98 Montague St. Pierrepont, Bossert Hotel, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

By the 1850s, Brooklyn was not just a growing town; it was a fast growing city. Among the necessary amenities for any city is a good hotel. Montague Street was at the center of cultural activity in Brooklyn Heights at the time, and was a perfect place for a large hotel. The plot on the corner of Hicks and Montague Streets was purchased by the partnership of builders Litchfield and Metchum, and in May of 1854, a fine looking six story Italianate-style hotel opened on the site. It was called the Pierrepont Hotel, and was modeled on the Prescott House in Manhattan.

The builders immediately turned around and sold the hotel. One of the first owners, Hamlin Blake, only owned the hotel for a day. Several other owners had the hotel thereafter, but one thing stayed consistent; their reputation for offering family-style comfort and an exceptionally fine meal. It was soon Brooklyn’s finest hotel during the Civil War years and just beyond.

The Pierrepont Hotel was both a residential and transient hotel, catering to businessmen and travelers to the city, mostly gentlemen, but they also accommodated families, especially those of Navy officers with business at the Navy Yard. During the Civil War, the hotel was popular with other military officers, as well. The hotel also had a collection of regulars who lived there, including many older single men. It was said that in the evening, one could see them all back in the rear in the bar and on the wide verandah behind it, in their chairs, smoking and telling each other tall tales and stories of past exploits. (more…)

706 Nostrand Ave,Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Every time I see a new photograph of a long vanished building on St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights, it makes me want to have access to a time machine, so I could see what these blocks looked like at the turn of the 20th century, as they are now almost entirely covered with large apartment buildings. Here’s another great photo of a long gone building, published in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1902.

It shows 706 St. Marks Avenue, which was a huge property on the southeast corner of Nostrand Avenue. This house was in many ways typical of the houses on this and the following block. It was a huge single family house, with a lot of grounds around it. This particular property framed the entrance to the famed St. Marks District, an exclusive enclave of wealthy people living in suburban splendor. (more…)

Mount Prospect Lab, Underhill at Park Pl,  Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

There are a lot of everyday things we take for granted, living in the greatest city in the world, and one of them is the assurance that when we go to the sink and turn the tap, we’ll be getting clear, pure water. As you probably know, today New York City’s water comes from the upstate reservoirs of the Catskills and the Delaware River basin. It’s arguably the best municipal water system in the world.

For Manhattanites, that system began in the mid-19th century with the creation of the Croton Aqueduct. That was a remarkable feat of engineering that brought water into reservoirs in Manhattan. It was upgraded in the late 19th century with a second aqueduct. During those years, that was Manhattan’s water. Since Brooklyn was still an independent city at the time, we needed to get our own water.

Brooklyn is part of Long Island, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the city’s earliest water supply came from further out on the island. The water was pumped in underground and collected in a reservoir on the Brooklyn /Queens border, atop what is now Highland Park. That was the Ridgewood Reservoir, and was first established in the early 1850s. The city still needed a more local reservoir to supply the western part of the city, so in 1856, they began constructing a reservoir on the second highest plateau in Brooklyn – Mount Prospect. (more…)

Plaza Hotel, PP composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Manhattan’s famous Plaza Hotel got its name because that city’s Grand Army Plaza was right across the street, at the main entrance to the park. Brooklyn also had its own Grand Army Plaza, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that we also had our own Plaza Hotel, also just across the street from the main entrance to the park. Ours was here first, of course, built at least ten years before the first Manhattan Plaza Hotel, and more than 25 years before the famous 1907 building that replaced it.

This incarnation of Brooklyn’s Plaza hotel was built sometime around 1877, as Park Slope was rapidly developing as a popular new upscale neighborhood. Prospect Park was Brooklyn’s most popular destination, and although the entrance to the park was not as ornate as it is now, it was still quite the place to be to begin one’s stroll into nature’s realm. Placing a hotel on the edge of the park, just across the street from the main entrance was commercial genius.

