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…)
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…)
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…)
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’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…)
Throughout Brooklyn’s history, a lot of things have come and gone, but one of the greatest losses has to be the Wallabout Market. At its peak, in the early 20th century, it was the second largest wholesale food market in the world. The Market was a bustling place where produce, meat, dairy, fish and foodstuffs were sold and traded to the thousands of retail grocery stores, food shops, restaurants, institutions and other wholesalers who came there every day to haggle, buy, pack up and deliver. Similar to Hunt’s Point, the old Fulton Fish Market and the Brooklyn Terminal Market that replaced it, Wallabout Market was a world unto itself, a rough and tumble world that also included graft, corruption and crime. But the market had one big advantage over New York’s other markets: it was beautiful.
Wallabout got its name from the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who were the first settlers on the bay. They arrived in 1624, along with the Dutch, who called their bay Waal-bogt. The bay was the perfect location for the first ferry across the East River to New Amsterdam, which cast off in 1637, and continued for centuries. The area remained rural through the Revolutionary War, with most of it belonging to the Ryerson family.
The waterfront was an excellent port, which the British took advantage of when they took over Manhattan and Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. Wallabout became infamous as the docking area for the British prison ships holding American soldiers and sailors throughout the war. Over 10,000 prisoners died on those ships, only to be dumped overboard, or buried in shallow graves on the shore. Today, the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument in Fort Greene Park holds their remains and honors their memories. After the war, much of the Wallabout area was purchased by John Jackson. He and his relatives decided to open a shipyard.
The new United States government was interested in a permanent shipyard in New York, and bought 40 acres of John Jackson’s property. They kept buying more and more acreage, so that by the 1850s, the Navy Yard had been pretty well established, with the first dry dock, the Commandant’s House, the Navy Hospital and other buildings on site. The Yard became one of the area’s largest employers, and houses, tenements and related businesses grew, filling up the streets of the Wallabout neighborhood. (more…)
Division Avenue got its name because it was the dividing line between the city of Brooklyn and the city of Williamsburg. Williamsburg had been founded as a separate village, and then was part of Bushwick, then a separate town, before becoming the city of Williamsburg in 1852. Only three years later, Williamsburg and Bushwick became part of the greater city of Brooklyn, as Brooklyn grew in size and importance. Not much changed in the transition, including the street name.
The block of Division between Bedford and Driggs Avenues was residential, with brownstone row houses predominating. A unique building opportunity presented itself in the middle of the block, where a wide angle created by a bend in the street, was divided into three lots. Numbers 131 and 135 Division were the usual rectangular lots, but 133 became pie-shaped, creating the opportunity for a very interesting building.
The first map I have access to for this part of town is from 1887. It clearly shows the three buildings there. Our vintage photograph was taken in 1895, and shows 131 and 135 Division as two twin Greek Revival style brownstones with handsome cast iron fencing. Both have exterior shutters in all of the windows. The houses are at least 20 feet wide, if not a few more. From the style of the houses, they may date back to the late 1840s.
But sandwiched between them is what looks like the narrowest house ever. 133 Division looks only about ten feet wide. The architect made the most of the façade, deciding to skip the stoop and raised parlor floor and have the entrance at street level, with an interesting triangular bay on the parlor level, and four stories of living space and an attic level. There is also a cellar, the window of which can be seen between the two women. (more…)
I’m old enough to remember when the personal computer came out on the market. A friend bought one, and I remember we gathered around it with a bit of awe, and then we all typed a few things on the keyboard just to get an idea of what it was like to use it. He showed us all of the features, and those assembled, myself included, were quite impressed, and went away figuring out how we could afford to get one too. A similar feeling must have accompanied another device with the original keyboard – the typewriter. Just as the early pioneers of P.C. technology recognized that they were on to something huge, so too did the men who pioneered the advances of the typewriter. One of those men was a New York State resident named Clarence Walker Seamans. The typewriter would catapult him into a fortune.
Clarence Seamans was born in 1854 in the town of Ilion, in Herkimer County, near Utica. Ilion was a small village, but it benefited greatly by being the home of Eliphalet Remington and the E. Remington & Sons Company, most famous for the manufacture of guns and armaments. Seaman’s father was a purchasing agent for the company. At the age of 15, Clarence Seamans began working for Remington as a clerk. While the company became famous for its guns, they also made farm implements, sewing machines and typewriters, too.
In 1873 Remington introduced the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, having purchased the patent from its inventors a few years before. While not the first typewriter invented, this one was the first to enable a user to type faster than one could write by hand. Christopher Sholes coined the name “type-writer”. He also invented the QWERTY keyboard arrangement, first used in their initial model. Their next model, introduced in 1878 gave us the shift key, enabling the user to switch from upper to lower case letters. It was a handsome instrument, ornamented to appeal to women, who were poised to become the main users of the tool.
In 1875, Clarence Seamans left Remington to oversee the operations at a silver mine in Utah. He stayed there for three years, and then moved to New York City. He lived in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters, and was working as a bookkeeper and salesman for Fairbanks & Company, a scales manufacturer that also was the sole marketer of the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. In 1881, Remington took back the marketing of the typewriter, and took Seamans back as well, this time as general manager of sales.
The next year, Seamans and two other Remington executives, William Wyckoff and Harry Benedict formed a partnership; Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, selling Remington typewriters. In 1886, they bought the division from Remington, and in 1892 formed the Remington Typewriter Company. Seamans was the treasurer and general manager. The next year, Seamans became president of the Union Typewriter Company, which was a trust formed by the merger of Remington Typewriter and several other prominent typewriter manufacturers. They then purchased the Wahl Adding Machine Company, making Union the world’s largest typewriter company. (more…)
Up until about 10 years ago, it was impossible to find a legitimate full service hotel in Brooklyn. Looking back at the city’s history, it’s hard to believe, as there used to be so many hotels in Brooklyn it seemed there was at least one on every other block in some neighborhoods. The pace of today’s hotel building doesn’t come close to matching the number of hotels we used to have. There were all kinds, large and small, catering to travelers, businessmen and tourists, as well as to those who chose to live in hotels for a season, or year round.
