Ron Schweiger, the Brooklyn Borough Historian, has agreed to answer your Brooklyn history — and mystery — questions here. If you got some, send ’em along.
First up: a plaque on the corner of Rugby and Beverly Roads in Flatbush, that reads “MONUMENT, BROOKLYN BOROUGH PRESIDENT.” A reader asks, “Is this what we will remember Marty Markowitz by? Do you know what it is for?”
Ron answers: “The above is used by surveyors. That particular corner (SE corner) has a house that was built in 1899. The entire community was developed at the turn of the century. The MONUMENT is a focal point for surveyors to use if and when there is a major construction development taking place. It is placed at a specific, horizontal distance from another known location for measurement purposes. In Brooklyn Borough Hall, there is a room called the Topography Room. They have maps and documents going way back into the 1800’s and perhaps even earlier. They have a record of these MONUMENTS and their locations.”
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Six years ago, Seth Brown co-founded Next American City, a not-for-profit organization, and national magazine, dedicated to improving America’s cities. These days you can find him on one of two construction sites in Brooklyn: an affordable green condo project in Prospect Heights/Crown Heights and a 21st century brownstone-from-scratch (more on that one later). Sterling Green, at 580 Sterling, will be an eight-unit, five-story building of alcove studios and one-bedrooms from 552 to 1,071 square feet, offering green amenities like tankless hot water heaters, wind power, bamboo flooring and bike storage. We asked Seth a few questions about his vocational and philosophical journey and his plans to put his stamp on Brooklyn real estate.
You’re a co-founder of Next American City, a magazine about improving cities. How does your work as a real estate developer fit with that mission?
I guess what you’re asking is, Can one be a real estate developer and yet not be evil? I certainly think so. I co-founded Next American City at the same time I got my first job in real estate development, almost seven years ago. All of us who started the magazine worked on the ground in urban fields affordable housing, community organizing, education, law, etc. and had new ideas about how to improve cities. I worked in real estate development. So I really see my real estate development work and my efforts to create a new magazine about improving cities to be intrinsically connected.
Of course, they’re also different in some key ways. Next American City is a non-profit, and all we care about is improving cities. In my real estate development work at Aspen Equities, I care about improving cities and neighborhoods, but my investors also expect a profit. That’s why I try to take on projects where it’s possible to both make a profit and do something good.
About a month ago news hit that housing advocate Brad Lander was going to run for Bill De Blasio’s spot on the City Council. Since 2003, Lander has been the director of the Pratt Center for Community Development; prior to joining the Pratt Center, he served as the executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee for a decade. We asked him to give us the lowdown on his Council run, as well as some housing issues, and here’s what he had to say:
Why’ve you decided to run for Council? How long has your run been in the works?
I’m running for City Council because I love our Brooklyn neighborhoods, but fear that much of what I value about being a Brooklynite is under threat. We’ve got a tremendously diverse mix of people, public treasures like Prospect Park, some great public schools, neighborhood shopping strips with small businesses who care enough to give us umbrellas when it rains, and passionate civic activism. But much of this is threatened by skyrocketing real estate prices, out-of-control development, and growing inequality.
In fifteen years as a not-for-profit director, a builder of affordable housing, a city planner, and a community organizer, I’ve worked with hundreds of residents, activists, and advocates with tremendous commitment, street smarts, and savvy to confront these challenges. But I’ve only seen a handful of public officials that come anywhere close to matching that grassroots passion.
I really believe that so much more is possible if we can pair community action with strategic work at a citywide level by elected officials. We can preserve the affordability and livability or our neighborhoods. We can create opportunity for a much wider range of people through good schools and a fairer economy. I’m running for City Council to bring people together around these common values and shared interests, and to help channel that community energy to force concrete change both in our neighborhoods and at City Hall.
Question: Do you have a favorite townhouse architectural style?
Answer: People often ask me that question, and it’s a tougher one that you might realize. To me, it’s similar to asking a parent which one of their children they love the most.
I like all the townhouse architectural styles, but often for different reasons. Take the Federal style of the 1820s and early 1830s, which you find in Brooklyn Heights and in Greenwich Village and a few scattered downtown locations south of Houston Street. I admire the elegant simplicity of these red brick houses with their doorways set off by leaded glass sidelights and toplights, and their pitched roofs with dormer windows. Nos. 155, 157, and 159 Willow Street (shown at left) are exquisite examples in red brick, while No. 24 Middagh Street is a frame Federal style townhouse ca. 1824. I think that one reason I love these houses so much is that they have survived nearly two centuries in fast-growing, often-tumultuous New York. Only a relative handful survive today.
I really like the Italianate style of the 1850s, 1860s, and early 1870s. These classically-inspired red brick or brownstone-front houses, which survive in most of Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods: all over Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, to name some of the obvious locations.
These Italianate townhouses reflect New York’s rise as America’s richest, showiest, most powerful city. Just look at the richly embellished facades with their grandly scaled doorways and bold roofline cornices, or the parlor floors with their richly carved white marble fireplace mantels and flamboyant plaster ceiling moldings and rosettes.
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We are thrilled to announce that Charles Lockwood, the foremost expert on historic brownstones, will be starting a Q&A column on Brownstoner. Called the “Consumate Authority” on brownstones by The New Yorker, the consultant, lecturer and author (of Bricks and Brownstones) will answer one or two reader questions a month. We encourage you to a submit specific question (along with relevant photos) about the history and architecture of your townhouse. Please email us with the subject LOCKWOOD Q&A. Please understand that we will only be able to answer a very limited number of submissions and that Mr. Lockwood cannot recommend specific service professionals.
Q: What is brownstone, and why did nineteenth-century builders select brownstone for townhouse facades in Manhattan and Brooklyn? Isn’t the stone impractical due to scaling and crumbling?
A: Brownstone is a soft, close-grained triassic sandstone or freestone. When first cut, the stone is pink, but it soon weathers to an even, rich, chocolate brown because of the presence of hematite iron ore. Most of the brownstone used in nineteenth-century New York came from the Portland, CT area on Connecticut River or near Little Falls, NJ near the Passaic River. The stone was cut there, put on barges, carried to New York, and unloaded near one of the building stone storage yards along the Hudson or East Rivers.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when New York row houses were built in the Federal and Greek Revival styles with red brick facades, brownstone was often used for stoops, doorway trim, and window lintels and sills on smaller houses, because it was cheaper than the customaryâ€”and preferredâ€”white marble or limestone. (Continued Below).