As you can see from the postcard, the hotel wasn’t especially large, but it was striking and ornate, with a mansard roof, an attractive façade, and some ornate ornamentation that looks like it was probably added later. Unlike Manhattan’s second Plaza Hotel, this establishment was not about accommodations, although they may have had a couple of rooms, but its dining room and saloon were much more in demand. The hotel sat right at the end of Union Street, where it meets Prospect Park West, then called Ninth Avenue. It faced Prospect Park and its address was 2 Ninth Avenue.

When this building opened in 1877, it was owned by two partners named Charles Bedell and William Snyder. The fact that the Park Slope Plaza never became the Manhattan Plaza was probably because of the two of them. They may have had some business savvy, but they were not particularly classy guys. (more…)

Montrose Pontiac, 450 Bway at Penn, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Most of us walk down our commercial streets on our way to shops, restaurants and businesses generally without a clue as to what may have been in these buildings before we showed up. That holds true in most neighborhoods, but nowhere is the transition more intriguing than on Broadway, as it winds through Williamsburg, Bushwick and Bedford Stuyvesant.

Broadway was the main street of the Eastern District, which encompassed parts of all three neighborhoods. I often highlight the 19th century activities that took place in the area, but much of its commercial history took place in the 20th century. Before the riots of 1977, Broadway, under the constant shadow of the el, was one stop shopping, with stores and businesses of every description and nature, as well as theaters, restaurants and banks. There were even car showrooms and dealerships crowded onto the busy thoroughfare.

This building, 446-450 Broadway, was one of them. In the early 1950s, it was home to Montrose Pontiac. I will be the first to tell you that the 1950s are not my favorite era, but hey, Montrose Pontiac? Of course it caught my eye. There wasn’t a whole lot of information available on line, but here’s what we’ve got: (more…)

41 Fifth Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue starts in the shadow of the Barclays arena at Flatbush Avenue, travels down and forms one of the borders of Green-Wood Cemetery, and then extends far out into Bay Ridge. In the past decade, this beginning part of the street has changed greatly from garages, mom-and-pop shops and neighborhood bars to trendy eateries and fancy watering holes mixed in with the turn-of-the-20th-century tenement buildings. But as much as some things change, other things don’t. It’s interesting to find a period photo and compare then and now.

Our period photograph, part of the collection of the New York Public Library, was taken in 1942 by Percy Loomis Sperr. He was a prolific photographer of the streetscapes of New York City. Beginning in 1924, through the 1940s, he took over 30,000 photographs of the city. He was called the “Official Photographer of New York,” and he lived in Staten Island. He wandered around every neighborhood, in every borough, chronicling the growth and changes in the city over the years. He especially liked to photograph buildings and infrastructure, and his photos offer clear views of the details of buildings, as well as the construction of bridges and highways. (more…)

J. Kayser, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

We all know that they used to make things here in Brooklyn, but it’s rather mind-boggling how much manufacturing went on in neighborhoods that are now largely residential. Clinton Hill is a fine example. We know that there was a lot of manufacturing going in in the Wallabout area, but in reality, factory and warehouse buildings did not end at Park or Myrtle Avenue, they continued on to DeKalb and in places, beyond. The area around Pratt Institute was very industrial, which made sense, as many of the Pratt Institute’s students were headed towards careers in industries of all sorts. What better place to put an industrial institution but in the heart of the city’s industry?

One might also think that this industry died in the early 20th century, but that too would be a fallacy. Many of the factories around Pratt were going strong until after World War II, and on into the 1960s. In fact, the war gave many of them more business than they had ever had, depending on what they produced. We’re not talking small businesses, either. Some of these companies were huge, with large manufacturing facilities, some of which consumed blocks, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of space. One of the largest of these was the Julius Kayser Company, located on Taaffe Place, between DeKalb and Willoughby Avenues. (more…)

Vandergaw Carriage, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Long before the Dime Savings Bank, long before City Point, the Albee Square Mall that preceded that, and the Albee Theater that preceded the mall, and on back into the 1850s, when this area was more like a small town than a big city, a man named John Vandergaw had a thriving establishment on this site. He made carriages and coaches, a much needed product for a growing city of Brooklyn.

