Brooklyn Bridge, postcard 3

Here’s an updated look at the most important thing to happen in Brooklyn since Henry Hudson landed at Coney Island. Many people call it “The Great Mistake.” Was it?

With Brooklyn’s much-hyped status as the hippest place on Earth comes some nostalgic feelings about “The Great Mistake,” as many called the consolidation of New York City. On that fateful day, January 1, 1898, Brooklyn the city disappeared, and Brooklyn the “outer borough” was born. (As were the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island.)

The decision to join all of the counties surrounding Manhattan into one central city was not made easily, quickly or lightly. Politicians, businessmen, city fathers and ordinary citizens argued and lobbied for or against this for almost 20 years.

Consolidating New York City took a tremendous amount of money and power, along with the consideration of business interests, tax revenues, city bureaucracies, social issues and civic identity. Some people thought it was inevitable and progressive — but for others it was the end of the world as they knew it, the Death of Brooklyn. (more…)

First Nat Bank, Chicago, 1883, 1

Bryce Arthur Whyte was as English as Queen Victoria. He had a plummy upper-crust sounding name. He was handsome, with a slight blonde mustache and carefree air, well-mannered and, apparently wealthy.

Whyte came to America in 1888, the son of a Liverpool merchant who had made a great deal of money in the East India trade. He decided to make money — so that he wouldn’t be bored, as he told friends — and got connected with the founders of the Wallabout Bank.

When the Bank opened its doors on the corner of Clinton and Myrtle Avenues later that year, Bryce A. Whyte was an assistant clerk, responsible for taking in and recording deposits.

Bankers are not by nature a trusting people. The bank had asked for and received a guarantee of trustworthiness for young Whyte. The Guarantee Corporation of North America, located in Manhattan, put up a $10,000 bond as security for his honesty.

But unbeknownst to everyone in his new American home, all was not well in Whyte’s well-presented life. (more…)

Coral Gardens, SSpellen 3

In the years after the Civil War, until the dawn of the 20th century, Brooklyn, as we know, experienced rapid growth. By the 1880s and ‘90s, real estate had become a huge business, and some large developers came on the scene.

Individual developers gave rise to row house neighborhoods like Sunset Park, Stuyvesant Heights, Prospect Heights and Lefferts Manor. Then they moved to the “suburbs” of South Brooklyn and created the communities of Borough Park, while others created Prospect Park West, Ditmas Park and Beverly Square, East and West.

Soon, these individual developers were joined by development companies. These corporations had a board of directors, issued stock and had shareholders. They were run by real estate men in conjunction with bankers and businessmen.

One of these companies was called Realty Associates. (more…)

369th, 15th NY, WWI, Wikipedia

Rufus L. Perry, Jr. was one of Brooklyn’s best known attorneys in the early 20th century. He represented a varied group of clients in both criminal and civil court. He was a true son of his father, a respected clergyman living in what is now Crown Heights North. The fact that the Perrys were African American is just part of this forgotten history. We met the father in Chapter One. The son’s early accomplishments were chronicled in Chapter Two. Our story continues:

Rufus Perry, Jr. spent his entire life rising above the expectations of the white world around him.

He was the Valedictorian of his NYU Law School class and spoke at commencement in 1891. He could speak and write fluently in five languages. None of his classmates could claim that ability. He wrote his bar exams in Latin, probably sending more than one professor back to his dictionary.

He opened his law practice after passing the bar, representing black clients, which was expected, but he had a full roster of white clients as well, both male and female.

In 1910, at the age of 26, Rufus married 24 year old Lillian Sylvia Buchacher. Unfortunately, no other information is available about her. All we know from census records is that she and her parents were all born in New York City.

Interracial marriages were few and far between back then, and were not looked at favorably at all. Two years later, Rufus converted to Judaism, taking the Hebrew name “Raphael.”

He was black, Jewish, with a white wife, and with way too much smarts for the son of a former slave. When he decided to go into Brooklyn politics, his friends and enemies lined up accordingly. But first, a little background: (more…)

Rufus L. Perry, Composite

During the latter part of the 19th century, Rufus L. Perry Sr. was one of Brooklyn’s most prominent ministers. Like most of Brooklyn’s leading Protestant clergymen, he had a doctorate, was widely published, and his sermons were quoted in the religion pages of the Brooklyn Eagle. The fact that he was African American, and had been a slave in childhood, was seen as remarkable. Chapter One of our story recounts his life.

