Christine Adler, Brooklyn Eagle, 1905Sometimes I write about people who become so real to me I feel as if I know them. Telling their stories becomes much more than simply doing a lot of research and then condensing it. Often I feel a kinship with them because I may have experienced something they experienced, or have been in their homes, or in the places they visited, or in their shoes. Sometimes we did the same things, or sang the same songs. Sometimes literally.

Christine Adler was a turn of the 20th century classical singer. She lived for many years in Bedford, in a house that for a long time I dreamed would be be mine, and a house that I’ve actually been in. I’ve stood at the same mantel she must have stood by; I’ve climbed the same stairs, and looked out of the same windows. At the time, I had never heard of Christine Adler. That didn’t come till much later.

When I did discover her name, I found out that we also share a love of classical vocal music. She was a contralto, the lowest of female voices, although that means something different today than it did in her day. In her day, a contralto included what we call mezzo-soprano today, and includes some of the great operatic repertoire sung by characters such as Carmen, Delilah in “Samson and Delilah”, and Amneris in “Aida.”

I used to sing some of that repertoire too, back in the day, so when I read in the old Brooklyn Eagle pages that Mrs. Adler sang this piece or that piece, I know the piece, and I know what was needed to sing it well. Christine Adler also sang the equivalent of pop and show tunes, because she enjoyed working and entertaining, and she also was a gifted teacher. Although I’m too young to have been taught by her, I certainly could have been taught by someone that she had trained, albeit in that student’s later years. It’s possible; after all, my own real life voice teacher lived to be over 100 years old. So here is the story of Madame Christine Adler, a true diva. (more…)

Pros Park, Troy, Garnet Baltimore, Composite 2

On July 4th, 1902, the bands marched, politicians waxed poetic, and the people celebrated on this, the grand opening of the Warren Hill Park, on top of Mount Ida, overlooking downtown Troy. The year before, after a few positive voices of agreement, along with the usual contentious wrangling and pompous posturing, the City Council of Troy voted in favor of purchasing the parkland to create Troy’s newest and most important public park.

After debating the issue for several years, the city finally owned the land. Now it was time to hurry up and wait. People wanted to see the view that had made Mount Ida famous, a panoramic vista that on a good day, allowed people to see for miles around. Troy lies in the Hudson River valley between the Catskills and the Adirondacks, and the view from the top of the mountain would allow you to see both ranges. It was a great place to take in the summer breezes and escape the hustle and bustle of one of the nation’s busiest and wealthiest cities. The only problem was that in the rush to get people in the park, they hadn’t yet gotten around to finishing it. In fact, it was barely begun.

That was not the fault of the city’s parks landscape engineer. Garnet D. Baltimore had already scoped out other cities and their parks, including Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and had great ideas on how to make Warren Hill Park a masterpiece. But first he needed to have his plans and a budget approved. Mr. Baltimore was a scrupulous record keeper, and the Troy newspapers faithful commentators, so we know what he had to go through to get the job done. For more background on the park and the man, check out Part One and Part Two of this story. (more…)

Prospect Park, Troy postcard 1

After the great successes of New York City’s wonderful parks, such as Manhattan’s Central and Riverside Parks, as well as Brooklyn’s Prospect and Fort Greene Parks, every city in the country was envious. Cities are judged by their public buildings and public spaces, and by the beginning of the 20th century, almost every municipality and its civic movers and shakers wanted to have exemplary parks. Parks were places that every citizen, high and low, could enjoy the beauties of nature, fresh air, and room to relax.

For many urban areas, that was key to a better quality of life and a happier populace. Thanks to the philosophies of the City Beautiful Movement, city fathers also thought that parks, like great public buildings, would inspire the lower classes to civic pride, and therefore industrious behavior, better citizenship and moral uplifting. Parks were also a chance for city fathers, committee heads, wealthy donors, and ambitious landscape designers to shine. They all knew they were creating places that would live on after they were long gone. (more…)

Pros Park, Troy, Composite

As our Brooklyn readers all know, Prospect Park was designed by the famed landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who also designed Central Park. That park opened in 1857 with great fanfare and much success. As well it should; Central Park is one of the great urban parks, and Olmsted and Vaux created a masterpiece of natural and enhanced landscaping that America had never seen before. When the City Fathers from across the East River in Brooklyn went to inspect the park, of course, they wanted one too.

One of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, James S.T. Stranahan, was appointed to head a parks committee that would oversee this great project. In 1860, they picked an engineer/architect to map out the project. His name was to Egbert L. Viele, and he had actually been the original architect picked to design Central Park. That is until someone called in Olmsted and Vaux, who blew Viele out of the water with their far superior plans for the park.’

Viele would get his chance in Brooklyn. He accessed the site chosen, a huge tract of swampy and hilly land not far from Green-Wood Cemetery, up until that time, the largest park area in the city. Viele planned to include many natural features in his park, including the city’s Mount Prospect Reservoir, atop Mount Prospect, the second highest point in Brooklyn. The park would extend west towards the highest point in Brooklyn: Battle Pass, which was part of Green-Wood. Down below lay Gowanus, the site of the Battle of Brooklyn, the first decisive battle in the War of Independence, fought in 1776.

