232-238 Bainbridge St. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Since wooden houses are in the Brownstoner news lately, today’s Past and Present shows some that are no more. They were lovely little frame houses on Bainbridge Street, between Malcolm X Boulevard (formerly Reid Avenue) and Sumner Avenue. These houses were from this eastern part of Bedford’s early development, back when the neighborhood’s streets were sparsely developed, and mostly had small groups of frame houses on rather odd shaped lots.

The lots are the legacy of the Dutch families who owned this land beginning in the late 1600s. By the beginning of the 19th century, most of the land that makes up Bedford belonged to the Lefferts family and their relatives by birth or marriage. It didn’t take clairvoyance for them to see that urban development was in the future, and when the city incorporated in 1834, and began planning outward expansion from downtown, the family began parceling off their land, and selling to developers and individuals.

The house in the photograph was probably built in the late 1700s or early 1800s. Back then, it would have been surrounded by fields, and the land bought from, or leased from old Lefferts Lefferts, the family patriarch himself. It’s a classic gambrel-roofed Dutch farmhouse. We can’t really tell now, but the small addition on the right may even be the original house, and the larger structure built on to it later, as the family fortunes got better. Such is the case with several of our remaining Dutch houses in Brooklyn and Queens, which look exactly like this. (more…)

Fulton Terminal,composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Today’s Past and Present is a rare look at a Brooklyn none of us will see again. This is the Montague Street Slip, on the East River, below Brooklyn Heights. The photograph was taken in 1915, and shows a part of Brooklyn that is forever gone. This is part of the world of Brooklyn’s working waterfront, which once stretched from Greenpoint to Bay Ridge.

This area was the heart of Fulton Terminal, one of three dock terminals operated by the New York Dock Railway. The other two were the Baltic Terminal at the base of Baltic Street and the Atlantic Terminal, at the base of Commerce Street. Between all three terminals, the NY Dock owned the waterfront from Brooklyn Heights to the end of Red Hook. In addition to the piers, the company also owned the storehouses the stretched along the waterfront, a distance of two and a half miles. These were all brick storehouses with arched openings, similar to the Empire Stores and the Tobacco Warehouse on Water Street.

These stores and the piers had originally been owned by the Pierrepont, Clinton, Woodruff, McCormick, Robert, Prentis and other families whose names now grace our streets and institutions. These were the New England merchants who built Brooklyn in the early 19th century, making fortunes on the import and export of produce, grain, tobacco, sugar, coffee, leather, rubber and other commodities. For much of the 19th century, they operated as the Brooklyn Wharf and Warehouse Company. NY Dock bought the entire site in the largest bankruptcy sale in Brooklyn history, up to that point, in 1901, and began operation.

The Fulton Terminal was a floating dock terminal. It had a large wooden pier that held four tracks. These were used mostly as storage of railway cars. On both sides of the pier were the floating bridges. These piers floated on pontoons, although later the wooden piers were replaced by girder float bridges. These piers received the float cars that were pushed by tugboats.

The float cars were barges holding a railway car on a track. The cars came from New Jersey and the Bronx, and were floated across the water and eased between the floating bridges, where the cars would be lifted from the barges and placed on the pier’s railroad tracks, and on to nearby warehouses for loading or unloading. The railway cars then made the land trip to their other destinations across the country. It was a very efficient system; a rail car could be loaded and unloaded in a short amount of time.

By the teens, subway tunnels were being built underneath the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights, and construction of those tunnels necessitated a rebuilding of some of the NY Docks piers, specifically the Montague Street Slip, the pier located near the Montague Street to Wall Street ferry terminal. One of the subway tunnels was right under it. Our period photograph shows the pier under reconstruction. (more…)

357-371 MacDonough Street, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Every empty lot in Brooklyn has a story. Most of them had buildings on them at one time or another, and depending on where you are, it’s easy to wonder what was there. Some residential neighborhoods have very few empty lots, others far too many. MacDonough Street in Stuyvesant Heights has long been that neighborhood’s main east/west boulevard. Many of the neighborhood’s finest homes are along its route, and a tour up MacDonough Street is a walk through Brooklyn’s architectural and cultural history.

