Building of the Day: 159-165 Hancock Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 159-165 Hancock Street
Cross Streets: Nostrand and Marcy Avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: 1887
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: John G. Prague
Other Works by Architect: Over 300 buildings on Upper West Side, plus many in Midtown and Upper East Side. Also Judson Memorial Church Hall, in Greenwich Village.
Landmarked: Not yet, part of proposed Bedford Historic District now being considered by LPC.

The story: Most of the architects who designed the row house blocks of Brooklyn lived and worked in Brooklyn. Many of them had offices, as well as an occasional project, over there >>>, but their fortunes and careers were on Brooklyn’s soil, not Manhattan’s. Brooklyn, in the late 1800s was still an independent city, and a fast growing one, too, and one didn’t need to travel to Manhattan in order to make a good living. The same was true in Manhattan. The architects of Manhattan’s residential and brownstone neighborhoods were mostly Manhattan guys, for the same reason; there was work a-plenty in Manhattan, and there was no need to take on commissions in Brooklyn. But, there are always exceptions to every rule.

John G. Prague was one of Manhattan’s most prolific architects in the latter part of the 19th century. He was originally from New Orleans, and had come up North in the 1870s, a time when residential neighborhoods on the east and west sides of the island were being developed as fast as the buildings could go up. By the late 1880s, Prague was well established, busy, and doing quite well.

In the late 1880s, Prague and investors S. Willis James and T.E.D. Powers took the undeveloped blocks centering on W.86th Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam, spreading outward, and built over 232 row houses on these blocks, probably the largest single group of adjacent houses designed by one architect in Manhattan. Prague made detailed sketches of each house in each group, and all were designed with similar fine materials inside and out. It was pretty impressive.

Prague would go on to design many more houses on the East Side, and in Midtown, with “banker’s mansions” on the side streets of the East 50s and 60s, near 5th and Madison Avenues, and fine apartment buildings. Today, Prague houses go for many millions of dollars, and are prized for their fine design. Many of them are also landmarked, both individually, and as part of larger historic districts.

The Brooklyn houses on Hancock Street were built at the same time Prague was doing the Upper West Side houses. He designed this group, and several other small groups on both sides of this block, between Nostrand and Marcy. He also designed a similar group on Jefferson Avenue, the next block over.

Like his Manhattan houses, they are elegant townhouses, with spacious parlor floors, tall windows and fine looking facades. They all have generous extensions on the back, as well, providing the best in row house living, something still very much appreciated. Prague used ornament well, and over all, was quite a fine row house architect. The terra-cotta on these houses is great. He was also quite the businessman and bon vivant, not to mention avid yachtsman. One of these days, I’ll tell his story on a Walkabout piece. It’s quite the story. GMAP

Photograph: Christopher Bride for Property Shark, 2012

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