Downtown Brooklyn from Temple Bar Building

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Downtown Brooklyn is one of my favorite neighborhoods to compare what was with what is. Because it was the center of civic and commercial life in the city, changes in that part of town happened often, sometimes dramatically. But also because of the area’s importance, many of the buildings there are now important landmarks, and still stand. Because of this, we have a wonderful frame of reference when looking at old photographs and postcards. Here’s another example. (more…)

Borough Park Clubhouse, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

William H. Reynolds was a developer like no other before or since. During the course of his life, he cut a swath through Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Manhattan, developing new neighborhoods right and left. He also managed to become New York State’s youngest State Senator, the mayor of Long Beach, Long Island, the owner of Dreamland Amusement Park, and a convicted felon. Not to mention his expertise in the manly art of fisticuffs and other athletic competitions.

Here in Brooklyn, by the turn of the 20th century, he was finishing up his extensive development of Prospect Heights. He had purchased a great deal of land cheap from the city; land left over when Prospect Park was laid out. He proceeded to build hundreds of handsome row houses there, and by 1895, most of them had already been sold. He needed a new project. (more…)

KCW, Grant Square, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, there were no cooler men on earth that the members of the Kings County Wheelmen’s Club of Brooklyn. They were like rock stars and the championship Yankees rolled into one; a collection of men’s men, gushed over by young ladies and reporters alike, the intrepid “Knights of the Silent Steed.” They were Brooklyn’s best and most famous amateur bicycle club.

While pictures of mustachioed men in striped shirts and caps on enormous high wheeler cycles are in the popular imagination for this period, the truth is that the bicycle of the day looked pretty much the same then as they do now. They were easy to ride for men, women and children, and their mobility made them as popular then as they are today. Mass production soon made them affordable to almost anyone, and they sold like hotcakes. The Victorians were a very social bunch, and loved getting together in organizations, so it didn’t take long for bicycle clubs of all kinds to spring up all over the country. (more…)

Fulton theater site, composite

 

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Although Brooklyn had a thriving theater district downtown, many neighborhoods also had fine theaters in their own areas, with entertainment venues on main streets near public transportation. Bedford was a large neighborhood blessed with several major thoroughfares running through it – plenty of opportunities for clubs, theaters and entertainment halls. The economic center of Bedford was around the intersection of Fulton Street and Nostrand Avenue, so it’s not surprising that there were quite a few theaters in that area. In theater’s heyday, the early 20th century, one of the finest establishments was the Fulton Theater.

The theater stood at 1283 Fulton Street, near the corner of Nostrand Avenue. It was designed by one of New York City’s finest theater architects, John B. McElfatrick. He was responsible for some of the city’s best theater buildings, including today’s BAM Harvey Theater and Manhattan’s New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. Many are now gone, but he designed well over a hundred theaters, plus other buildings, all across the country. (more…)

626 4th Ave, Max Huncke Chem. composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

A look through the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection revealed this picture of an attractive factory building on the Gowanus/Park Slope border. Today it’s the site of one of 4th Avenue’s many automobile service stations. Tomorrow it will probably be a condo tower, but 85 years ago, this was the home of the Max Huncke Chemical Company. There are chemical companies and there are chemical companies. This one specialized in chemicals for embalming. It turns out that chemist Max Huncke was the grandfather of the modern embalming process. (more…)

2nd Naval Battalion armory, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Armories are fascinating buildings. They were built to house National Guard units; our volunteer citizen army, and provide them with permanent places to gather, train, and deploy. Many guard units gained great fame and honor from their service in the Civil War, and a grateful state and local government decided to honor them with facilities worthy of their service. These resulted in huge castle-like buildings built to impress and intimidate.

Every community wanted an armory. They wanted the protection of a citizen militia for emergencies and to put down social unrest. The late 19th century was a time of strikes and uprisings against the economic unfairness of the Gilded Age. They also wanted the armory because it was a great civic building for the community. Armories were perfect for large social gatherings, athletic events, trade shows, and the like. Architects and builders loved armories because they were prestigious commissions, and were cash cows for everyone concerned, and a source of jobs. An armory in one’s neighborhood was a win-win for all concerned. (more…)

Skillman St. gasholder site, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

There are no more gasholder buildings in Brooklyn. While we still have an example of just about every other kind of industrial building still standing somewhere within our borders, the gasholder houses are all gone. They were the most visible signs of an invisible necessity – gas, the substance that lit the houses and streets of the city throughout much of the 19th century.

We still use gas now, but now it’s natural gas. The gas of the 19th century was coal gas, a much different substance that needed to be contained in bulk. Coal gas had to be manufactured, and simply put, was the product of baking coal at high temperatures, and capturing the gases released by the process. The gases were then further purified and stored for later use. The coal burning gas plants were close by, if not right next door to, the gasholder buildings. (more…)

Prospect Park Lake composite

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 had 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 that needed to be done was to enclose the park with a fence, cut some roads and pathways, build a couple of bridges, follies and a grand entrance or three, and mow the lawn. But in reality, Prospect Park is as constructed as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Both look real, and permanent, and in effect, are, but every aspect of both the park and Hogwart’s School has been carefully thought out and crafted.

After Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted finished Central Park in 1857, Brooklyn wanted a grand park too. The two cities were still fierce rivals, while also co-dependent on each other. Brooklyn’s city fathers came up with a park committee whose president was one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, James S.T. Stranahan. The committee gave the job of designing the park to Egbert L. Viele, the Charlie Brown of landscape engineering. He had been the Chief Engineer of the Central Park project until Olmsted and Vaux came up with a better design and replaced him. (more…)

A. Schrader's Son, 470 vandy, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

They used to make things in Brooklyn. Everything you could possibly imagine was made here, at one time or another, in one place or another. Before we became the catchword for hip and happening, Brooklyn was known throughout most of the 20th century as a blue collar city. Its busy factory districts were humming with activity, and it was possible for a man or a woman to go from high school to a good factory job that enabled them to make a living. Many people grew up, like John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever” never even going across the bridge to Manhattan. There was no need, everything, including your job, was right here.

In addition to the larger factory districts such as Wallabout, Dumbo, Bush Terminal, the Navy Yard and Gowanus, there were factories all over the place, in just about every neighborhood. Proximity to public transportation was key to any successful industrial venture and downtown and Fort Greene, with great transportation, had a fair amount of factory buildings along major thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue. Today, many of those buildings are gone, some, like the Ex-Lax building, are now housing, and some still stand making one wonder “What did they used to do here?” (more…)

138 S. Oxford St. Lockwood School composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Two teachers at the prestigious Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute named Aaron Chadwick and Dr. Edward Bunker decided to quit their jobs and open their own boy’s school. The year was 1862, and even as the Civil War raged on, Brooklyn continued to grow, as did its population of upper middle class and wealthy families. The two men saw a growing pool of eligible male students available, and so opened a private elementary school on Adelphi Street in Fort Greene. They had 60 boys enrolled the first semester. However, after six months, they found out that owning an elite school was great, but running it was beyond them, and they returned to teaching at Polytech. They had a building and a name, which they sold to a Quaker educator named John Lockwood. (more…)

263-265 Livingston St. Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Before Downtown Brooklyn was the shopping mecca of Brooklyn, it was a residential neighborhood. In the 1860s and ‘70s, many of the most commercially developed thoroughfares, like Fulton, Schermerhorn, Livingston and Willoughby were residential. In the mid-19th century, all of these streets were lined with wood framed, and later, masonry row houses. There were even a few free standing homes as well. But as Brooklyn’s commercial core spread out from what is now Dumbo, the homes began to disappear or were renovated to include store fronts. Gage and Tollner, one of Downtown’s most famous restaurants, was once a home.

A look at old newspapers and maps show several houses where this building now stands. These were not tenements, but the homes of well-to-do people; merchants, lawyers, doctors and other professionals. By the 1880s, the homes were almost gone. Large dry goods stores, theaters and restaurants were rising all along Fulton Street, and Livingston was becoming a secondary street for shops and theaters. Seven wood framed houses sat on this site, which were razed for the New Montauk Theater, which was built here in 1895.

It was lauded as one of the great theaters of its day, and was designed by John McElfatrick, and paid for by Senator William H. Reynolds, one of Brooklyn’s most prolific developers, and soon to be owner of the Dreamland Amusement Park on Coney Island. Always a man of great theatricality, Reynolds got a theater that dripped with marble, was swagged with hundreds of yards of draperies, and painted and gilded on every surface. They also put on plays. (more…)

Howard House Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Howard’s Woods was a farm tract established by William Howard, the eldest of seven brothers who came to the Flatbush area in the late 1600s from England. They settled on land that was part of the “New Lots” opened up to Flatbush settlers looking for more room. As time went by, new neighbors came to the area; a pretty remote spot near the Jamaica Bay. Around 1700, William Howard turned his large Dutch style farm house into an inn and tavern.

He was near a crossroads where the Jamaica Plank Road that led to Long Island was met by other local roads, including what would become Atlantic Avenue, the perfect place for a tavern. His customers were farmers, merchants and others making their way back and forth to Brooklyn and Long Island. He called his inn Howard House.

Howard House soon became a way station for stage coaches, and a tourist destination for those heading further out on Long Island, or to Manhattan via Brooklyn, and William Howard was a busy man. In the old tradition of English pubs and inns, he always kept a key on a hook outside so that anyone could enter after all were asleep and take shelter. Howard knew his customers were honest and would settle up later. On August 27th, 1776, Howard House was visited by a man who used that key and came into the inn at two in the morning.

The American colonies were flexing their muscles toward independence from England. The Declaration of Independence had been signed, and war was in the air. General George Washington and the Continental Army was in Brooklyn, in the Gowanus and Brooklyn Heights area, and even out in New Lots, people were wondering what would happen next. Many people, like William Howard, were English themselves, but had committed themselves to the cause of American liberty.

So when the British gentleman who entered the inn at two in the morning woke William Howard and his son up, they had no idea what was going on. Even though it was in the middle of summer, the man had a coat on, and a cap on his head. He was accompanied by several other men, and they called for a round of drinks for themselves. After downing their ale, the leader of the group announced to Howard and his teenage son that they were his prisoners. He was Lord William Howe, the commander of the British forces. The tavern soon found itself surrounded by red-coated British troops who came out of the woods in huge numbers. (more…)