If you want to grab a glimpse of this elusive building, you have to plan a fall or winter walk past it, when the trees are leafless and at least portions of the red brick facade are visible amidst the evergreens and bare tree branches.
Even then, the mysterious building at 137 Oak Street takes some neck craning to see. It’s tucked back from the street edge in a crook of land where Oak and Guernsey streets meet. The location away from the bustle of the nearby waterfront would have been ideal for the original inhabitants, the elderly ladies of Greenpoint.
Constructed in 1887 as the Greenpoint Home for the Aged, the building was the mission of The Ladies Benevolent Association of the 17th Ward, a charity organization that was founded in 1882. The women seem to have gotten right to work. In June of that year, they leased a building at 69 Dupont Street and opened it as a home for the aged poor. When a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter visited the residence in 1884 they found a large brick structure with a view of the East River. Applicants for housing reportedly were required to have recommendations, be of respectable character and have resided in the ward for at least five years.
By 1885, the organization was supporting 13 women in the Dupont Street building and was on the hunt for more permanent and spacious quarters for the elderly in their care. To raise funds for their work the charity-minded women held annual fundraising fairs. Typically a week in length and held in a local hall, the fairs featured numerous stalls with handiwork, books, sweets and other refreshments. Their 1885 fair raised almost $4,000 in support of the new building, and additional concerts and events added to the fund.
By January of 1887, the society had identified a suitable location. That month, the Real Estate Record and Guide recorded the sale of a parcel of land on Guernsey Street from the estate of Samuel J. Tilden to The Greenpoint Home for the Aged for $2,750. Well-known Brooklyn architect Theobald Englehardt was engaged to construct the new building, with hopes that ground could be broken after the frost in 1887 and residents installed in their new home by 1888. The work would cost the organization $12,000, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported, with some of the funds spent on purchasing the land and the rest on the construction.
The goal was met and on June 14, 1888, a gathering was held to celebrate the opening of the new red brick Romanesque Revival Style facility. Prayers were said, songs were sung, poems read and remarks given by multiple Brooklyn pastors and notables. The Eagle reported that the two-story structure included a dining room, laundry and kitchen in the basement, parlors on the first floor and bedrooms for residents and a house matron above.
While some newspaper accounts mention that the home was non-sectarian and open to women of all religious faiths and class, in looking at the congregations and faith leaders that supported the home, they were largely Protestant. According to the 1897 Annual Report of the New York Board of Charities, applicants to the home needed to be “aged, needy residents of the 17th ward,” had to be approved by a committee and pay a “usual admission fee” of $50.
In 1900, the U.S. Federal Census shows that there were 10 “inmates,” all white and between the ages of 54 and 85, as well as two house matrons and a servant. The number of women living there would remain fairly stable over the years, with census records through 1940 showing from nine to 13 residents, all identified as white, recorded over the years.
The circa 1940 tax photo shows neatly kept grounds and a sign for the home still prominent above the door. An ad in 1941 advertised it as a “home for refined Protestant elderly ladies,” but no invalids were allowed.
The home seems to have disbanded in the late 1940s or early 1950s and the property became a rooming house. A 1948 certificate of occupancy lists it with a kitchen, laundry, recreation room and 17 furnished rooms. A new certificate of occupancy was issued in 1953 showing more rooms were added, bringing the total to 20.
The legacy of The Ladies Benevolent Association of the 17th Ward was protected in 1982 when the building was included in the Greenpoint Historic District. The building hit the market for the first time in decades in 2007 when it was listed for $2.5 million. It ultimately sold in 2008 for $500,000 and advocacy group Neighbors Allied for Good Growth helped the 13 SRO tenants organize against possible efforts to boot them out of their rooms. So, for the moment at least, it seems the building may still be serving its intended purpose as a home for those without the means to otherwise live within the community.
- Residents of Greenpoint Home for the Aged Get Organized
- HOTD: Greenpoint Home For The Aged Hits Market
- Greenpoint’s Astral Apartments: A Building Ahead of Its Time