Building of the Day: 87 Remsen Street

Photo by Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark

Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

: Built as the Eben J. Knowlton House, now coops
Address: 87 Remsen Street
Cross Streets: Hicks and Henry Streets
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1889
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: William H. Beers
Other Work by Architect: Liebmann Building on Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn, as well as row houses in Park Slope and other neighborhoods
Landmarked: Yes, as part of Brooklyn Heights HD (1965)

The story: 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 townhouse, which towered a full story over its neighbors. The architect of this house was William H. Beers, a relatively obscure, but hard working Brooklyn architect whose most familiar building is probably the turret towered 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.

The Real Estate Record and Builders Guide notes 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 of 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 in in 1889, and immediately became regulars on the Brooklyn social pages.

Eben Joseph Knowlton was the son of William Knowlton, the founder of one of the country’s largest straw goods manufacturers. He began his business in 1833 in West Upton, Massachusetts, 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.

Eben and his wife Mary lived at 87 Remsen with their three children, son Eben B. and his two sisters, 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. The family also had a summer “cottage” in Newport called the Idle Hour, to which they went every summer. They were one of the founding families of the Brooklyn Heights Casino.

Eben’s brother Edward, lived nearby on Columbia Heights, and he had a daughter named Mae, who was a favorite of Mrs. Astor, when in Newport. It was there that she met a handsome German Count, and as was quite common at the time, she became another wealthy American heiress who married into the European aristocracy, becoming the Countess Von Franken Sierstorpff in 1892. The couple lived in Germany, had two sons, and made the news again because of tragedy.

In 1898, Edward Knowlton went up to the factory in West Upton, MA, and it was there, at his sister’s home, he committed suicide, for reasons that were never in print. He was well liked by people in the industry, as well as loved by friends and family. It was quite a blow to his brothers and the Brooklyn Heights community. When his estate was settled, the bulk of it was supposed to go to his daughter, the Countess. The estate was worth several million dollars. The government imposed a “war tax,” some kind of inheritance tax on the estate, which resulted in a bill of over $42,000. Eben Knowlton, as one of the executors, tried to fight the tax, and the battle went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1900. The case tried to make unconstitutional large inheritance taxes, but failed. Knowlton v. Moore (the name of the IRS agent in the case) is part of American tax law.

The family remained at the house for many years afterward. 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.”

In 1915, Mrs. Mary Knowlton died at their summer home. She is buried at Green-Wood. Ella Knowlton must have also died, as Mary’s husband, son and daughter, Grace, were listed as survivors, but not Ella. In 1915, the Count and Countess Von Franken Sierstorpff lost one of their sons, Edwin, fighting for Germany in World War I, before America entered the war, or the press would not have been as kind as it was. His brother was also a soldier. The patriarch, Eben Knowlton died at the ripe old age of 93, at home at 87 Remsen, in 1938. He had only retired twelve years before.

Today 87 Remsen Street is an eight unit coop. 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. I hope Eben didn’t do that. At his death, the house was sold to Danish shipper Hans Isbrandtsen. But that’s another story….GMAP

Photo from "The Illustrated Milliner" 1916.

Photo from “The Illustrated Milliner” 1916.

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