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…)
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.
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…)
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…)
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…)
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…)
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…)
The house at 139 Bainbridge Street was built in 1903 by developer William Clayton for an upscale buyer. The architect was Axel Hedman. He designed a house with all of the most modern amenities of the day. Please check out Part One of our story for the details. The house was purchased by exporter Francis M. Sutton, who lived there with his wife Louise and their three children. But this was not a happy home. Our story continues:
In 1912 Louise Sutton filed for a divorce from her husband of 19 years. The story made the front page of the Brooklyn Eagle on February 20, 1912.
Through her attorney, Louise Sutton told the judge that her husband was having an affair. She said that many of his business trips involved assignations with other women, some of which took place at a resort hotel in White Plains and at a hotel in Manhattan.
She also told the judge that although she and her children lived in a palatial home on Bainbridge Street, she was actually destitute. Her son Sherwood, who was 19, was at Princeton, but the other two children, Doris, 17, and Francis Jr., 14, lived at home. (more…)
Much of the section of Stuyvesant Heights in the vicinity of Stuyvesant and Bainbridge avenues used to belong to the Prosser family. They came to this part of town in 1857 and bought up a huge swath of land from the Lefferts family.
Thomas Prosser, the family patriarch, made his fortune from iron and steel. During the London Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, Prosser met Alfred Krupp, a highly successful German iron manufacturer. The two men became friends for life.
American iron and steel manufacturing was no match for Germany’s in terms of output or technological capability at that point, and both men could see a lucrative business opportunity. A westward-growing America needed German steel for railroads and other production.
Prosser was soon signed up as the American agent for Krupp. That relationship lasted up until the beginning of World War I.
During the Civil War and the Railroad Age of the postwar years, Krupp iron was essential to a growing intercontinental economy. Thomas Prosser, and later his sons, got a piece of every dollar that Krupp made in the USA. (more…)
In Part 1 we met Edward B. Coombs and George H. Nason, the last elected coroners of the independent City of Brooklyn. Coroners did not have to be pathologists back then. They were elected officials who presided over inquests into suspicious deaths and billed by the case. These public officials found themselves on the wrong end of a corruption scandal in 1897, and by 1898, Coombs was on trial for fraud. Our story continues:
As Edward Coombs’ fraud trial continued, the jury heard damning testimony about faked invoices and inquests. Coombs, with the help of trusted subordinates, had fabricated records for over a hundred inquests that had never occurred.
These reports were submitted with the names of people, many of them babies and children, who had died of disease and natural causes, making inquests unnecessary. Coombs simply changed ages and a few details, and used a family’s grief for his own profit.
Coombs had concocted fake addresses, jurors, witnesses and other details to pad out his invoicing. In a city of millions, he probably figured no one would notice a few extra inquests, especially during the chaos of unification with the rest of New York City. But the District Attorney’s office had caught on.
The District Attorney was trying to clean up corruption at all levels of city government in order to deliver a clean slate at unification. To their horror, the D.A.’s investigators were finding corruption everywhere. (more…)
If you are a fan of procedural cop shows, you are no doubt familiar with the character of the coroner or medical examiner. Since the days of “Quincy, M.E.,” we have grown to love the crusty and quirky personalities tasked with investigating the deaths of thousands of people in a given city.
Over the years, our TV coroners and medical examiners have changed. In today’s shows most of them seem to be black women. But no matter who is cast, on television they are invariably dedicated and brilliant doctors with a passion for finding the facts of a person’s death. They are immune to politics or profit, and serve only the law and the truth.
Well, back in 19th-century Brooklyn, things could be different. Our tale concerns the last mayor of Brooklyn, his administration and the two doctors who served as the last coroners of Brooklyn. (more…)
Inventor and business giant Thomas E. Murray died in 1929, just as the world was about to suffer through the Great Depression. He left his large family over $11 million, and a personal and company portfolio of over 1,100 patents. The story of his life, his family and his businesses can be found in Part One and Part Two of this story.
Following Murray’s death, his eldest son, Thomas Jr., became company president, and the work at the factory at 1250 Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights went on.
Thomas Jr. was a chip off the old block. He had inherited his father’s generosity and love of invention, and was a skilled inventor himself. He was an excellent businessman as well, even better than his father. In 1928, he was made a trustee of the Brevoort Savings Bank.
He was also a devout son of the Church, who like his father was sworn in as a Knight of St. Gregory, a singular honor bestowed on men of great faith. His home was down the street from Papa Murray’s house, at 800 St. Marks Avenue. For both Murrays, it was only a short walk up the street to get to work.