A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
I’m old enough to remember when the personal computer came out on the market. A friend bought one, and I remember we gathered around it with a bit of awe, and then we all typed a few things on the keyboard just to get an idea of what it was like to use it. He showed us all of the features, and those assembled, myself included, were quite impressed, and went away figuring out how we could afford to get one too. A similar feeling must have accompanied another device with the original keyboard – the typewriter. Just as the early pioneers of P.C. technology recognized that they were on to something huge, so too did the men who pioneered the advances of the typewriter. One of those men was a New York State resident named Clarence Walker Seamans. The typewriter would catapult him into a fortune.
Clarence Seamans was born in 1854 in the town of Ilion, in Herkimer County, near Utica. Ilion was a small village, but it benefited greatly by being the home of Eliphalet Remington and the E. Remington & Sons Company, most famous for the manufacture of guns and armaments. Seaman’s father was a purchasing agent for the company. At the age of 15, Clarence Seamans began working for Remington as a clerk. While the company became famous for its guns, they also made farm implements, sewing machines and typewriters, too.
In 1873 Remington introduced the Sholes & Glidden Type-Writer, having purchased the patent from its inventors a few years before. While not the first typewriter invented, this one was the first to enable a user to type faster than one could write by hand. Christopher Sholes coined the name “type-writer”. He also invented the QWERTY keyboard arrangement, first used in their initial model. Their next model, introduced in 1878 gave us the shift key, enabling the user to switch from upper to lower case letters. It was a handsome instrument, ornamented to appeal to women, who were poised to become the main users of the tool.
In 1875, Clarence Seamans left Remington to oversee the operations at a silver mine in Utah. He stayed there for three years, and then moved to New York City. He lived in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters, and was working as a bookkeeper and salesman for Fairbanks & Company, a scales manufacturer that also was the sole marketer of the Sholes and Glidden Type-Writer. In 1881, Remington took back the marketing of the typewriter, and took Seamans back as well, this time as general manager of sales.
The next year, Seamans and two other Remington executives, William Wyckoff and Harry Benedict formed a partnership; Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, selling Remington typewriters. In 1886, they bought the division from Remington, and in 1892 formed the Remington Typewriter Company. Seamans was the treasurer and general manager. The next year, Seamans became president of the Union Typewriter Company, which was a trust formed by the merger of Remington Typewriter and several other prominent typewriter manufacturers. They then purchased the Wahl Adding Machine Company, making Union the world’s largest typewriter company.
Seamans was now a very wealthy man. His family was now followed by the society pages and they had most definitely arrived. He was soon invited to join the board of trustees of the Peoples Trust and the Washington Trust. He was also a director of the Merchants Fire Assurance Corporation. It was time to build a house worthy of this success. So he went to the architect used by many of Brooklyn’s wealthiest homeowners, and hired Montrose W. Morris to design for him a house of houses.
Morris came through. In 1900, Seamans had bought a large plot of land on St. Marks Avenue, between New York and Brooklyn Avenues. This was at the heart of the posh St. Marks District. His land was in the middle of the north side of the block and stretched from St. Marks to Bergen. Morris designed a large Italian Renaissance Revival palace that took full advantage of the location. The entire house was faced in limestone, on a rough cut granite base. At a time when an above average row house cost around $15K to build, the initial cost of this house was $200,000. It would end up costing much more.
Montrose Morris had his dream client in Seamans, who wanted the best of everything, and had an unlimited budget. The house had twelve rooms on the first floor alone. It also had a bowling alley, a swimming pool, a billiards room, and an underground passageway that led from the house to the carriage house that faced Bergen Avenue, which had an apartment for the chauffeur above the garage. The house had a porte-cochere at the end of the curved drive, so family and guests were never inconvenienced by the weather. They entered right into the reception hall.
There was also a grand ballroom that took up much of the third floor. It was reached by a sweeping curved central staircase that branched off to the left and right, forming a balcony that overlooked the grand reception hall. This grand staircase was solid mahogany, and cost over $40K. Morris and Seamans travelled to Europe, and came back with entire rooms from old manor houses, as well as antiques, paintings, decorative objects and fine fabrics and furnishings. There was a music room, of course, and an “orientalist room.” There was a room called the “Goldenwood Room” which was said to have cost $100K, and a “Byzantine Room” that cost $50,000.
The attic had servants’ rooms, and there was a housekeeper and cook’s rooms in the back of the house near the large kitchen. The service entrance was in the back, also facing Bergen Avenue. All of the mahogany and exotic woodwork in the house was imported from South America. The floors of the house were the finest wood, with beautiful parquet, as well as marble. Exotic and expensive carpets covered many of the floors.
