The House That Hats Built, a Queen Anne Manse in Brooklyn Heights

Editors note: This post originally ran in 2013 and has been updated. You can read the original post here.

In 1886, the papers announced that the three-story Greek Revival house at 87 Remsen Street had been sold for $17,000. It had been standing since at least the early 1840s. It was soon torn down, and in its place rose a 19th century style show-off, mega Queen Anne townhouse, which towered a full story over its neighbors.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

Remsen Street in 1925. Photo via New York Public Library

The architect of the house was William H. Beers , a relatively obscure, but hard working Brooklyn architect whose most familiar building is probably the turret-topped storefront building called the Liebmann Building on the corner of Fulton and Hoyt streets. Like that building, built a year before this house, 87 Remsen also has fine brickwork, decorative terra-cotta and strong lines. This house was home to the wealthy and influential Knowlton family, a familiar name to the social register in Brooklyn.

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In 1889, the Real Estate Record and Builders Guide projected the construction costs at $50,000 and noted that this house was a first class dwelling, furnished throughout with fine hardwoods. It had gas and electric lighting, quite an innovation, as well as all the other new improvement to the modern home of the day. It also had an elevator, but there is no easily obtained record of when that was installed. The Knowltons moved into the house in 1889, and immediately became regulars on the Brooklyn social pages.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

Portraits of William Knowlton and son Eben, owner of 87 Remsen Street. Image via The Illustrated Milliner (1917)

Eben Joseph Knowlton was the son of William Knowlton, the founder of one of the country’s largest straw goods manufacturers. William began his business in 1833 in West Upton, Mass., where the company plant was located. By the 1890s, Wm. Knowlton & Sons was run by the three Knowlton brothers: Eben, the eldest, and president, and brothers Edward and George. They had sales offices at 564 Broadway in Manhattan, and shipped their straw hats all over the country and beyond. The company was well known for the way its workers were treated, with company housing, charitable giving, and the like. All three of the brothers were well liked and respected.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

Eben and Mary Knowlton lived at 87 Remsen with their three children, son Eben B. and daughters Ella and Grace. The entire family was quite socially prominent, and their various social and charitable doings were in the papers quite often. The girls were “presented” to Society at separate events, and the weddings of all three children made several papers. Grace, the youngest child, was married here in this house. They were one of the founding families of the Brooklyn Heights Casino.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

A 1917 ad for Wm. Knowlton & Sons hats. Advertisement via Library of Congress

In 1909, the Knowlton company made the headlines when the enormously large hats in fashion that year proved to be too large to be shipped in the usual manner, by rail. The boxes were too big and couldn’t get through the freight car doors, and the first shipment had to be tied to the railroad’s snowplow car until a special freight car could be ordered. “The hats are like dirigibles,” a man said, “I need a separate house for my wife’s hats, they are so big.”

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

In 1915, Mrs. Mary Knowlton died at their summer home. She is buried at Green-Wood Cemetery. Ella Knowlton must have also died, as Mary’s husband, son and daughter Grace were listed as survivors, but not Ella. Patriarch Eben Knowlton died at the ripe old age of 93, at home at 87 Remsen, in 1938. He had retired only 12 years before.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

Today 87 Remsen Street is an eight-unit co-op. Photographs of various units as they have come up for sale show rich period details. It’s a fine house, with quite a storied past. Too bad someone mucked up the entryway by eliminating the stoop, because otherwise it’s in perfect shape on the exterior. Hopefully Eben didn’t do that.

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remsen street

An apartment in 87 Remsen. Photo by Corcoran

At his death, the house was sold to Danish shipper Hans Isbrandtsen. But that’s another story….

brooklyn architecture brooklyn heights 87 remse

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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