Today’s “Past” photograph dates from a bit after 1850, and is one of the oldest photographs I’ve featured here. It is part of a series of postcards assembled by the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Their postcards, which were mostly a collection of photographs taken for news stories, were packaged in sets, and sold through the paper and by retailers in the early 20th century. The collection is quite eclectic, with photographs of schools, churches, banks, important civic buildings, a few mansions of the rich, and several older photos, like this one, that they discovered in their archives. (more…)

751 St.MarksAve, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

It’s hard to believe today, but right after the Civil War, most of what is Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights was regarded as the suburbs. Because of excellent public transportation along major thoroughfares such as Atlantic Avenue, Fulton Street and Bedford Avenue, Central Brooklyn became a desirable place to build a large country villa, allowing one to have the best of the both worlds – a country house in the city.

The street grid had been laid out as early as 1840, although most of the land remained rural for another 10 or 15 years. Most of it belonged to the Bedford branch of the Lefferts family, and what didn’t directly belong to them was the property of relatives by birth and marriage. Beginning in 1854, the heirs of Judge Lefferts Lefferts began selling off the property for development.

Our “past” picture shows a large wood framed Italianate house with a tower, sitting on generous grounds. The photograph was taken in 1935. The house is almost to the corner of New York Avenue on St. Marks. The house was probably built in the 1860s, just after the Civil War. It was built for James Hazelhurst, a wealthy dry-goods merchant. (more…)

Eastern Parkway, at Franklin Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

It’s relatively easy to imagine Brooklyn before the Dutch took over. The land probably looked like undeveloped virgin land anywhere in New York State. There were woodlands, hills and valleys, streams and fields. The Canarsee people who were here when Henry Hudson sailed into Coney Island harbor were primarily hunters and gatherers. Their villages and small agricultural fields did not make much of an impact on the land. Then the Europeans came.

Fast forward several hundred years, and Brooklyn is a city. The land was farmed, and then leveled for development. But as we all know, some parts were developed faster than others. We generally think of the spread of urban Brooklyn to be like a wave washing out into the rest of Brooklyn from its origins in Brooklyn Heights, but that’s not the whole story. There were six original towns in Kings County, not just Brooklyn, and some of those towns had smaller villages, as well. Growth occurred in pockets and spread out, meeting other pockets, and filling in, until the entire city was developed. In general, this took time. But sometimes…. (more…)

Brighton Beach hotel, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Even though winter has not even officially begun, already we are getting nostalgic over the thought of summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a luxurious summer resort by the sea, where you could have accommodations worthy of your pocketbook and status? There you could be waited on hand and foot, enjoy fine dining, be entertained by the biggest stars of the day, and best of all, enjoy the cool, salty breezes and one of the finest beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. Would you have journey to Palm Beach or some Caribbean Island? Nope, you could take the subway. Because the beach resorts of Gravesend, Brooklyn were the place to be back in the latter quarter of the 19th century.

It all started with a man named William A. Engelman, who had made a fortune during the Civil War selling horses to the Union Army. He took some of that money and bought several hundred acres of beachfront property in Gravesend for the princely sum of $20,000. This was in 1869. He had big dreams, and he named his beachfront property Brighton Beach, after the famous resort town in England, a popular summer destination for British royalty and the aristocracy. (more…)

627 Myrtle Ave, Johns Bargain Store, composite 3

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

If you are old enough to remember the Beatles, and grew up in New York, chances are you remember John’s Bargain Stores. Long before the dollar stores, and even the job lot stores that used to be everywhere in the city, there was John’s, and their signature red and white signage. The stores were mostly located in working class and lower income neighborhoods, and were popular shopping destinations for generations of people who didn’t have a lot of money, or for those who loved a good bargain. (more…)