But as remarkable as Rev. Perry’s life story and accomplishments were, the world hadn’t seen anything yet. His eldest son, Rufus L. Perry Jr., was about to break the mold.

Rufus Jr. began his life on May 26, 1868, born here in Brooklyn to Rev. Perry and his wife Charlotte. The family lived in a home in what is now Crown Heights North, on St. Marks Avenue, between Albany and Schenectady avenues.

Life for black folks in late 19th century Brooklyn was not easy. The law prohibited many overt forms of discrimination, but the reality was that most black people in Brooklyn lived on the fringe of society.

The schools and everyday life were segregated, and most African Americans were laborers or relegated to service jobs, while a small black middle and upper-middle class struggled to find acceptance and equality in the workplace and society.

The Perry family was part of this emerging black upper-middle class, which consisted of clergy, doctors, lawyers, undertakers, business owners and teachers.

Rev. Perry and his wife raised their children to believe that they were the equals of anyone. They were encouraged to aim high, and become whatever they wanted to become in the world. They should not allow other people’s prejudices to hinder their progress. Young Rufus took that to heart. He was also really, really smart. (more…)

Rufus Perry, Sr. Weeksville houses, BPL

I often write about the movers and shakers of the 19th and early 20th century Brooklyn — they could be fascinating, and in their own ways, thoroughly modern people. Some of their names grace our streets, our schools, businesses and other buildings.

Most, however, are gone and forgotten, in spite of glowing like torches during their own times.

Rufus Lewis Perry, Senior and his son, also Rufus L. Perry, were quite newsworthy in their day. Between the two of them, their names appeared often in the Brooklyn papers between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression.

During those years, they were the topics of pride, envy, derision, scorn and grudging admiration. Why? Their accomplishments were impressive and many.

But for too many Brooklynites, this proud father and son were too smart for their own good, too uppity, and too grandiose; not exhibiting the proper humility expected from two sons of Africa. But that never stopped them. (more…)

Ebbetts Field , opening ball, 1913, Wiki 1

In Chapter One, we met architect Clarence R. Van Buskirk, mired in a corruption scandal in Chapter Two, but victorious designer of Ebbets Field in Chapter 3. Today, our story concludes.

Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, opened with an exhibition game between the Dodgers and the Yankees, held on April 5, 1913. A few days later on April 9, the Dodgers played their first league game here against the Philadelphia Phillies. Charlie Ebbets’ daughter threw out the first ball, as seen above.

A great deal of planning went into Ebbets Field, with architect Clarence Randall Van Buskirk and his partner, Alexander F. W. Leslie, taking field trips to other stadiums, and meticulously planning with their client, Charlie Ebbets.

Ebbets was determined to have the best stadium in baseball.

But when the stadium opened, they realized it wasn’t perfect. Even after all their research, Van Buskirk and Leslie had still forgotten a few things.


Ebbetts Field 1914, ebay 4

In Chapter One, we met Clarence R. Van Buskirk, the eldest son of Rev. Peter Van Buskirk, a well-known pastor of one of Brooklyn’s oldest churches. After getting his degree at NYU, he landed a plum job with the City in the Department of Highways. But this architect and engineer became mired in a corruption scandal in Chapter Two and lost his job. Undeterred, he went into partnership with architect Alexander F.W. Leslie. Somehow, the firm was chosen by Charles Ebbetts to design the new baseball stadium for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Sounds like the job of a lifetime, doesn’t it? You know what they say about getting what you wish for? Our story continues…

In early January, 1912, Brooklyn Dodger owner Charles Ebbets announced at a sportswriter’s dinner at the Brooklyn Club on Pierrepont Street that he was going to build a new stadium for Brooklyn’s beloved team, the Dodgers.

The news was met with great applause, and became the front page story in the Brooklyn papers the next day.

What was an even greater surprise was the news that the site of the stadium and its design had been in the works for over a year, and had somehow managed to remain top secret from everyone inside and outside of both baseball and government.

Charlie Ebbets was in secret negotiations to buy the land near Bedford and Montgomery Streets in what is now Crown Heights South, and his architect, Clarence R. Van Buskirk, had already completed the plans. (more…)

4th July parade, 1

As all American kids learn in school, Independence Day celebrates July 4, 1776, when the 13 colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. That announcement was made through the Declaration of Independence, one of this country’s greatest and most powerful documents.

There are some modern doubts as to whether it was actually July 4th, or the 2nd, or even another date, but it really doesn’t matter. John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about the event, (which he thought was July 2) and said, “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.”