But it was the Civil War that defeated Egbert Viele. All plans for the park had to be shelved until the end of the long war, and by that time, Stranahan and his committee had years to mull over his plans, and decided to get a second opinion. As we know, they asked Olmsted and Vaux, and before the committee’s very eyes, the partners had totally redesigned the park site, dazzled the committee with their plans, and got poor Egbert fired. (more…)

Shirley Chisholm, 1028 St. Johns, GS,PS

When Congress convened in January of 1969, there was only one new female face among the men and women of the 91st Congress. She stood out for several reasons, the most obvious being that she was the only black woman in the room. She was also a small woman, slight of build, with big hair and thick glasses. She was not overly awed by the panoply around her. Shirley Chisholm had come to Washington to work. She was representing a newly created, and long overdue district in Central Brooklyn, that of greater Bedford Stuyvesant. Prior to this new district, Central Brooklyn had been gerrymandered into other larger districts with white majorities. For the first time ever, a black Congressman, in this historic case, a black Congresswoman, was going to represent this community’s many needs in the halls of power. It was going to be an uphill battle. But 1969 was one of those years.

Today, we are very cynical about what goes on in Washington, and with good reason, but almost 50 years ago, it was a different place. There was more respect for Congress and its power to change the country for the better. But in many ways, Congress was still the same. There was rampant cronyism, partisan in-fighting, powerful outside influences, racism, sexism, and the good-old boy network. Shirley Chisholm had to fight her way through it all. And like her experiences in politics in Brooklyn, Shirley knew how to be effective, and how to work with the most unlikely of people.

This is the story of Ms. Chisholm’s political and personal life, and it’s also a walking tour of the places that had meaning to her in her hometown of Brooklyn. (more…)

Shirley Chisholm, 28 Virginia Place, NS, PS

Congresswoman Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was one of the most important people to ever come out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. She was the first African American woman ever elected to the United States Congress in 1968, and a few years after that historic “first,” was the first black major-party candidate for President, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, in 1972.

She was born in Brooklyn, went to high school in Brooklyn, and graduated from Brooklyn College. She went over to that overrated island on the other side of the East River to get her Master’s degree in Education from Columbia University’s School of Teaching. But even then, she was living in Brooklyn, and worked here, got married, and went into Brooklyn politics. She was as authentically Brooklyn as the Brooklyn Bridge. What better way to honor her in my architectural history column than to take you on a Walking Tour of Shirley Chisholm’s Brooklyn, while I tell you more about this fascinating woman’s life and career. (more…)

Shirley Chisholm, Prospect Place, composite

When I was growing up, I knew who Shirley Chisholm was. I come from that generation of African American children whose parents made sure we knew who all of the “firsts” were. Kids growing up today take the many achievements of African Americans for granted, and that’s a great thing, because we should be able to achieve whatever we want without notice or fuss. We shouldn’t have to be able to make a list of the number of black nuclear scientists, cancer researchers, neurosurgeons, fashion designers, Oscar winners, hockey players or even Republicans; we should be able to be well represented in all facets of American life.

But when I was in my formative years, during the 1960s, we were just getting to the point where there were a lot of “firsts.” The Civil Rights Movement, which happened right before my eyes on our black and white television, was both sobering and inspiring. We grew up checking the pages of Ebony magazine, the black version of Life, which always had articles about those black folks who had arrived – pioneers in all walks of life, “firsts” or sometimes only “seconds” or “thirds” in every field we had managed to conquer. Shirley Chisholm was one of those proud pioneers, and as a female, she was of special interest to my mother, and thus, to me.

But it wasn’t until I actually moved to Brooklyn that I realized what that all meant. It’s easy to be somewhere else reading about great people of any nationality, time or location and be inspired, but when you live where they lived, walk past the buildings they were educated, worked or lived in, and see the world they saw, you get a special affinity for what it was like to shape that landscape and those people into history. While I lived in Brooklyn, I lived in Shirley Chisholm’s stomping ground, and so in honor of her achievements, I’d like to propose a Shirley Chisholm Walking Tour. (more…)

Cyclorama in Brooklyn, Scientific American, 1886

The Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, was one of the pivotal turning moments in American history. Those who took part in the battle, on both sides, were affected by it for life. So too were the families of all who died, or came home maimed and tortured by the experience. The Pennsylvania battleground became a powerful symbol of the horrors of war, especially civil war, where the enemy is not a foreign nation or ideology, but one’s own countrymen. The battle had moved a President to its fields to honor those who fought, and those who gave their all. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is one of the few speeches schoolchildren still memorize today.

Twenty-some years after the end of the war, its effects were still on the national psyche. In Northern cities like Brooklyn, the generals and officers in the war came back and became politicians, city officials, bankers, heads of railroads and utilities, lawyers and businessmen. The veterans of the war were everywhere, in every walk of life. The G.A.R, the Grand Army of the Republic; the Union veteran’s organization, was a popular meeting place for men to meet and be with the only people who really understood them.