Brooklyn Heights and Downtown, as the most frequently visited parts of the city, and closest to Manhattan, had a great number of hotels, and they were all huge. Many of them, if they survived the various changes in urban life over the last 100 years, like the St. George, the Bossert and the Leverich, became apartment buildings. Some of them, like the Hotel Marguerite, burned down. A few were lost to the grand designs of urban renewal, and were torn down for Cadman Plaza. We lost the Touraine and the Clarendon Hotels in that project.
Both hotels were large and important, but the Clarendon, by virtue of its location and design, stood out. The first Clarendon Hotel stood on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets, across from the Central Post Office building. It was damaged in the horrific fire that burned down the Brooklyn Theater, next door to the hotel. That fire, in 1876, killed over 300 people, and was the worst disaster in Brooklyn history. The new Brooklyn Eagle Building rose on the old theater and after surviving for another 20 or so years in the old building, the new Clarenden Hotel rose nearby, going into operation in the summer of 1890. (more…)
The dull roar of thousands of individual hard rubber wheels moving across a wooden floor is unmistakable. It’s the sound of a roller skating rink, once a common sound all over the country. Roller skating has been popular in the US and Europe since the 1860s. A New Yorker named James Leonard Plimpton invented the prototype of the modern quad, or four-wheel skate, and opened the first modern roller rink at his furniture store in Manhattan, in 1866. The modern quad skate, with a toe stop and ball bearings, has been in production since around 1898.
The Empire Rollerdrome opened on the Prospect Lefferts Gardens side of Empire Boulevard, which was more commonly known as just Flatbush, in 1941. World famous Ebbets Field was just across the street, and the building that became the rink was a large one story garage building that had been used for parking. The business was owned by the Swanson family, who fortuitously, also owned a flooring business.
They converted the garage into a rink by simply covering walls with paneling and the floor with a state-of-the-art maple floor. Their early advertising always touted the Empire as “home of the miracle maple.” They added some bathrooms, a lounge area, skate rental area and fenced off the majority of the space for skating. They purchased the speaker system from the 1939 World’s Fair, and installed it in the space, and they were, pardon the pun, ready to roll. (more…)
As anyone who has ever read my columns over the years, or taken one of my Central Brooklyn walking tours knows, the Lefferts family has played a large part in the history of Brooklyn. They were the descendants of Leffert Pietersen Van Haughwout, who came to Flatbush in 1660. The Brooklyn Lefferts family grew to be quite large and had several branches. One branch stayed in the Flatbush area, another settled in the town of Bedford Corners, and made it theirs.
By the 1740s, the head of the family was Jacobus Lefferts. Through inheritance, purchase and marriage, he and the family now owned most of what is today Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights North. They farmed this large acreage with the help of slave labor. Their homes were in Bedford Corners, near the intersection of today’s Arlington Place and Fulton Street. Jacobus died in 1757. He had two sons, Berent and Lefferts Lefferts, also known as “Squire Lefferts.” Berent, the elder son, was a soldier and would be one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His son Rem is credited with building the house in the photograph.
Squire Lefferts would become town clerk of Bedford, as well as the largest landowner around. In 1768, he built himself a fine large mansion on the corner of what is now Arlington Place and Fulton Street. The house sat on an angle, enabling him to see the crossroads of Bedford, as well as Rem’s house across the street. The house was commandeered by the British during the Revolutionary War, and was later passed down to Squire’s son, also named Lefferts Lefferts, but called “Judge Lefferts.” He was the last real owner of the vast estate. After his death in the 1850s, his heirs began the great sell-off of the land for development.
Today, none of what I’m going to talk about is in existence. The last of the Lefferts’ homes was torn down for “progress” over a hundred years ago. It still amazes me that city planners or even museums didn’t think that any of Bedford’s early heritage was worth saving. But fortunately, we do have some photographs, quite a few, considering, so we have a very good idea of what the old Lefferts homesteads were like. (more…)
As the town of Bedford expanded south of Atlantic Avenue, its wide streets began to attract buyers who desired to live in a very upscale neighborhood similar to Clinton and Washington Avenues in Clinton Hill. These were very wealthy people who were captains of industry in all of the new businesses that were contributing to Brooklyn’s growth and wealth. St. Marks Avenue, between Rogers and Kingston Avenues became the new “millionaire’s row.” Huge stand-alone mansions on large plots of land dotted the streets, with only five or six houses on each side of the block.
These houses were initially developed as suburban style living in the city. All of this first suburban development began in the 1870s. Large wood framed houses joined a few more monumental dwellings such as the Dean Sage house, on the corner of St. Marks and Brooklyn Avenue. 810 St. Marks was one of these large wood framed mansions. We don’t have any definitive photographs or drawings, but we do know that it was built for John G. Searles, one of the “Sugar Kings” of Brooklyn.
Mr. Searles was the secretary/treasurer of the American Sugar Refining Company, a powerful conglomerate that would become better known as Domino Sugar. They were the largest sugar refining company in the world. Searles had the house built in the late 1870s, early 1880s. The family lived here up until his death, right around the century’s end. Mysteriously, he went bankrupt at the end of his career, and the family lost this, as well as other properties. It was purchased by the Brevoort family, but they did not live here. (more…)