All in all, the house ended up costing Seamans about $200,000,000, with a million just for the furnishings. They moved in in 1904. One of the first social events to take place there was an engagement luncheon for one of his daughters, followed by the wedding itself. The lucky guests wandered around in awe, and the house soon gained the reputation of being the “finest house in Brooklyn,” a phrase that seemed to be repeated every time the house was mentioned in the press. Less charitable tongues referred to it as “Seamans Folly.” Clarence Seamans could care less.
He still had money to burn. The family bought the estate next door to the Pratt family compound in Glen Cove, Long Island for a summer retreat, but they ended up spending most of their summers at another retreat in Massachusetts. Clarence Seamans also gave generously to charity. He built his home town of Ilion a new library, at the cost of $50,000. It was one of George P. Chappell’s best designs, and is now on the National Register of Historic Places. He was on the board of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, today the Brooklyn Museum, and was also a board member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and a trustee of Syracuse University.
Clarence Seamans died relatively early, in 1915, at his summer home in Mass. He was 61. His body was brought back to Brooklyn and his funeral was held here at his home that he loved so much. He left the house to his wife, who lived here for several years afterward with her daughter. But she thought it was too much and in 1918, put the house up for sale. All of the furnishings were sold at auction here at the house, with two days reserved for advanced viewing. The house was packed with the curious, all eager to see the “finest house in Brooklyn.” They were not disappointed.
According to the papers, most of the expensive and antique furnishings were bought by dealers, and this was not a rummage sale. At the end of it, the house was sold, and the Seamans family moved on. The married daughter already lived in Manhattan, and the family had other homes. Mrs. Seamans lived a very comfortable life. The house was passed around to two different owners who never lived here. This kind of home was already a white elephant.
In 1922 the house became an event space with the unfortunate name of Chateau Rembrandt. The papers show many events, dinners, engagement parties and the like taking place here. The papers also noted that they took in guests as well, making this a boutique hotel, complete with a pool and bowling alley. This was still the swanky St. Marks District, and neighbors were not happy, especially Ludwig Nissen, the millionaire jeweler who lived directly across the street. His house was a topic of this column in the past. He tried to have the city stop the venue from opening, but failed.
Nissen must have been relieved when Chateau Rembrandt closed, and the house once again had a private owner. In 1923 the house was sold to Elias Mallouk, a millionaire lace importer, originally from Egypt. Mr. and Mrs. Mallouk had six children, and had moved from Amity Street in Cobble Hill. They paid $300,000 for the place, and planned on doing a lot of restoration to bring the home back to a single family. But that was not to be. Mr. Mallouk died only six months later, leaving his wife with a lot of house. She died herself in 1924, and the children sold the house. No one ever lived in it again.
In 1928, the papers announced that the mansion would be torn down. An article in the Brooklyn Standard Union, accompanied by a photo, announced that the grand mansion, once the finest in Brooklyn, aka “Seamans Folly,” would be “supplanted by modern apartments.” Plans were already being made to tear it down, and work begun on the new Excelsior Hall, which would consist of two joined six story buildings with 250 apartments. It ended up having 133 apartments, still many more people than a family of four and staff.
And so it was. The elaborate Byzantine Room, the mahogany staircase, the pool and carriage house, the underground passageway, the orientalist room, the ballroom, the Goldenwood Room, and everything else that make this limestone palace the “finest house in Brooklyn” was torn down and carted off.
Excelsior Hall was designed by the Cohn Brothers, a firm responsible for many of Brooklyn’s large six story apartment buildings all over Brooklyn, especially in Flatbush and Crown Heights. The building was originally designed with a fine and elaborate lobby and had a ballroom and gymnasium for tenants. The apartments are spacious and large, with a maid’s room off the kitchen and a living room, dining room, large entry hallway and two or three bedrooms and bathroom. These were apartments for the new middle class, the children and grandchildren of immigrants, mostly Jewish, who were looking for the good life of their own.
The Excelsior is a great building. It’s too bad the Seamans mansion had to be destroyed to build it. It was one of a kind, and from all account, fabulous beyond belief. I would have loved to have seen it. The mansion was only 24 years old when it died. GMAP
We will be featuring the Excelsior, as well as many more wonderful and historic buildings in Crown Heights North, on a walking tour of the neighborhood tomorrow, at 11 am. It’s sponsored by the Municipal Arts Society, and tickets are available on their website. The tour will be led by myself, and Morgan Munsey, who is also well known on these pages. The weather is supposed to be great and the tour is 2-2.5 hours long. Please join us!