Building of the Day: 403 Carlton Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Built as Colored YMCA, now the Carlton Nursing Home
Address: 403 Carlton Avenue
Cross Streets: Fulton Street and Greene Avenue
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: 1917
Architectural Style: Colonial Revival
Architect: Ludlow & Peabody
Other works by architect: Mansard-roofed addition to the old New York Times building, and other business and residential buildings in Manhattan and elsewhere.
Landmarked: No

The story: This is a story about one of the good guys, a true humanitarian and philanthropist, and the Brooklyn building he funded. Julius Rosenwald was a clothing manufacturer who did well – so well that he became part owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company; for many years, the nation’s largest, and certainly most famous, mail-order catalogue. For most of his life, he was a Chicago man, but his business acumen, his connections and his generosity were felt from Chicago to Brooklyn to the Deep South. His charitable donations helped many people in need, but he felt a special calling to help America’s Negro population — at the beginning of the 20th century, not the most popular of causes. But like any good hero, he wasn’t trying to win popularity contests, he wanted to help.

Julius Rosenwald was born in Illinois in 1862 to a family of German Jewish immigrants. At sixteen, he came to NYC to learn the garment trade from an uncle, and while here, started a manufacturing company with his brother. That company failed during the depression of 1885, but gave Rosenwald experience for starting over, this time in Chicago. He embraced the new sizing standards for clothing established during the Civil War, and marketed his goods to a rural, Midwestern population. The resulting company, Rosenwald & Weil Clothiers, became the main supplier of clothing to another growing Chicago company, Sears, Roebuck and Co.

In 1895, when founding partner Alvah C. Roebuck wanted to retire, he sold his half of the company to Rosenwald and his brother-in-law. Remaining catalog partner Richard Sears and Julius Rosenwald worked together extremely well and grew the company into a rural catalog giant. In 1906, they took the company public, and Rosenwald called on his old friend from New York City, Henry Goldman, to do the initial stock offering. Goldman and his business partner Paul Sachs were friends with Rosenwald and his family for life. With their new company wealth, Sears Roebuck was able to build its first retail store in Chicago and a huge new warehouse and shipping hub. The company was well on its way.

Now a millionaire several times over, and with Sears rolling along, Rosenwald wanted to devote more time to philanthropic work. He and Paul Sachs had many discussions on how to best help, and they decided that aid to America’s black population was the most pressing social cause in the nation. Educational facilities were key to helping African-Americans rise out of poverty, and with the help of influential black leaders, like Booker T. Washington and William H. Baldwin, the Rosenwald Fund would fund schools, buy books and pay for teachers in rural Southern areas.

In the next fifty years, over 5,000 schools, shops and teachers’ homes would be funded, and over $70 million spent on schools, colleges, universities, museums and Jewish and black charitable causes. One of those causes resulted in 403 Carlton Avenue. The Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, was founded as gathering place for young men to engage in Bible study, athletic pursuits and wholesome social activities. But this wholesome organization did not allow Negroes to join.

In 1902, the Colored branch of the YMCA opened in a brownstone at this location, reflecting the organization’s efforts to reach out to other communities, including immigrants, blacks and newsboys. Just not in the same branches as their middle-class white members. The building was designed and built in 1917 by the Manhattan firm of Ludlow & Peabody, paid for mostly by Julius Rosenwald’s fund, as well as contributions from other philanthropists, and Brooklyn’s black community. It had 70 dormitory rooms, a swimming pool, bowling alleys, showers, meeting rooms, game rooms and a social lounge. It was, according to the Brooklyn Eagle, the second largest “colored YMCA” in the world. It also had women’s programs and facilities. It was especially helpful in transitioning black people coming up from the South.

By 1955, the demographics of the neighborhood had changed; black folks had moved on to other branches as segregation waned, and the mostly Puerto Rican residents of the neighborhood were not using the branch, which was also feeling its age. With other Y facilities nearby, the organization decided to close the branch. It’s been a nursing home for some time now. Julius Rosenwald, who championed black causes his entire life, died in Chicago in 1932. Men like him should be household names. GMAP

(Photograph: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark, 2012)

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