In 1776, British troops took over Brooklyn after the massive retreat of George Washington’s overwhelmed forces at the Battle of Brooklyn. As they settled down across New York City, a sizable amount of them were headquartered in the village of Bedford.
The officers stayed in the homes of Bedford’s prominent citizens, including the homes of the Lefferts family. The British foot soldiers and the Hessian mercenaries who made up the huge occupying army were camped along the outskirts of the old Clove Road which ran approximately where Bedford Avenue is now.
Their camps stretched from Classon Avenue to Eastern Parkway. The center of the Hessian encampment was where Bergen and Franklin Avenues meet, in what is now called Crown Heights, or for some, the Crow Hill section of Crown Heights. The British army stayed there from 1776 through 1783.
Seven years is a long time to be camped out, so the soldiers built shelters for themselves and settled in. These redoubts were built in trenches, dug 30 to 50 feet long and 12 to 15 feet wide.
The shelters were wooden huts with a center door, a steeply pitched roof, some ventilation and a fireplace at the rear for warmth. They were really just pits with roofs, and were not in any way comfortable, with dirt floors, cramped and miserable quarters.
They must have been freezing in the winter and stifling in the summer, and it’s a credit to military discipline that the foot soldiers didn’t rise up against their officers who were comfortably housed in the homes of Bedford’s elite. But stayed they did, for the length of the war.
For many years after they left, artifacts were found in the ground, and skeletons were also found in the hillocks nearby. As late as 1852, when the ground was leveled for streets and development, the position of the flagstaff and the entrance to the Hessian camp was still visible on the corner of Bergen and Franklin.
Ironically, this corner would have a German connection for the next century or more.
In 1849, the Liberger and Walter Brewing company opened a brewery here. In 1866, Christian Goetz bought the brewery and renamed it the Bedford Brewery. The brewery was housed in the smaller building that runs along Franklin Avenue, between Bergen and Dean.
The outbuildings on Dean Street, just around the corner, and part of the property, now covered with white vinyl siding, and long unused, date from this time, and may have been private houses, or offices for the brewery.
A Scotsman named George Malcolm was running things in the brewery, and also got himself in a lot of trouble when neighbors complained that liquids were running out of the building and pooling in the street. A cesspool was supposed to be dug, and it took months of litigation and fines for this to happen.
The Brooklyn Eagle was quite diligent in covering the story. They also covered the new popularity of beer in Brooklyn, with lager the most popular drink in the city, where anyone could sit and quaff the brimming glass of amber liquid.
The Eagle article went on to say that the Bedford Brewery was the largest and best of the Western District’s breweries, producing a fine beverage called Excelsior Lager, which was the only lager in the city made with imported Bavarian hops and malt. By 1868, the Eagle reported that the Bedford Brewery was the fourth largest maker of beer in Brooklyn.
In 1883, the Bedford Brewery was again in the news for selling beer on Sunday, a violation of the Excise Laws. By this time, the brewery had a retail alehouse in the brewery buildings, and it was extremely popular.
The two bartenders were arrested, and the owner was cited and their license threatened. They managed to squeeze out from under the charges, but were under a careful watch.
That same year Christian Goetz was mortgaged up to the hilt, owing everyone money, and he sold the brewery to businessman William Brown and a group of investors, but remained on the board. By 1889, he would be dead, at the age of only 59.
Brown and his investors changed the name of the brewery to the Budweiser Brewing Company, after the town of Budweis, Bohemia. They began to expand the facilities and grow.
They built a new large building in red brick, new buildings adjacent to the original building, and added an ice house, a storage facility with a hopper, and other buildings, all centered in the block bordered by Dean and Bergen, from Franklin, halfway to Classon.
They began to offer new beers to their customers, and by 1895 were offering Extra Bohemian, Rialto, Private Stock and Frankenbrau, among others. Apparently they didn’t know about the Anheuser-Busch Company, and their little beer called Budweiser, which A-B had trademarked in 1876.
Anheuser sued, and by 1902, Brown had changed the name of the company to the Nassau Brewing Company, which brewed beer on Franklin and Dean until 1914.
Try as I might, I wasn’t able to find out when the HJ Heinz Company acquired the complex, but from the faded lettering on the largest of the buildings, it was quite a while ago, perhaps right after the end of the brewery’s life.
You can still see the words Heinz, HJ Heinz, 57 Varieties and Food Production on the side of the building, a handsome red brick factory with arched brick detail on the facade. This factory produced canned goods.
The NY Public Library’s collections shows us a 1930’s photo of the site with a lumber company in the original brewery building. A 1941 photograph taken of the complex shows the active Heinz factory still situated in the largest of the buildings.
In the middle is a used car dealership and garage, and the Dover Lumber Company still in the original brewery building. These 1941 photos also show an abandoned subway or trolley car turned diner on the corner of Dean and Franklin, as well as the clapboard houses in their original state, with the Nassau Brewery ice house in the background.
Also there is a tall chimney tower, which is no longer standing. The buildings, all six of them in various sizes, ages and original purpose, looked to be in permanent decline.
Before the buildings again changed hands in 2001, they were all owned by a moving and storage company, which mostly worked out of the old Heinz factory. The clapboard houses, long covered in vinyl siding have been closed up for years.
The original Bedford Brewery building was empty and bricked up, the ice house a storage warehouse, the building with the hopper that probably once received hops and grain was rusting and abandoned. In 2001, Susan Boyle and Benton Brown, who worked in sustainable transportation and the arts, bought the entire complex from the moving man.
They kept the ice house and the Heinz building and sold the rest to developers intent on creating arts, commercial and living spaces in the other buildings, including the original brewery. They used the proceeds of the sale to finance their huge project of transforming the ice house.
They gut renovated the building for themselves and tenants, creating one of the first and finest green residential projects in Brooklyn, the subject of many news and blog articles, (including here). They’ve won awards and grants for sustainable living, and they have been included in several books, such as Brooklyn Modern, written by Diana Lind.
Susan Boyle and their apartment appears on the cover. The Heinz building is now commercial space for small businesses and artists. The rest of the complex, now belonging to other developers, seems to have been stalled by the economy, but the Crown Heights community is eagerly awaiting the promise of retail and living spaces.
When finished, the Bedford/Budweiser/Nassau/Heinz complex will again be a bustling and busy place, a deserving fate for Crown Heights’ largest manufacturing complex. There are more pictures on Flickr.
Please join us in celebrating the architecture and history of Crown Heights. The 4th Annual Crown Heights North House Tour is this Saturday, from 11-4. St. Gregory’s Church, corner of Brooklyn Ave at St. Johns Place.