Walkabout: Montrose Morris, Part 4 – Full Circle

Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

This is the fourth 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 5.

Like most architects of the day, Montrose Morris embraced the new Classicism, as popularized by the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Gone were the dark brownstone and brick, and the free wheeling exuberance of the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles.

The light colored building materials, serious sturdiness and sheer impressiveness of Beaux Arts and neo-Classic architecture were a reflection of the age of robber barons and big money, and that’s what Morris’ clients in the late 1890’s and early 20th century wanted.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

In Park Slope, Morris took this new Classicism to heart, but tweaked it, and imbued some of these new commissions with the old Morris touch. The first of these new buildings, in 1894, was corner townhouse at 123 Eighth Ave, at Carroll St.

The Classical details are especially fine on the front entrance and on the Carroll St. side of the building. On Prospect Park West, Classical details are combined with a Morris loggia at 17 PPW, while all of his PPW limestones have similar detailing in the stonework, Classical relief columns, arched entries and windows and pedimented dormers.

As per usual, with Morris, many are in complementing pairs; 16, 17 PPW (1899), my favorites – 18, 19 PPW (1898), and a single, 22 PPW (1899). All of these houses have large windows facing the park, and all are examples of a restrained elegance in design.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

In 1900, Montrose got a huge commission the largest private house in Brooklyn, to date. Clarence W. Seamans was the head of Union Typewriter, at the beginning of the 20th century, the largest business machine company in the world.

He was also a financier, sitting on the boards of Brooklyn’s Schermerhorn Bank and People’s Trust Bank. During the 1890’s he began buying up land in the fashionable St. Mark’s District, on St. Mark’s Avenue and directly behind this plot, on Bergen St. He held a competition to choose an architect for his new home, and chose the designs of Montrose Morris over the others.

Morris designed an enormous three story building with an attic, servant’s wing, porte cochere, and Bergen St. stable, all in the style of the Italian Renaissance, according to both the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New York Times.

Montrose Morris Brooklyn

When the house was finished in 1903, it cost over a million dollars, and was praised as the finest house in the city. Each room had a different theme, an Oriental room, an English dining room, etc, and all were done in the finest rare woods, marble and stone available, with solid silver hardware and fittings.

Seamans and Morris spent two years combing the world for furniture, fabrics, artwork, and decorative items. The NY Times, on March 29, 1903, described every public room in the house, noting even that all of the closets had electricity, and were designed to have the lights go on when the doors were opened.

While the exterior design is more Neo-Renaissance than any other MM houses, he managed to include at least one loggia in the front, and we find that Morris has not abandoned the designs that first brought him fame and started his career, back at his house on Hancock St. Here’s what the Times had to say:

A large reception room is situated in the center of the building, two stories in height. Opening off the reception room are a drawing room, a music room, an Oriental room, dining room, library and billiard room.

This is the same basic design Morris used in his own home, in the corner house on Hancock and Marcy, and for all we know, elsewhere as well.

But here, money is no object, so as the Daily Eagle reports:

There will be a grand staircase 10 feet wide leading right and left up to the gallery above. Another staircase will connect to the second story with the porte cochere by which guests can ascend to lay aside wraps before descending down the main staircase to the reception hall……On the third floor there will be a ballroom and art gallery, 35 feet by 60, with a high dome ceiling extending to the roof.

Oh, there were also two bowling alleys in the basement, sheathed in enameled brick, a decided novelty, the notes the Eagle. And there was to be an enameled brick tunnel connecting the house to the stable, which opened on to Bergen St, which was for the servants use, and for tradesmen’s deliveries.

The Seaman’s Mansion on St. Mark’s Avenue was to be Morris’ most expensive and finest work, especially the interiors. The estate was surrounded by the large, expensive homes of many of Brooklyn’s wealthiest elite, including the Strauss family of Abraham and Strauss. Clarence Seamans must have enjoyed his opulent home, but only for another twelve years, he died in 1915, at the age of 61.

By the end of the 1920’s, early 1930’s, St. Mark’s Avenue’s was losing its cachet for the rich, and although the area remained an upper class enclave, one by one, the mansions and their large grounds were replaced by large apartment buildings, as a house that once housed under 20 people, including servants, was replaced by buildings housing hundreds.

Brooklyn was growing, especially because of the recent arrival of the IRT subway line. The Seaman’s mansion was torn down in 1928, and was replaced by the Excelsior Apartments, a fine building in its own right, but it would have been great to have been able to see this exceptional home as a house museum.

This grand building, costing over 1 million dollars at a time when the average home cost about $26K, filled with the finest woodwork and features, stood for a mere twenty-five years. Pictures for this article are on Flickr.

Next time: Final wrap up: the last buildings, and Montrose Morris’ legacy.

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

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