Arthur D. Howden Smith, 1918, BEAfter spending a few months as a foreign correspondent in the mountains of Macedonia, Arthur D. Howden Smith would always seek a life of adventure and danger. He travelled to the Balkans to write the story of a lifetime; his adventures as a freedom fighter with a gritty band of Chetniks who were waging a bloody guerrilla war with the Turks. Young Howden Smith came from a family of world travelers, his forbearers were sea-faring men, and close relatives were famously trekking through the wilds of Africa, killing elephants and importing ivory.

Part One of our story introduced us to Arthur Douglas Howden Smith, who spent his youth and young adulthood living in what is now Crown Heights, at 907 Sterling Place. He was the descendant of New England shipping merchants, and in spite of his tony upper class British sounding name, was born in New York City, in 1887, lived as a small child in New Jersey, and grew up in this house in Brooklyn. He would live in Brooklyn for much of his life. He didn’t look like the adventuring type; he was a small man, about 5’7” tall and weighed 160 pounds, soaking wet. He wore round-lensed glasses and looked like someone who would be more at home in the stacks of a library than the mountains of Macedonia. But, he was a lot tougher and more determined than his appearance would warrant. (more…)

Arthur D. Howden Smith, Brooklyn Eagle 1908Many writers have found Brooklyn to be an amiable place to live while penning works of great importance, or at least works that pay the rent. Whether that work is a great novel or autobiography, or just a self-important blog post, writers have put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, here in Brooklyn since there has been a Brooklyn. One of those writers is someone I stumbled across while researching a group of houses for a Building of the Day column. He wrote in the early to mid-20th century, and in the height of his popularity, was practically a household name. By the time he died, he was only worth a few lines in an obituary column. His name was Arthur D. Howden Smith, and for many years, he was a resident of 907 Sterling Place in Crown Heights North.

For a man who spent part of his career writing the autobiographies of others, Arthur D. Howden Smith did not leave all that much information about himself behind. According to press releases, he came from an old aristocratic New England family. His family was in the shipping business, or as one release put it, “he was descended from owners of sail.” He was born in 1888 or ‘89, and spent some of his childhood in Port Richmond, Staten Island. By the time he was a teenager, he was living at 907 Sterling Place with his family. (more…)

Tag fire, Brooklyn Eagle, 1916The day after the tragic fire at the Tag house, an advertisement in the Brooklyn Standard Union announced, “Six Women Die in Brooklyn Blaze: It Could Be Your Home Tomorrow!” This half page ad was for the Pyrene Company, which manufactured fire extinguishers. The ad went on to say, “In Casimir Tag’s Brooklyn home this morning, six women were burned to death…Six out of ten fires are in homes. And yet the home, the place which guards our most precious possessions, is least protected from fire. Every home should have something to put out fires from the start…Until the Pyrene Fire Extinguisher was invented a couple of years ago, there was never any practical fire protection for the home…The holocaust in the Tag household may be re-enacted tomorrow in your home. This is a time for action. Put a Pyrene in your home today.” Talk about exploiting a tragedy for financial gain.

Part One of our story tells the tale of banker Casimir Tag and his family. He was one of Brooklyn’s wealthiest bankers in the early 20th century, a man who worked hard and became the president of not one, but two Manhattan banks. He and his wife Hannah raised a large family of six children. His death in 1913 left Hannah the wealthiest widow in Brooklyn, and head of the family home, a large five story brownstone at 243 Hancock Street, on the most impressive block in the upscale neighborhood of Bedford. (more…)

Tag house, Brooklyn Standard Union, 1916

After a day of making wedding plans, and stacking presents in a spare bedroom, the Tag household took to their beds on the cold and frosty evening of February 3rd, 1916. Mrs. Hannah Tag and her two daughters, Caroline and Helen, lived in the large 5 story townhouse at 243 Hancock Street, in the upscale Bedford neighborhood. They had lived here since 1893, the first family to occupy this grand home. At that time, Hannah’s husband, banker Casimir Tag, had been one of Brooklyn’s most successful financial men, the president of two banks and a board member on several more. His background and the story of the family house and neighborhood can be found in Part One of this story.

Casimir died in 1913, leaving his widow and six children in financial comfort. The Tag children were all now adults. The eldest son, Charles, was a medical doctor, with a home right behind the Tag house, at 284 Jefferson Avenue. The eldest daughter had gotten married on Hancock Street, and lived elsewhere. So did the other two sons. Only Caroline and Helen were left at home, and the wedding preparations were for 25 year old Caroline’s nuptials, which were to take place here at the house in two more weeks. Caroline’s older sister Helen, who was 31, was lame, and could not walk for any length of time. She stayed home most often, and was an artist. (more…)

Casimir Tag, house, Hancock St.

Casimir Tag was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Over the course of his years, he turned that spoon to gold, and had the kind of life that many dream of, but only few ever have. When he left this earth, he left his large family well secured and financially set for life. He and his wife imbued their children with fine values and a generosity of spirit that would serve them more than admirably in the years to come. But none of us ever know what life has in store for us. We don’t know what tragedies or triumphs will occur that we never planned for, or suspected would ever happen, or even deserve. This is the story of the Tag family and the disaster that changed their lives forever. (more…)

Ragpickers, NYC, thehistorybox.com 1

Today, we are used to seeing the people who somehow manage to make a living recycling cans and bottles. We hardly notice them as they root through trash cans looking for those precious five-cent drink containers. Perhaps we even separate them out for them, and hang the cans on the fence, so they won’t disrupt the garbage. The people who are really serious about this occupation can be seen pushing grocery carts heaped high with bags of cans, often on their way to a recycling facility, where if they have been diligent, they can make $25 or $30 a day. It’s certainly not an easy life, but as the saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Their collecting cousins are the guys with an old pickup truck who roam around picking up all kinds of metal for the scrap dealer. They are experts on metal, and can tell you how much is being paid for iron, copper, brass and steel. Finding a large amount of copper is like finding the mother lode – money in the pocket. In many cities with a lot of abandoned buildings, copper pipes don’t last long. For that matter, neither do radiators, iron pipe, or any kind of metal. My house in Troy, which had been empty for a number of years before we got it, was stripped of everything metal including the doorknobs, which were literally ripped out, leaving ragged holes in the wood. We had to replace everything. (more…)