Next door to the Akwaaba Mansion Bed and Breakfast, which is one of the street’s oldest freestanding villas, is one of those empty lots. It’s on the corner of MacDonough Street and Stuyvesant Avenue, on the northwest corner. Well, it’s not empty now, because a great garden center called Seasons Nursery now occupies the site, but the building that stood there is long gone. It would remain one of those “what was there?” mysteries, except for a photograph taken by a neighbor in 1962. The picture, taken from across the street, shows the corner, occupied by a large house, boarded up and ready for demolition. Now we’ve got a real reason to ask “what was it?”

I would have been interested no matter what the building looked like, but here is a large, ornate building that looks more like a school or an institution, not a brownstone row house. I know a lot of charitable institutions were built in Central Brooklyn. Was this one of them? How old was it, and what was its purpose? I was determined to find out.

After striking out in the Real Estate Record and Builder’s Guide, I went to the maps and the newspapers. The Sanborne map for 1888 shows no building on the lot. It’s the only empty lot around. The map clearly shows the large house next door, and the two wood-framed houses around the corner, which are still here, albeit in poor shape. The next map available of the area is from 1898. And there’s the house. So it was built between 1888 and 1898. (more…)

03/28/14 10:45am

Benson Chevrolet,composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Cars were pretty cool looking in 1933. Think Chicago mobster cars, Bonnie and Clyde, sedans with serious running boards, headlamps that were really lamps, tires with spokes and the spare attached to the side of the car; those kinds of cars, some of which were Chevrolets. They remain some of American’s best loved and most classic cars.

Chevrolet was founded way back in 1911 by Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant as direct competition to General Motors. Durant had founded and run General Motors in 1908, but had been kicked off the board of his own corporation two years later. He used his new Chevrolet Motor Car Company to get back on the board, something he accomplished by making the Chevrolet so popular that he was able to buy enough GM stock to put himself back in charge in 1916. He brought Chevrolet with him, and it was soon GM’s most profitable car line.

Everyone liked Chevrolet, it was one of the “people’s cars” along with Ford and later, the Chrysler spin-off, Plymouth. They were called the “low price three.” In 1933, Chevrolet introduced the Standard Six, which was the cheapest six-cylinder car on the market. That same year, Benson Chevrolet opened up for business on 86th Street in Bensonhurst. (more…)

116 Tompkins Ave, 16th AD HQ, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

“I wonder what that was.” It’s easy to ask that question while wandering around the city. Buildings change their function all the time. Civic buildings and clubs become often become houses of worship as neighborhood demographics and communities change. It’s easy to see why; they are often large, with open, assembly hall-type spaces perfect for congregations to gather in, ideal for a gathering of anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of people, depending on the congregation or the space. Clubs, especially, come and go, and often need to raise money to pay debts or relocate, sometimes selling cheaply, making it a win-win for a religious organization to take over the space.

Today’s building was built in 1904 through 1905 for the 6th Assembly District Democratic Association. It is at 116 Tompkins Avenue, near Myrtle Avenue in Bedford Stuyvesant. The cornerstone was laid in June of 1904, and the Association had their grand opening the following February. The decades previous to this opening had been a busy one for the organization, as the 6th A.D. grew in population and political strength, as Tammany Hall tried to take over Brooklyn Democratic politics. The district covered much of the old Eastern District, with parts of Bedford, Bushwick, and Williamsburg falling within its borders. (more…)

03/14/14 10:30am

514 4th Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

An eBay search for photographs came up with this great shot of the storefront building on the corner of 4th Avenue and 13th Street, on the Gowanus side of the street. The shot is from 1910, and shows the establishment of Mr. Henry J. Luck on the ground floor. Who knows, that may even be the man himself standing in front of the building. I love ordinary shots of everyday people and places, and these candid moments can also tell us a lot about how the average person lived in 19th century Brooklyn. I did a little research on Mr. Luck and establishment and here’s a bit of his story:

According to those who are experts on surnames and national origins, the name “Luck” is of German derivation, a variant of Lukas or Lϋck. It can also be English, or Dutch, as in “Van Luck.” All of those possible origins match nicely with the people who settled in Gowanus and lower Park Slope at the turn of the 20th century. Henry J. Luck’s business may have been a grocery store, or some kind of saloon. The corner location would have been excellent for either. The names on his awning or banner are all beers from Brooklyn breweries, three of the most popular brews, from three of the largest Bushwick breweries. (more…)

03/07/14 10:30am

Howard Colored Orphan Asylum, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Charity in post-Civil War Brooklyn was as segregated as the society at large. When it came to the large institutions that were built to help the orphaned or the elderly, they were all geared to helping just one group of people, keeping everyone separate. The Jewish orphans went to the Jewish Orphan Home; the Methodist elderly went to the Methodist Home for the Aged. The Catholics, Baptists, Swedes, Irish, males and females all had their services and institutions carefully divided to serve members of their own groups. It was just The Way It Was Done. And of course, it goes without saying that the Negroes had their own separate institutions as well.