“It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

Americans took John Adams’ advice and have been celebrating Independence Day ever since. (more…)

KC Courthouse and Muni Bldg. undated 1

In Part 1, we met Clarence R. Van Buskirk – architect, engineer, preacher’s kid, and well-regarded Assistant Engineer for the Brooklyn Department of Highways. He would one day be the architect of Brooklyn’s most iconic structure: Ebbets Field Stadium. But before that, he needed to get out of deep trouble. In 1907, the Department of Highways was on the hit list of a local politician looking to make a name for himself by rooting out corruption. And he had Van Buskirk in his sights.

Bird S. Coler was the Borough President of Brooklyn, coming into office in the fall of 1905. But he had higher political ambitions, and was consumed with a fanatic’s zeal to weed out corruption in the borough. If it happened to further his political ambitions? Well, all the better.

Self-serving or not, he did have a point.

At the time, all of New York City was a hotbed of corruption of one kind or another, some forms more blatantly corrupt than others. Over at Brooklyn’s Department of Highways, where Coler first set his sights, the head of the department, Frank Ulrich, had continued a long-standing tradition.

He bloated his department with patronage jobs, played favorites with certain inspectors, accepted kickbacks, and hugely overbilled utilities like Edison Electric Company and Brooklyn Union Gas.

Ulrich overstepped and got caught accepting payoffs in exchange for jobs. He was indicted, arrested, and let out on bail awaiting trial. He submitted his resignation towards the end of 1906.

Coler called for a Grand Jury to determine if charges could be filed against anyone else in the department, especially Ulrich’s junior staff, which included Clarence Van Buskirk.

Investigators came to the offices and boxed up billing and other records pertaining to the utilities, and put them under lock and key, intending to remove them for review.

But in the early hours of February 25, 1907, at least two men entered the Department offices on the top floor of the old Municipal Building, broke into the locked desk which held the keys, and made off with the records. (more…)

C.R. Van Buskirk, Ebbetts Field composite

Some of Brooklyn’s greatest architectural treasures were designed by people whose names we either never knew or can’t remember. Most people don’t really care about architecture anyway, but in spite of that, a few names become part of the cultural conversation.

Some of them we manage to remember: the Brooklyn Bridge – that Roebling guy. He died.

The Brooklyn Museum – um, oh yeah, McKim, Mead & White. White was the guy who had the mistress on the red swing in his private playroom and her husband shot him. That’s easy to remember. Unfortunately it’s less easy to remember that White didn’t actually design the museum, McKim did. But still, not bad.

So what about one of Brooklyn’s most famous icons? What about the ballpark with the name that can cause a native Brooklynite of a certain age to get teary and wax nostalgic? We know the name of the team and the exploits of the players in that temple of baseball. Their names are whispered the way one speaks of a saint in church.

But who was the architect of this sacred space? Who designed Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Clarence R. Van Buskirk, that’s who. Well, maybe. More on that later. But first, who?  (more…)

139 Bainbridge St. BPL, 1928

The big white house on the corner of Stuyvesant Avenue and Bainbridge Street in Stuyvesant Heights is one of the most beautiful on this street of fine townhouses and large mansions. In Chapter One we learned who built it. In Chapter Two it was home to the Sutton family, torn apart by the miserable marriage of Francis and Louise Sutton. The house was a casualty of the dissolution of their union, and by 1919 had passed into new hands. Our story continues:

This story is also about two remarkable sisters, pioneers who chose to spend their lives helping women and girls in need of support and care.

Myrtis and Mary Fish hailed from Oswego County, NY. They came with their parents and a brother to Brooklyn as children, and were educated in Brooklyn public schools. All three Fish children became respected in their chosen professions.

They were distant relatives of the powerful and wealthy Fish family of Manhattan. Hamilton Fish was the most famous member, and was a senator, a governor of New York, and Secretary of State to President Ulysses S. Grant.

Myrtis Fish graduated from the New York School of Law, and was said to be the first female attorney licensed to practice in Brooklyn and Long Island. Her brother Lawrence also became a lawyer, and was a municipal court judge in Brooklyn.

Myrtis became a probation officer, and for over 20 years was the female probation officer for the Brooklyn Night Court.

Fish felt strongly about helping the women she saw pass through the courts and in her sphere of influence. She wanted to establish a place where girls and women could find a place of refuge and help.

She enlisted the help of several wealthy society ladies, and, most importantly, her sister. (more…)