The public was fascinated by the war in general, and the Battle of Gettysburg, in particular. There were lectures given by former soldiers, as well as military strategists. They talked about troop movement, charges, the generals and their mistakes or brilliant moves, and always, the wounded and dead. One man was so fascinated by the war that he decided to illustrate it in such a way that it could be understood by a wider audience of people. In this day before motion pictures, he decided that the best way to show this battle of battles was to paint some of the major moments and paint them large. (more…)

Philip Musica. 1In 1936, the Republican Party called on millionaire industrialist Frank Donald Coster of Connecticut to heed the call of destiny and throw his hat in the ring as a candidate for President of the United States. Most people would be flattered by the honor, but Mr. Coster humbly declined. Secretly, he was probably exploding with both pride and horror. Proud that a man of such humble beginnings as himself would be considered for the honor, proud that he had fooled so many, and abject horror at the thought of the public exposure. Had Coster succumbed to their flattery, he would have become the first Italian-American to run for President. It’s up for debate and historians to determine if he would have been the first con man and thief to run for such high office.

Frank Donald Coster was but one alias in a life of changing names and occupations for this man who had started out in life as Filippo Musica, an Italian-born son of a barber who brought his family to the United States from Naples in 1884, when Filippo was a child. The amazing story of the family’s early life in Little Italy, then Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is replete with scams and plots to get rich by cutting corners and cheating. The Musica clan preferred to get their money by conning banks and other big money. They always put a respectable face on their endeavors, and they were good enough at it to amass, lose, and regain several sizable fortunes between the beginning of the 20th century and the end of the Great Depression. (more…)

Bootlegger, 1In 1920, a man named F. Donald Costa and his partner Joseph Brandino established a pharmaceutical company called the Adelphi Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Company. Their main product was a miraculous solution called “Dandrafuge,” which could stop dandruff in its tracks and grow hair on a rock. The company also made other tonics and cosmetic products.

Costa and Brandino were establishing their company at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties, that mythical time of ragtime, flappers and Prohibition. After January 1, 1920, thanks to the 18th Amendment, all forms of alcohol were now illegal. Because many tonics and medicines required some form of alcohol in their recipes or production, manufacturers had to obtain a permit from the government that allowed them to legally purchase alcohol. Adelphi had a permit that allowed them to buy 5,000 gallons of alcohol a month. They bought and used every drop.

Bottles of Dandrafuge were rolling off the assembly lines, and were selling like hotcakes, but not to those with follicle issues. Dandrafuge was incredibly popular to bootleggers. They bought up entire shipments, distilled the alcohol out of it, and made bootleg liquor and beer. This was not an unexpected by product of manufacturing, Costa and Brandino knew exactly what they were doing. (more…)

Blizzard of 88, Bklyn Hts, BPL 1

The advent of a potential blizzard causes me to pause my story of the Musica family. They’ll be back on Thursday. Meanwhile, please consider the following:

Whenever anyone talks about snowstorms in New York City, the Great Blizzard of 1888 is always mentioned. The photographs of Victorian era folk standing next to eight foot snowdrifts are iconic pieces of New York City history. We’ve had snowstorms that have dumped more snow down on us in a single storm than that one did, we’ve had plenty that managed to shut down the city, several of them in the last ten or so years. But the storm of 1888 remains legendary. It was known as the Storm of the Century, the Great White Hurricane, and it brought not only huge piles of snow, but also death, destruction, property damage, and propelled the cities of the East Coast into the modern age.

The storm caused so much damage because of the amounts of snow and the heavy winds that blew it into tall mountains that covered everything. It was a classic Nor’easter that roared ferociously up the coast and vented its fury on Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and on up into Boston, the rest of New England and beyond, catching every town and city on its northeastern path to Canada. These were the days before Doppler radar, storm tracking equipment and 24/7 weather alerts. It was also not a typical winter storm. Winter was almost over, you see, and the people in the Mid-Atlantic States were getting ready for the arrival of spring. After all, it was March 12th, 1888. (more…)

Spies, 1On a cloudy day in 1913, all but two of the members of the Musica family from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn stood on a pier in New Orleans, waiting to board a steamer to Honduras by way of Panama. To anyone watching, the family was large, but unremarkable; two aging parents, and their adult and younger children. The parents were from the Old Country, speaking rapid Italian while admonishing their younger children. The oldest son and daughter, in their 20s, were the standouts; dressed in stylish and expensive clothes, the picture of wealth and success. Around them were the trunks and boxes containing the family’s possessions, ready to be loaded onto the ship. This did not look like a family on a vacation, these people looked as if they were leaving for good. And they were; the Musica family was on the run, and the law was hot on their trail.

Part One of this story will give you the background on the early life of Philip Musica. He was born Filippo Musica in Italy, the eldest son of a barber named Antonio and his wife, Marie. The three immigrated to New York when Filippo was a child, and he grew up in the tenements of Little Italy. His father opened a barbershop, and later, a grocery store, and it was there that young Filippo became Phillip, striving to achieve the American Dream. By the time he was a teenager, he had dropped out of school to run the store, and had branched out into importing. He was bringing in shipments of Italian cheeses, olive oil, pasta and other specialty provisions, and his father’s shop soon became one of the most profitable Italian importers in New York. (more…)