There was a Home for Colored Aged, as well as the Howard Colored Orphan Asylum. Both were in what is now Crown Heights and unlike many charitable institutions for black folks, they were not just set up and run by well-meaning rich white philanthropists or charities, without African American input. Both of these institutions were run by and for African Americans themselves. Not surprisingly, they both came out of the town of Weeksville.

Weeksville was a successful black middle class town established by James Weeks, a black longshoreman. The town was built on land Weeks had purchased from a black man named Henry C. Thompson, who had, in turn, bought the land from the estate of Lefferts Lefferts. Much of Brooklyn’s black population was living in the Downtown/Dumbo area by the late 1830s, early 1840s. Many there were seeking to find a home where racism and segregation would not stop their advancement in education, jobs, or even a place to worship. If white society wouldn’t give them opportunities, then they were determined to build somewhere where they could determine their own destinies. Weeksville gave them that chance.

Today, Weeksville is known only for the small surviving enclave of houses that make up the Weeksville Heritage Center, but the town was much larger than that, and made up a large part of the eastern part of Crown Heights. Here the residents built homes, businesses, stores, churches, a school, established a newspaper, and founded charitable institutions to take care of the youngest and oldest amongst them. The Howard Colored Orphan Asylum was one of those institutions. It once stood at 1550 Dean Street, on the corner of Dean Street and Troy Avenue. (more…)

02/28/14 10:45am

344 Atlantic Avenue, Chas Strohm, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Atlantic Avenue used to be Atlantic Street. Between the river and Flatbush Avenue, the avenue is a busy, bustling thoroughfare with snarled traffic, honking horns, and double parked vehicles that make it difficult to get around. Much of it is lined with mid to late 19th century storefront tenements, mingled with a combination of modern apartment buildings, civic buildings, former hotels and factories. When I think of the old Atlantic Street, I picture buildings like the ones in this 1922 photograph, a mixture of the old wood framed storefronts that have long lined the street, and the more modern four story storefront tenements.

This two story rambling wood framed storefront building stood on the south side of the street, between Hoyt and Smith streets. The building on the right of it still stands, which helped correctly place it in today’s world. A map of Brooklyn from 1869 is the earliest map I have access to that shows buildings on the streets, and in that map, most of Atlantic is quite built up by that point, and this building, as well as other wide storefront buildings like it, stretch along its length. I would imagine this building dates from the early 1850s, at least.

The first floor, at least when the photo was taken, is broken up into four storefronts. The upstairs apartments appear to have two entrances, one between the two storefronts on the left, and the other at the far right of the building. There were probably three or four apartments above, if it was a typical tenement. The shuttered windows are a nice touch, but the ceilings certainly look quite low up there. (more…)

285 Livingston St. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I have a fondness for downtown Brooklyn. Where some might look and see only the prospects of an overbuilt, sleek and modern future, I still see the older individual components that make this area great. It’s layered, like sedimentary rock, with buildings that go back to when the area was a residential community, to the days when it was both residential and commercial. As more and more commercial buildings replaced the homes, the nature of the area changed yet again. Commercial gave way to more modern commercial, and in the process the old disappeared. And we haven’t even touched on the 20th century yet.

Fulton Street was always the main street, it housed the large stores, the theaters and civic buildings. By the end of the century, it also had the elevated train rumbling down its length. Livingston, by comparison, was a backwater. Many of its facades were the back entrances the businesses on Fulton Street. The rest benefitted by their proximity to Fulton. Their businesses depended on customers coming around the corner and patronizing them, so many made themselves destination spots, providing specialized goods and services that the department stores did not carry or provide.