Ragpickers, NYC, 1896. Alice Austen 1

The story of Brooklyn is a story of immigrant success. Beginning with the Dutch in the 17th century, Europeans have come here, worked hard to carve lives for themselves and families, and most have prospered and thrived. Some groups did better than others. Some groups were wanted, others were not. All in all, a complicated mixture of nationality, drive, skills, language, bigotry, religion, acceptance, political opportunity and a dash of luck have resulted in the polyglot mosaic that makes up the American experience.

Unfortunately, human society is built on class and caste, no matter how egalitarian we may boast of being, and someone is always going to be on the bottom. For centuries the bottom was reserved for black people who were brought here as slaves. The end of slavery meant menial work for most, and equality for very few. It would take many more centuries to change that impression, and the job still isn’t done. When large amounts of Europeans began immigrating to the US, room had to be made on the bottom for new groups. (more…)

Grant Square, SSpellen 3

In August 29th, 1943, a letter from George H. Trumpler was published on the op-ed and letters to the editor page of the Brooklyn Eagle. It was nestled in the middle of the page, below a political cartoon showing General Mountbatten of England aiming a large cannon towards Japanese controlled Burma from his position in India. This was indeed a world war, in full swing in both Europe and Asia, and the United States was a year and a half into it.

But the big concern at home, at least on this page of the paper, was Brooklyn receiving federal funds to repair highways. There were also two editorials endorsing, in separate columns, women entering the engineering fields and Negroes being appointed by the city to local rationing boards in their communities. Progress, as well as war, had come to Brooklyn.

Even with all of that, the recent debate about the status of General Grant’s statue was still in the news. Two years after it had first been proposed, the decision whether or not to move Grant’s statue to Grant’s Tomb in Manhattan had still not yet been officially made. Parts One and Two of our story will catch you up on the details. (more…)

Grant Square postcard, 1918

The beginning of June, 1941 saw Brooklyn bracing itself for more bad news on the European war front. America knew it was only a matter of time before the country was going to war, and hatred for Hitler and his Nazis was growing. But in spite of everything going on at home and abroad, this was still New Yawk. Nothing gets a hometown crowd more riled up than a battle between Manhattan and Brooklyn, uneasy partners since Brooklyn gave up its status as an independent city to play second fiddle to Manhattan in 1898. It was like the relationship between the Yankees and the Dodgers; same city, different country. (more…)

Grant Statue, postcard

In American history classes we learned that Ulysses S. Grant was the brilliant commander of the Union Army during the Civil War. He was appointed by Abraham Lincoln, and opposed his fellow West Pointer, General Robert E. Lee, during the horrendous War Between the States, the war which changed the United States forever. After the war, he was one of the most popular and well-known people in the country, up North, anyway. He would go on to win two terms as the eighteenth president of the United States. He was elected at 46, the youngest president of the country, at that time. He died in 1885, at the age of 63, a victim of throat cancer.

Some later historians regarded his presidency as pretty awful, due to the corruption of some of his key appointments, but he’s always been regarded with great pride and respect, especially in the years following his death. Today, history is much kinder to Grant as president, giving him credit where credit is due. His efforts to pull the country back together again after the war and his genuine efforts to include African Americans as full participants in American society are now lauded. Civil rights on a presidential level did not receive as much attention again until after World War II. Grant also presided over the country when technology and progress were making huge strides, helping to create a vital consumer middle class, and a changing America. (more…)

LIAC, Union St. 1909, NY Daily Trib 1

After nine years in five other locations, the Long Island Automobile Club finally got their headquarters near “The Gateway of Long Island;” Grand Army Plaza. As Brooklyn’s first, and most elite automobile club, with members of such social standing as William “Willy” Vanderbilt, they were now located in a building that was worthy of their wealth and prestige. Yes, it was another garage, but what a garage!

This building was something out of Europe, with a façade reminiscent of the Austrian Art Nouveau Movement, called the Vienna Secession. It was a four story building built in 1904 as the Plaza Garage. Art Nouveau architecture is very rare in New York City, and rarer still in Brooklyn, but this garage definitely qualified, with sinuous arches over the main entrance and flanking windows, and some rather overdone Germanic –style Roman eagles at the top. It was designed by an architect named Oscar Lowinson. (Thank you, Christopher Gray.) (more…)

LIAC Cumberland Ave Clubhs, interior, BE,1904

You might think that any invention as wonderful as the automobile would be embraced by everyone. Anything that could be done to improve motoring in Brooklyn, Long Island and the general New York City area would immediately be approved, and the car would take its rightful place at the head of the transportation table. Well, if you were an early 20th century autoist; one of the first people to own an automobile, you would probably feel that way. If you were everyone else, it was going to be a much tougher sell.

The Long Island Automobile Club was founded in Brooklyn in 1900 by four wealthy men who wanted a place where they could indulge in their new hobby of racing, tinkering with, and talking about automobiles. In a few short years, they grew in membership to several hundred car enthusiasts; all well-to-do men who could afford a custom vehicle that cost as much as many a working man’s entire yearly salary. Like the bicycle clubs many had belonged to only a couple of years before, the LIAC sponsored races, enjoyed outings and social events, and advocated for paved roads throughout the city and out on Long Island. (more…)