President, 7th, 8th Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

One of the fun parts of writing this particular column is trying to match the vintage photo or postcard to the present day site. Sometimes a perfect match is possible, and other times, the scenery has changed so much, it’s impossible to tell exactly where a building or event was. The clues or markers that place or date a photo just don’t exist any longer. But that’s not the case here.

The historic photograph was taken in late February or early March of 1906 on President Street, between 7th and 8th Avenue. This is the north side of the street, closer to 8th Avenue. The men are tearing up the sidewalk area in order to lay down new sidewalks and curbs.

My vintage photo had a caption, President Street, 1906, which narrowed down street and date. A bit of research turned up public notices in the Brooklyn Eagle announcing road and sewer work throughout the borough, as well as the “regulating, grading, curbing, flagging and laying cement sidewalks” on many blocks, as well.

The paving and road work were all spread out with great planning, so that traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian could get around without too much difficulty. The notices began appearing at the end of February, 1906, and continued through March. One by one, block by block, the city infrastructure was improved. (more…)

PS 60, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Public School 60 was built for the growing number of students in what is now the Greenwood Heights neighborhood. It was built in 1886. Like all of the public schools built during this period of time, it was designed by James Naughton, the last and greatest of the city of Brooklyn’s public school architects. He was the last man to hold the position of Superintendent of Buildings for the Board of Education of the City of Brooklyn. He died about the same time his position was eliminated in 1898, when Brooklyn became part of greater New York City.

Naughton designed great school buildings of all sizes and configurations. He is on record for designing and building at least 100 school buildings across the borough during his twenty year tenure. He didn’t have the 20th century engineering and technological advances that his successor, C.P. J. Snyder had, allowing for walls of windows, and bigger spaces, but Naughton managed to get the largest windows he could in his schools, allowing for lots of natural light and air. This building is similar to many of his schools in other parts of Brooklyn, although many of them are no longer standing. This building closely resembles PS 79, which was at Kosciusco and Sumner, long gone, and P.S. 65 in Cypress Hills. That one is still with us. (more…)

525-531 Gates Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I found this photograph recently, showing a group of storefronts on the ground floor of some handsome Bedford Stuyvesant flats buildings. It’s in the collections of the New York Historical Society, and dates from 1920. I find these slices of the past fascinating, as well as very often quite sad, as invariably, the past often looked a lot more aesthetically pleasing than the present.

This photograph is part of a large group of pictures taken by William D. Hassler, who lived from 1877 to 1921. For several years, he was employed as a photographer for Joseph P. Day, a large real estate auctioneer who conducted business in New York City and Pennsylvania. Hassler took hundreds of photographs of individual and groups of buildings for Day in the years between 1910 and 1921. Almost all of the photos show ordinary buildings, not fancy mansions or people. They are a fascinating look at some of the vanishing details of the city. (more…)

Monastery of the Precious Blood, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

As so often happens, I was researching something else when I happened to look at this particular Sanborn insurance map of Bedford, dated 1908. There, in the middle of the block between Jefferson and Hancock, flanked by Bedford and Nostrand avenues, was a cloistered Catholic monastery. I used to live two blocks away from there, so I knew it was gone, but in all the research I’ve done on Bedford, I had never come across this building or heard of the monastery before. What was the story, and were there any photographs of it in existence? Fortunately, yes, the Brooklyn Eagle had one, which I found both in the paper itself, and the same photo also in the collection of the Brooklyn Public Library. Wow, nice church building, 10 foot walls, cloistered nuns! Who knew? (more…)

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…)