But here and there, you had those holdout buildings that were still reminders of a residential past. This building, here at 285 Livingston, is a great example, giving us a glimpse of what Livingston Street must have looked like in the pre-Civil War days. The house, sandwiched between two commercial loft buildings, was a stucco covered three story and a basement Gothic Revival home. (more…)

02/14/14 10:45am

Baith Israel, Boreum at state, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

In 1855 a group of twelve Bavarian, Dutch and Portuguese Jews gathered in a Brooklyn home to found the United Brethren Society, a mutual benefit society that pooled its resources to aid its members with medical and burial expenses. A year later, that same group came together to form a congregation. These were men who had settled near Atlantic Street, in Downtown Brooklyn, and were engaged in all kinds of professions: a hatter, furrier, carpenter, attorney, tailor, barroom owner, pawn broker, a rabbi and more.

Most of them had been members of Manhattan synagogues, and still took the ferry ride across the river for Shabbat services on Friday night. Local legends say they rowed themselves across on rowboats, and founded a Brooklyn synagogue because they got tired of the trip. However dedicated that sounds, all authorities chalk that one up to urban legend, similar to walking two miles to school uphill, in snow, both ways. The ferry was right there.

They first held services at a rented space at 155 Atlantic Street, now Atlantic Avenue. Within five years, the congregation had grown to 35 families, and the decision was made to build their own house of worship. A plot on the corner of Smith Street and Boerum Place, next to a stable, was purchased for $3,000, and the cornerstone of Baith Israel was laid in January of 1862, and the synagogue was dedicated that same year, in August. It was the first Jewish synagogue to be built specifically as a synagogue in all of Long Island. Williamsburg’s Kahal Kodesh, the oldest Brooklyn congregation, did not build its own building on Keap Street until 1867. (more…)

Eastern Parkway looking north, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Few scenes in Brooklyn look more different than the past and present scenes of Eastern Parkway in 1900 and now. Today, the area is a vastly built up collection of streets and buildings, with large apartment buildings lining the north side of Eastern Parkway. But 114 years ago, it was a large open field with a couple of dirt roads running through it. There certainly are few clues that twenty-five years after this photo was taken, most, if not all of this space would be built on.

The photograph was taken from the tower of the Mount Prospect Reservoir, which once stood on a rise, about where the Children’s Entrance at the rear of the Central Branch of the Library is now. Unfortunately, I can’t replicate the height and the great angle that long ago photographer had in taking his photograph facing north towards Manhattan. What an amazing amount of Brooklyn he captured in this photo, which shows Brooklyn spreading north. The photograph captures parts of Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, and in the misty horizon, Fort Greene, Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo and Williamsburg.

One of the great things about many old black and white photos, the resolution is superb, and the details one can pick out are just amazing. I’m looking at the photo from a relatively small laptop screen. I would imagine that someone with a much larger screen may be able to pick out landmarks that are too small on my screen, but even so, I see quite a lot. Let’s see what we’ve got here: (more…)

01/31/14 10:30am

Rex Cole 32 4th Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Before there was Drimmer’s, or A.J. Madison, Best Buy, Crazy Eddie or Home Depot and Lowe’s, there was Rex Cole. Of all our local appliance retailers, both individual and chains, only P.C. Richards, which was founded in 1910, is older. During the 1930s, Rex Cole ruled the world of electric appliances, presiding over an empire of over 15 branches in New York City, Westchester and Rockland Counties, Long Island and Connecticut. Today, no one has ever heard of Rex Cole, but in his day, he was as well known as the stores that bore his name. And it was all because of the refrigerator.

Rex Cole, which sounds like a made-up Madison Avenue name if there ever was one, was a real person, and that was his given name. He was born in 1881, in Port Huron, Michigan. Young Rex had an affinity with machines and electronics, and at the age of 16 became an electrician. Even at this young age, he soon developed a reputation as a troubleshooter at his electric contracting workplace. Ten years later, as World War I was breaking out, he already had his own lighting fixture company in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Winnipeg was getting a new railway station called Union Station, so when the lighting contract for the station was announced, Rex got on a train and came to New York City to meet the architects at their offices. He was a persuasive and exceptionally good salesman, and convinced them to give him the contract. It wasn’t until later that they learned he didn’t have the experience, or the money and equipment to build the lighting needed for the building. It didn’t matter; the lighting company executives at the meeting were so impressed with his personality and sales ability that they hired him to be their permanent salesman. He soon closed down his Manitoba operation and moved with his wife to New York City.

Cole was still enamored with lighting design. During World War I, he started another company and won a government contract to produce a lamp he had designed, one of the first electric lamps to give indirect lighting. General Electric took over the lamp and made Cole the president of their lamp subsidiary, the Miller Lamp Company. His connection with GE was born. (more…)