A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
I have a fondness for downtown Brooklyn. Where some might look and see only the prospects of an overbuilt, sleek and modern future, I still see the older individual components that make this area great. It’s layered, like sedimentary rock, with buildings that go back to when the area was a residential community, to the days when it was both residential and commercial. As more and more commercial buildings replaced the homes, the nature of the area changed yet again. Commercial gave way to more modern commercial, and in the process the old disappeared. And we haven’t even touched on the 20th century yet.
Fulton Street was always the main street, it housed the large stores, the theaters and civic buildings. By the end of the century, it also had the elevated train rumbling down its length. Livingston, by comparison, was a backwater. Many of its facades were the back entrances the businesses on Fulton Street. The rest benefitted by their proximity to Fulton. Their businesses depended on customers coming around the corner and patronizing them, so many made themselves destination spots, providing specialized goods and services that the department stores did not carry or provide.
But here and there, you had those holdout buildings that were still reminders of a residential past. This building, here at 285 Livingston, is a great example, giving us a glimpse of what Livingston Street must have looked like in the pre-Civil War days. The house, sandwiched between two commercial loft buildings, was a stucco covered three story and a basement Gothic Revival home.
Had it been over a few blocks in Boreum Hill, or in Clinton Hill or the Heights, it might have been treasured and preserved as the little gem it was. Houses in this style show up in Clinton Hill and the Heights beginning in the 1840s, and from an 1887 map, we can see that it was part of a group of four. At that time, the other buildings on the block also look to be residential masonry row houses. But by the end of the 19th century, this was no longer a residential neighborhood. It was part of an impressive shopping district that brought in customers from all over the world.
One by one, the Gothic Revival and other row houses on this block were replaced by more commercial loft buildings. This photograph, from the collection of the New York Historical Society, is not dated. But from the style of the loft buildings, I would say that they were built in the early 20th century, before 1915. The photograph is part of an enormous collection of photos of buildings in New York City taken by photographer Eugene Armbruster, most of which were taken in the early 1920s, so I’m going to date this photo at around 1922. The latest map I have access to, from 1914, shows that the first house has been replaced, but the other three seem to still be there.
A perusal of the newspapers supports this dating. The house was a private home with rooms for rent at the turn of the 20th century. In 1891, it was home to Aaron Vanderwerker and his wife. He was a retired printer. The house may have belonged to Joseph A. Andrews, who died here in 1900. He was also in the printing business. Both men were compositors, although for different publications. A compositor set the type for printing.
In 1897, the house seemed to have become a boardinghouse. A young man named Joseph A. Ibbettson lodged there, claiming to be a disinherited and out of work salesman. He arrived at the Baptist Temple, down the street, and told the pastor he was destitute. The minister gave him some money and his business card, offering help and counseling. Ibbettson took the card, and when the pastor wasn’t looking, took his coat, and then went around to other members of the church, using the pastor’s card as a reference. By the time he was done, he had solicited a nice sum of money from the good folk, and pawned the coat at a local pawnshop. When police caught up with him, he still had the pawn ticket, and some of the money. God don’t like ugly; the reverend decided to press charges.
By the time this photograph was taken, the house looks abandoned. All the windows are open, and you can see rubbish on the sills, and the porch and stoop look uncared for. The house was not long for this world, and was probably torn down soon afterward. Its rather sad appearance probably drew it to Armbruster’s attention. By 1925, the first ads for businesses in the new loft building start to appear in the Brooklyn papers. The first tenant in this tall, four story loft building was a specialty women’s clothing shop called Sinnott, Burke & Co. Shoppe, Inc.
Sinnott, Burke sold coats, dresses and specialty clothing such as evening gowns. They were among a growing number of businesses on Livingston that were turning the street into a fashionable street of smaller boutiques and specialty shops. There were shoe stores, corset shops, dress shops, upholsterers, milliners, optometrists and eyeglass boutiques, underwear shops and furriers. One of the furriers was next door, and another was upstairs. Between 1926 and at least 1936, 285 was home to the M. Mesard, Furrier Company.
Mesard specialized in all kinds of fur coats for the middle class ladies who wanted to be fashionable, but couldn’t afford mink and ermine. He advertised furs in animal pelts we find absolutely abhorrent today, even if you like fur, but were quite acceptable back in the pre-Depression and Depression years. His ads show that he remodeled and repaired old coats, and also sold new garments in dyed rabbit, squirrel, dyed squirrel, raccoon, and skunk. Some of these could be trimmed in mink or fox for a truly rich look. Mesard’s also offered cold storage for your furs in the summer.
At various points between 1925 and 1940, this building was home to an art gallery, another clothing emporium and by 1942, was the Brooklyn branch of Lane Bryant, the first plus size clothing manufacturer in the country, which has been in business since the beginning of the 20th century. A great loft building like this has all kinds of practical uses as a store, a gallery, an office or studio.
Which is why I hope it’s not torn down, although to be honest, I really don’t believe anything on this block will survive. But until that happens, I hope the building is used well, it’s got quite a history. And so did its predecessor, a Gothic Revival cottage, caught in the camera lens, a portrait of long-ago Brooklyn that most people never knew existed. GMAP