A Home for a Tiny Vaudeville Troop in Bushwick

Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally published in 2013. You can view the original post here.

Now this is a great building, with an interesting past. The house at 709 Bushwick Avenue was built for a furniture manufacturer named Martin Worm, a rather unfortunate name, especially for a man who worked with wood, but perhaps if it was pronounced in the original German manner, “Vorm,” it’s not so bad.

Mr. Worm had a large factory called Martin Worm & Sons, located on the corner of Humboldt and Siegel Street, in Williamsburg. He also had some bad luck along with his successes. In 1884, his factory was struck by lightning, and sustained heavy damages in the fire that followed. It was almost a total loss, as can be imagined in a building with wood and solvents. But he rebuilt.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue

The house was built later, in 1878, designed by John Platte, a local architect who worked mostly in the Williamsburg/Bushwick area, designing all kinds of buildings, from private homes to stables, tenement buildings and ice houses for breweries. One of his last remaining ice houses is the Ice House on Dean Street, a former Building of the Day, and recipient of many “green” awards when it was renovated.

This house is quite fine, with an interesting Victorian Gothic façade, highlighted by the arched window hoods, with their keystones incised with a Neo-Grec-style floral design. The side and front of the house both have a generous two-story bay, and the front door is welcoming, with a small columned porch.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue

By 1900, the house had passed on to the family of Dr. Max Levy, who had moved here from his former home on McKibbin Street. Dr. Levy was an up and coming member of the Brooklyn Department of Health, who also had a private practice. In 1890, he married Miss Lillian Marks, and the couple was prominent enough for the wedding to make the papers, hailed as an important “Hebrew Wedding.”

Not all of his appearances in the papers were as good news, however. Soon after his wedding, he was very publicly sued by Solomon Levein, a cutter in a large garment factory, who claimed to have been the matchmaker who introduced the couple. He said that he had been promised $100, and had not received payment. Dr. Levy said there had been no agreement, but offered to pay $15. Levein refused, but before the case went before a judge, it was dropped, “in respect for the bride’s and groom’s fathers,” said the plaintiff.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue

Dr. Levy had a very successful run as a member of the Health Board, and was involved in some interesting cases. But in 1898, one case was tragic beyond belief. A boy walking through Cypress Hills Cemetery in Queens came upon a man hanging from a tree. The man was in his late 50’s, well dressed, with a Masonic pin and a gold watch in his pocket. Soon after, Bushwick lawyer Sam Levy, who was Max’s brother, reported that their father, Ludwig Levy, who lived with him, was missing. The elder Levy, a retired garment manufacturer, had been suffering from dementia and depression. It was thought that the body was his, and that Mr. Levy had committed suicide.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue

Dr. Max went out to the Queens Coroner’s office, but checked in as a Mr. George T. Smith. He saw the body, and confirmed that it was his father, whom he identified as “Albert T. Smith.” The morgue released the body in his care. Days later, it was announced in the papers that George T. Smith was in fact Dr. Max Levy, and he was in trouble for giving false identification. He explained that he did not want to further grieve his mother and the rest of the family by having his father’s suicide in the papers, and meant no harm in his deception. The Queens Coroner’s office declined to pursue the matter.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue playhouse

The children involved in the two Bushwick theaters. Image via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The Levy family must have enjoyed living here at 709 Bushwick. The house has a generous lawn, lots of room, and once had a carriage house at 58 Suydam Street. By 1904, that carriage house had become a playhouse for the youngest son, Milton Levy, who was eight years old at the time. There were two children’s playhouses on the block, both run by and for children, but Milton’s “American Opera House” was quite the operation. They produced plays and vaudeville shows, which cost three cents for admission. Milton was the manager, and also an actor.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue american opera house

Left: A performance schedule for the theater in 1904. Right: The carriage house turned theater. Images via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

He had adult-looking playbills printed up and distributed around the neighborhood. The former carriage house had a stage and seating, and was closed only when Mrs. Levy insisted on taking Milton and the family to their summer home. The Suydam Theater, the other children’s theater down the street, put on plays, and included girls, but The American Opera House did not have girls. “We want comedians,” Milton told the Brooklyn Eagle, in 1904. Young Milton grew up to become a lawyer. The house stayed in the family well into the 1940s, at least.

By the 1950s, the house had been painted white, but still looked to be in good shape. A 1958 photo shows a side porch that was quite attractive, which was still there in the 1980s. The original carriage house is long gone.

Now the house has been stripped of paint, and restored to its original brick façade, with the two-toned stone and brick trim again an attractive feature of the house. A side parking lot has taken much of the lawn, but all in all, the house once again is a showpiece on this block. Dr. Levy would have approved, no doubt.

brooklyn architecture 709 bushwick avenue

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