For a few years, I lived on one of the many blocks occupied by yellow brick row houses, here in Astoria. The block pictured above is 44th street between 30th and 31st avenues, for the curious. It’s the same block that Robert Deniro shot part of “A Bronx Tale” on. These are “barbell tenements” essentially, six railroad units on three floors with an air shaft in the middle.
This particular stretch of Matthews Model Flats in Astoria is just over a hundred years old (1911), as is a lot of the building stock in an area which I’ve been told was once called “the German Section” – “back in the day”. Model tenements are what they were built as, the affordable housing of its time, and while walking my little dog Zuzu one morning I began to ponder those bricks.
Those yellow bricks, with the little specks of glittery iron in them.
Everywhere you go, from Ridgewood to Maspeth to Astoria – you see those yellow bricks. Realizing that I had never thought about where bricks come from led to a bit of primary research about the history of brick manufacture in these United States, but don’t worry, that’s not what this post is about.
The first bricks in the English colonies in North America were probably made in Virginia as early as 1612. New England saw its first brick kiln erected at Salem, Massachusetts in 1629. The Dutch colonists in New Amsterdam imported yellow bricks from Holland, which imparted a Dutch character to the architecture of the city. The excellent quality and abundance of local clays in the colonies made it unnecessary to import bricks from across the Atlantic. Brick-making centers developed in Fort Orange (what is now Albany), New York; near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Burlington and Trenton, New Jersey, as well as along the Raritan River.
This is a more evolved form of the Matthews Flats, found over in Maspeth.
A few years ago, I pursued knowledge of industrial honey production — How, exactly, do all those millions of gallons of honey get to the little bottles in your supermarket? What can the industrial process be, I asked. The answers are pedantic and complex — suffice it to say that China is the world’s Honey superpower and that honey was arguably the first industrial commodity. Last month, this obsessive trait led to a BSQ post about road salt.
But the story of these yellow Kriescher bricks has something for everyone.
Also from brickcollecting.com:
The Manhattan Fire Brick and Enameled Clay Retort Works (as described in New York Illustrated (New York: D.Appleton & Co., 1876) was located on East 15th Street near the East River. Henry Maurer learned the fireclay manufacturing business in his uncle’s firm, Maurer & Weber, and then established his own firm which relocated from New York and Staten Island to Maurer, New Jersey, in 1874.
There were several firms in New York City that took advantage of the nearby deposits of fire clay and manufactured both clay retorts and fire bricks. In 1845 Balthazar Kreischer established a fire-brick works in Manhattan, later known as the New York Fire Brick and Clay Retort Works; Kreischer acquired a fire-clay deposit on Staten Island in 1852 and established a works there which eventually replaced the Manhattan factory (his son’s house, the Charles Kreischer House and the workers’ houses for the company, the Kreischerville Worker’s Houses are both designated New York City Landmarks). Joseph K. Brick established the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works in 1854. The Maurer & Weber Company later known as the Manhattan Fire Brick and Enameled Clay Retort Works, opened in 1863.
In 1868 John Cooper established a business, later known as the Greenpoint Fire Brick and Sewer Pipe Works, at 413-421 Oakland Street, Brooklyn. While there were 350 fire brick manufacturers in the United States in 1895, the New York-New Jersey area remained one of the major fire brick manufacturing centers.
19th century industrialists were either merchant princes or robber barons, depending on your point of view. Both are accurate descriptions, but suffice to say that during the victorian era communities of labor would cluster around an industrialist, corollary industry would arise to support growing populations around the main mill, and even competitors would often locate in the vicinity to take advantage of supply chain and the population of skilled labor. This is one of the reasons why the various neighborhoods of Western Queens are visually distinct from each other.
Those yellow Kriescher bricks, though, are everywhere.
William Steinway was based in Astoria, and his interests in Queens were larger than just manufacturing pianos. Steinway was a primal force in digging the first Subway Tunnel from Queens to Manhattan (which was completed by Michael Degnon, of course), and was a major player in the Queens Trolley business. Wealthy, philanthropic, and well regarded by all reports – Steinway’s Piano mill pulled a population to it, and they needed some way to get around, and somewhere to live.
Out on Staten Island – another German immigrant, an industrialist named Balthazar Kreischer, operated a technologically sophisticated factory that made bricks instead of pianos.
…trying to find the descendants of Balthasar KREISCHER (3.13.1813-8.15.1886) of the Kreischer & Sons Brick Company of Staten Island, and interred in The Green-Wood Cemetery of Brooklyn, New York.
Descendants/Family include his 4 daughters Catherine KREISCHER-WEBER, Fredricka P. KREISCHER, Louisa Albertina KREISCHER-STEINWAY and Caroline L. KREISCHER-ELLIS and his 3 sons: Charles C. KREISCHER, Edward B. KREISCHER and George F. KREISCHER. Some Kreischers settled into Brooklyn.
Louisa Albertina KREISCHER-STEINWAY (d. 6.30.1926) married Albert STEINWAY (b. 6.10.1849- d. 5.14.1877), the youngest son of of Steinway & Sons Piano Mfgr. of Astoria, New York, and had 2 daughters: Henrietta Julia STEINWAY and Ella Frederica STEINWAY. Louisa, Albert and Frederick P. Kreischer are interred in the Steinway mausoleum in Green-Wood Cemetery of Brooklyn, NY.
Both the Kriescher and Steinway families were successful and accepted by society at large, were rich beyond avarice, and their children were amongst the upper crust of the German community in New York. At one time, Germans composed the largest immigrant group in NYC, before the Irish diaspora of the mid 19th century began to arrive.
One day, Steinway’s son Albert married Kreischer’s daughter Louisa, connecting the two families in both business and standing. Both men also had holdings and interests in the railroad business, Kreischer as an investor in the Vanderbilt’s Staten Island Railroad and Steinway as a rail mogul in Queens. Many of these yellow brick homes, so typical of ancient Queens, lie along the route that Steinway’s trolley tracks once followed.
Curious that bricks from Staten Island ended up in archetypical Queens buildings, ay?
Louisa Kreischer’s brother Edward, it seems, met a tragic end.
Check out this page at thecabinet.com, which tells a detailed story of that self same Kreischer Mansion where Edward lost his life, which describes ghostly phenomena and the violent history experienced by those who have inhabited it since.
Also, don’t miss forgotten-ny’s page on the Steinways and Kreischer’s.
“It was reported on the street on Friday that Gleason had sold his railway interests to the Steinway syndicate for $275,000. It has been reported for a long time that the Gleason roads did not pay. The road up Borden Avenue to Calvary Cemetery [in Woodside] was not well patronized. There are not many people who go to Blissville [Sunnyside] unless it is to visit the dead. The Blissville people as a rule do not travel much and when they do they patronize the Greenpoint line in preference to Gleason’s, thus his exchequer has suffered, and again the cars to the cemetery are cold this winter, and the conductors lugubrious on account of the scarcity of pennies and passengers, and a traveler after a survey of one of the cars, is tempted to foot it in preference to riding in an open car, as they had to do on Christmas Day.”
Newtown Creek Alliance Historian Mitch Waxman lives in Astoria and blogs at Newtown Pentacle.