Sylvan Electric Baths composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

For as long as mankind has been around, we’ve been trying to find ways to alleviate our aches and pains. In late 19th and early 20th century America, advances in science combined with ancient cures had been shown to produce results.

Mineral and hot springs baths were one popular way to sooth aching limbs and calm agitated organs. The resort towns of Sharon Springs, Saratoga and other locations in upstate New York were popular places to get the cure. Fortunes were made by spa owners, and entire towns dedicated to hosting the guests of these spas flourished for many years.

But you had to have time to go there, and you had to be wealthy, or at least well-off. Didn’t everyone deserve to benefit from nature’s cures? And if you lived in New York City, wouldn’t it be great if there was a place in the city itself where you could take a treatment, and then walk back out onto the street and continue your busy day? Some savvy entrepreneurs thought so, and decided to bring the spa experience to Brooklyn. (more…)

81 Fenimore St. PLG, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Like an archeological dig, Brooklyn is made up of layers. In Flatbush, the fields the Canarsee roamed became cultivated farmland under the Dutch. That in turn gave way to freestanding homes on large plots, which were incorporated into the land deed of Lefferts Manor, and turned into smaller row houses.

That’s what happened here on Fenimore Street, as it happened throughout many Brooklyn neighborhoods, but in this rare instance, we have photographs.

Our period photo shows 81 Fenimore Street. The photograph was taken in 1910. It shows a large wood-framed house on the property. The style was Second Empire, with a central tower with an even taller mansard roof and widow’s walk. The view of Brooklyn from the mansard windows must have been fantastic. (more…)

Brooklyn Eagle Building composite 1

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Brooklyn Eagle newspaper began as the paper of record for a growing city, and was at its finest as the city grew into a great metropolis. The paper reported about Brooklyn life, events and people continuously for 114 years.

The Eagle began back in 1841 as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat. Its owners were Isaac Van Anden and Henry Cruse Murphy. The two men had originally planned to publish the paper as a morning paper, which along with news, would be an arm of Democratic Party politics.

In 1842, Henry Cruse Murphy became Mayor of Brooklyn. The paper continued to grow, covering not just local news, but extending its range to international and national news as well. That was rare for most morning dailies.

The editor of the Eagle between 1846 and 1848 was poet Walt Whitman. Whitman was a printer by trade, in addition to being a writer and poet, and had worked for several different newspapers in NY and Long Island before coming to the Eagle.

He only lasted two years at the paper because he fell out with Isaac Van Anden. Whitman was a supporter of the “Free-Soil Movement” wing of the Democratic Party, and Van Anden was a strong supporter of their opposition, the more conservative wing of the party.

Crossing one’s boss over politics is never a good idea, and Whitman was encouraged to move on. During the Civil War, the paper continued to support the Democratic Party, quite a stand in what would be a very Republican city in later years. That would later change, as the times changed. (more…)

950 St. Marks Ave, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I freely admit to a fascination with St. Marks Avenue in Crown Heights North. Along the length of the street, between Rogers and Albany Avenues, lay opulent real estate belonging to some of the wealthiest people in Brooklyn during the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These residences often make up this Past and Present column because with rare exception, they are all gone. Only photographs, written descriptions and perhaps a few undiscovered photographs remain. Here’s another to add to the list.

Not only is this enormous house gone; the photograph shows it after a disastrous fire that gutted it in 1898. This 1905 photo shows the house just before it was torn down, and replaced by the handsome flats buildings that stand now. In fact, nothing in this photo is still standing, except the row houses in the background.

That’s another thing about St. Marks Avenue that makes it so fascinating and unique. The huge mansions are gone, but with few exceptions, they were all replaced by attractive, even elegant buildings. We may not have the houses of the rich to gawk at anymore, but we did get some fine architecture in return. (more…)

President, 7th, 8th Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

One of the fun parts of writing this particular column is matching a vintage photo or postcard to its 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 located. 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 avenues. This is the north side of the street, closer to 8th Avenue. The men are tearing up the sidewalk area to lay down new sidewalks and curbs.

My vintage photo had a caption, President Street, 1906, which narrowed down the 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 spread out with great planning, so 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…)