Building of the Day: 123 Clermont Avenue

1886 map, showing house in the center in pink (masonry). New York Public Library

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Stand-alone house
Address: 123 Clermont Avenue
Cross Streets: Myrtle and Park avenues
Neighborhood: Wallabout
Year Built: 1850, changes in 1892
Architectural Style: Italianate, now with Queen Anne ornament
Architect: Original builder unknown, addition designed by architect/builder John McKeefrey, who lived here
Other buildings by architect: McKeefrey, a general contractor, was responsible for building projects throughout New York City, in the late 19th and early 20th century
Landmarked: No, but part of Wallabout HD on the National Register of Historic Places (2011)

The story: I’m really liking Clermont Avenue. The more I find out about the buildings on this Fort Greene street, the more important the avenue becomes in the area’s history, easily rivaling the better known blocks around it. Although there are some great buildings on the Fort Greene side, the Wallabout stretch of the street, between Myrtle and Flushing, is home to some of the oldest houses in the entire neighborhood, making this area exceptionally interesting.

Today, this lot between Myrtle and Park avenues is a generous 50 by 100 feet, more than enough room for an extra-long 22-foot-wide house and a rare side yard and garage. In 1850, when the house was built, it had the same lot, but much has changed since then, including the size of the house. For several years 123 Clermont was the Mayor of Brooklyn’s house; home to Frederick A. Schroeder, a wealthy cigar manufacturer, bank president and one-term mayor of the city of Brooklyn. Here’s the story:

Frederick A. Schroeder was one of the great many German-born success stories of Brooklyn. He was born in 1833, and came to the US with his newly widowed father and siblings in 1849, at the age of 16. His family was one of thousands that left Germany due to growing political unrest over efforts to unify the Germans states. The family settled in Williamsburg, and young Schroeder went into the cigar rolling business.

By 1852, he had his own business, and by 1863, he had partnered with Isidore M. Bon to form the Schroeder & Bon Tobacco Mfgr. By 1867, the company had switched from cigars to importing tobacco leaf. Frederick Schroeder is credited with the introduction of “shade tobacco,” an important growing process where tobacco is grown in the north underneath tents, to mimic the conditions of tropically grown tobacco, producing lighter colored leaves with a delicate structure, prized for the wrappers of fine cigars. The innovation made Schroeder and Bon quite rich.

Like many rich men of his day, he soon branched out into other business endeavors, specifically politics and banking. In 1867 he was one of the founders of the Germania Bank, and was president of that institution until his death in 1899. In 1871, he ran for Comptroller of Brooklyn under the Republican ticket, and won. Back then, the terms of office were only one year, and during that time, Schroeder was an advocate for honest government.

He often came up against “Boss” Hugh McLaughlin, the powerful head of the Brooklyn branch of Tammany Hall. In 1875, he ran for mayor, won, and served a one year term from 1876-1877. He carried on a constant fight with McLaughlin, but during his term, he saw the first cable of the Brooklyn Bridge hung, and the opening of Ocean Parkway. After his term, he went back to banking and his other concerns. He was asked to run for mayor of New York City, after consolidation, but declined. One reason, he himself stated, was because he was opposed to the state Republican Party’s pro- Prohibition stance, which he felt went against the interests of his German-American constituents. Unfortunately, he contracted pneumonia the next year, and died at the age of 56.

Schroeder lived in this house with his wife and children somewhere between 1871 and 1877. While he was mayor, he moved to a house at 249 Clinton Avenue, next door the Charles M. Pratt house. That building is no longer there. He still owned the Clermont Avenue house, though, as it came up in a particularly rancorous and public confrontation between the mayor and Boss McLaughlin. More on that at another time. The house was only a two story building at the time, and probably had a porch, but not with the decorative gingerbread it has today. It probably had very classical Italianate columns, like many similar houses in Wallabout. It appears to have had at least one of two later extensions added to the back.

By the 1880s, the house had been sold, and was the property of a building contractor named John McKeefrey. He had a very successful building business, with projects all over the city, including theaters, large garages and apartment buildings. The city map from 1887 shows the house with two extensions on the back, as well as a glass conservatory to the side, that stretched across the property, and connected to the house next door. None of that was there the year before, as seen on another city map. He probably also reconstructed the porch, adding the Queen Anne-style colonettes and spandrels, as well as the pressed metal cornice. In 1892, records show he put a third story on the house.

McKeefrey lived here until at least 1917, when he was viciously mugged in front of his house by three men. Several years earlier, in 1906, the papers reported that Mr. and Mrs. McKeefrey had celebrated an anniversary, and among the gifts were a diamond necklace for her and a diamond stick pin and ring for him. Perhaps the thieves remembered that, or McKeefrey just looked rich. At any rate, the men approached him at 7 in the evening, as he was walking to his home, and assaulted him.

They grabbed him by the waist, knocked him out, and began going through his person, taking his diamond jewelry, wallet and other valuables. A neighbor saw them holding him up against the fence, and shouted “You’re robbing that man!” One of the thieves calmly told her, “No, ma’am, he’s drunk, and we’re taking him home,” and continued to rob him. They then dropped him into a heap on the ground and ran. They got away with $2,750 worth of loot. Quite a good haul for the day. I wouldn’t be surprised if the McKeefreys moved soon afterward. Today, the house is a four-family. GMAP

(Photo: Google Maps)

1886 map, showing house in the center in pink (masonry). New York Public Library

1886 map, showing house in the center in pink (masonry). New York Public Library

1887 map, showing glass conservatory. New York Public Library

1887 map, showing glass conservatory. New York Public Library

Frederick Antony Schroeder, Mayor of Brooklyn, 1876-77. Illustration: Brooklyn Eagle by way of Wikipedia

Frederick A. Schroeder, Mayor of Brooklyn, 1876-77. Illustration: Brooklyn Eagle by way of Wikipedia

Photo: Sarah Westcott for Property Shark

Photo: Sarah Westcott for PropertyShark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

Photo: Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark

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