then set out on his own. By 1857, he had bought out Savoye, changed the name to Joseph Fahys & Company, and brought the manufacturing business to Nassau Street, in lower Manhattan.

Through different partnerships over the years, the business continued to grow, with watch case plants in New Jersey and Long Island. By the time he and his partners established the Brooklyn Watch Case Company in 1887, Joseph Fahys was a very important and wealthy man. (more…)

117-119 Livingston St. Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

New York City changes so rapidly. Buildings can literally be here today and gone tomorrow. We pass sites that are either big holes in the ground or construction sites, and think “What was here before?”

I was downtown only a few weeks ago, and was shocked to see the corner of Red Hook Lane and Livingston Street had lost its buildings. I especially remember the corner building, festooned for the past number of years with the map-like artwork of artist Steve Powers.

Red Hook Lane is the last remnant of one of Brooklyn’s oldest roads. Like many of Brooklyn’s original streets, it was a trail used by the Canarsee people who lived here centuries before the Dutch and English showed up.

In Colonial times, Red Hook Lane connected the town of Brooklyn to the shores of Red Hook. It was a major transportation road, one used by both the Continental Army and the British during the American Revolution.

By the end of the 19th century, there wasn’t much left of the Lane, only a one block oddity allowing people to take a shortcut to Fulton Street.

People lived here, especially in the days when Livingston was still a quasi-residential street. (more…)

Bedford Rest composite 2

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Bedford Rest was established as a destination and rest stop in the late 1890s for the hundreds of cyclists enjoying Bedford Avenue and Eastern Parkway. As the years passed, and the cycling fad waned, the Rest maintained its reputation as a fine restaurant and event space near the excitement of Ebbets Field and Automobile Row. All was well, until Prohibition.

When we think of Prohibition today, it’s remembered as a time when the nation disastrously toyed with a powerful experiment in social engineering. Banning alcoholic beverages seems ridiculous today. No doubt people thought so then, too, and were shocked when it actually happened.

Between 1920 and 1933, alcohol was illegal in the United States. The effects were devastating not only to consumers, but to businesses.

Across the country, breweries, distilleries, wine and spirits merchants, restaurants, saloons and bars went out of business by the thousands.Organized crime, based on bootlegging, grew and flourished.

The country went dry on January 17, 1920. By November of that year, the Bedford Rest was finished. Although the Rest had been running out of steam for years, Prohibition was the final nail in its coffin. (more…)