Walkabout: Montrose Morris, Part 5, From Hot to Forgot(ten)

This is the last installment of the life and career of late-19th-century architect Montrose Morris. Read the first post here, and then Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

The twenty years between 1885 and 1905 must have been a non-stop whirl of work and social activities for Montrose Morris.

His most important works were standing monuments to his talent, and stood in all of the best neighborhoods; from Brooklyn Heights to Fort Greene/Clinton Hill to St. Marks to Park Slope to Bedford, where he still lived in his first show house on Hancock St. However, in the new century, things were starting to slow down.

The last Morris building to be built in Park Slope is a large Beaux Arts apartment building at 143-53 Eighth Avenue, between Garfield and Montgomery, built in 1910-11. The limestone lower floors share some of the PPW house’s stonework, and have classic arched Parisian windows.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

1912 Photo via Architectural Record

The rest of the large red brick and limestone trimmed building has some nice window trim and detail, and is a fine apartment building, but would not be picked out as a Montrose Morris building unless you knew it to be so.

He is credited for the Chatelaine Hotel, a large residential hotel found on the corner of Dean and Bedford, at the heart of Grant Square, across the street from his impressive Imperial Apartments.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

It was probably built around the same time, and rises majestically on that corner, complete with Classical detailing, white terra cotta trim, a massive cornice, and large green terra cotta signage that has lasted through the building’s transformation from a hotel to a hospital, now to residential units.

His last known houses are two double duplex houses found on the corner of New York Avenue and President St. in Crown Heights South. These were built in 1912. Although one faces President, and the other around the corner faces New York, they are more or less identical, save one of the NY Ave houses in now stripped of its cornice.

They are made of a combination of stacked limestone, red brick and sand colored brick, and are somewhat reminiscent of the upper parts of the Park Slope apartment building on 8th St, although much less ornate, and less interesting.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

The only real Morris touch, and it’s a stretch, can be found in the large, oversized cornice, reminiscent of the Bedfordshire Apartments, on Pacific Street. He also designed his only known church, a rather small and unnoticed building on Lafayette Ave, between Classon and Franklin, now known as the Church of God, Inc.

It is sandwiched in between two groups of row houses, and is a simple white limestone brick, with Classical detailing, simple stained glass windows, and a pressed metal pediment roof line. His Brevoort Savings Bank on Nostrand, now gone, must be from this period around 1912- 1915, as well.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

1912 Photo via The American Architect

Records have been found of several residential MM designs on Long Island, in the new suburbs, and an estate in Georgia or Mississippi, but Brooklyn was to receive no more buildings from Montrose Morris.

Unlike today, where someone’s biography can be available in a few keystrokes, the lives of most of the prominent architects of Morris’ day remain pretty much a mystery, condensed to a paragraph in a guidebook or historic designation report.

In researching some of Morris’ contemporaries, I realize that Montrose left a more visible trail than most, and even there, we really know so little.

Census records and his obituary show that he lived in his Hancock St. house with his wife, Floria, or maybe Florian (illegible handwriting on census reports) and his children, LeRoy Clinton, Raymond, Norman and Geraldine. The boys became architects as well, working as Montrose Morris Sons.

More digging would have to be done to find their works, and to see if any survive.

The only known building in Brooklyn is the community house of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Pacific Street, in Crown Heights North, built in 1923. Ironically, or perhaps, fittingly, it is directly across the street from both the Bedfordshire and Imperial Apartments.

Today, it is derelict and fire damaged, and funds are being sought by the church for its rebuilding.

Montrose Morris died in his home from unstated causes, in 1916. His obituary in the NY Times was small, and mentioned the recent Brevoort Bank, his many apartment buildings, and his memberships in Brooklyn’s best clubs and organizations.

He then disappears from the public memory. We are fortunate that so many of his buildings still survive.

Those in more affluent neighborhoods mostly survived because the buildings are very good, his earliest successes have survived because of concerted efforts by homeowners, benign neglect, and in the cases of the excellent apartment buildings, the dedicated efforts by the LPC, community leaders and organizations, and enlightened developers, to repair and reuse them for necessary housing.

There were architects working at the same time who have a larger body of work, some very similar, especially in the Romanesque Revival period, most courting the same caliber of clientele.

Montrose Morris stands out as one of the best because of his innovative use of massing, shapes, materials, ornament, design elements, such as dormers, turrets, archways and columns, his ever present loggias and balconies, and his unique way of putting it all together.

His social, business and sales skills were unprecedented for the time, and were he working today, he would surely be a household name. He gave Brownstone Brooklyn an enduring body of work that impresses and delights today, and hopefully, for many years to come. See his last works on my Flickr page.

Andrew Dolkart, now the James Marston Fitch Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, director of the graduate program in Historic Preservation, and one time researcher at the LPC, is the foremost resident expert on all things Montrose Morris, and the man responsible for Morris being known by the few who now recognize his name and importance.

He graciously met with me and shared his file of all known Montrose Morris buildings. He confirmed a few guesses I had, and told me about a couple I had no clue about, and would never have found out on my own. I can’t thank him enough for his help and encouragement. O

ther research comes from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The New York Times, the AIA Guide to NYC, and the LPC designation reports for Crown Heights North, Park Slope, Clinton Hill, as well as the initial survey reports for Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights North. Robert Stern’s excellent tome, New York: 1880 was invaluable, as well.

Thanks also to Amzi Hill for census and obituary information, and to Amzi and Bxgrl for walking around Brooklyn with me in search of Monties.

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

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