The Washington Avenue Confection Built for a Sugar Baron


While Clinton Hill’s Clinton Avenue may have a well-deserved rep as the address of Brooklyn’s 19th century elite and their grand homes, Washington Avenue has some fine architectural specimens of its own.

One such house is the exuberant brick and brownstone Queen Anne mansion constructed for sugar baron and real estate developer Henry Offerman at 361 Washington Avenue.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue clinton hill

According to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, young Henry arrived in the United States as an immigrant from Germany in the 1830s, getting his start as a store clerk and working his way up in the dry goods business until moving to the world of sugar in the 1860s. By the 1870s he was doing business in Brooklyn, establishing the Brooklyn Sugar Refining Company in Williamsburg, on South 2nd Street.

While his business was in Brooklyn, his family was set up in Hoboken, N.J., according to Brooklyn City directories. But by 1889, Henry and Lena Offerman were settled in their new house in Clinton Hill — perhaps with some of their five children, all young adults.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue clinton hill

The house is within the Clinton Hill Historic District, but no architect has been identified. The most distinctive element of the design is its “L” shape, which allows the mansard-topped tower to jut forward from the set-back entrance.

From there, the house is a grab-bag of Queen Anne and Classical elements — an ashlar (rough-cut) brownstone base, a mix of window styles, keystones, quoining and bay windows — in this case, a three-story bay topped with an ornamental iron balustrade.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue

While the house might seem a bit restrained by some Queen Anne standards, look closely and you will see terra-cotta ornamentation placed between the window courses — there are faces, creatures, swags and stylized floral designs. Even the brownstone surrounding the windows has a bit of ornament: an easily missed incised flourish.

There’s also a massive bracketed and swagged cornice at the base of the dramatically steep mansard roof, which is punctuated with dormers.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue clinton hill

Beyond his house, Offerman had other real estate projects in the works in the 1890s — which proved wise as his sugar days were nearing an end. Around 1887 his business, along with several others, joined with Henry O. Havemeyer’s Sugar Refineries Company — a move that came under legal investigation over price fixing.

According to an article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1891, Offerman was “a believer in Brooklyn and its future.” That future included real estate development — the paper claimed he had just purchased 20 houses.

His most notable development was the commissioning of Peter J. Lauritzen to design two buildings on the great shopping stretch of Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn. Completed between 1890 and 1893, 503-513 Fulton Street was leased to the S. Wechsler & Brother department store. The complex was landmarked in 2005, the exteriors restored (including the Offerman sign written across the facade) and today house retail and luxury rentals.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue clinton hill

The Offermans didn’t get to enjoy Brooklyn life in their Washington Avenue home for very long; they had only about seven years in the house together. Lena Offerman died in 1895 and Henry just one year later.

By 1900 the house was advertised for sale as an “elegant” home with hot water heat and “all other improvements.” The property was “particularly suitable for a physician,” according to the notice.

In the present day, the four-story mansion that once housed a single family comprises 10 rental units.

brooklyn architecture 361 washington avenue clinton hill

[Photos by Susan De Vries]

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