Past and Present: 90 Eighth Avenue

1928 Photo: New York Public Library

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The pattern of development in many residential neighborhoods in Brooklyn is a familiar one to us by now: farmlands become suburban estates, which in turn are replaced by large mansions and row house blocks. Those mansions, with their generous plots of land, are themselves replaced by large apartment buildings. We see this in Brooklyn Heights, Clinton Hill, Crown Heights and Park Slope, especially, and to a lesser degree in other parts of Brooklyn.

By the dawn of the 20th century, neighborhoods like Park Slope were completely developed and more and more people were still trying to get in. The very wealthy people who had built large mansions in the last quarter of the 19th century, especially those on 8th Avenue and Prospect Park West, were getting restless, and were starting to look elsewhere, to the next fashionable neighborhood. The new wealthy suburbs of Westchester and Long Island, and the fashionable new luxury apartment buildings of Manhattan were drawing them out of Brooklyn, leaving large houses that no longer had appeal for other single family buyers.

House after house was listed for sale, being marketed for development. It said so right on the sign. They were all replaced by apartment buildings, most built in the 1920s and ‘30s. It’s only when we see old photographs of these streets that we have a look into the past and see what neighborhoods like Park Slope looked like when the mansion was king, and their occupants some of Brooklyn’s most influential people. A prime example is 90 Eighth Avenue.

This large house, as seen in this 1928 photograph, was built for General Christian T. Christiansen, a Civil War hero, later financier and philanthropist. He was Danish by birth and came here in 1850. When the war broke out, he volunteered, and as a first lieutenant he helped recruit and organize the First New York Volunteers. During the course of the Civil War, he rose to the rank of brigadier general.

His wartime heroism and valor came to the attention of the King of Denmark, who bestowed a knighthood upon him in 1867, and appointed him the acting Charge d’Affaires and Danish Consul for the Port of New York, positions he held from 1868 until 1877. He then went into finance, and was an extremely successful broker and banker, becoming manager of Drexel, Morgan & Co. and later, president of the Brooklyn Trust Company.

General Christiansen was also a dedicated philanthropist. He was very active in many Brooklyn charities, including hospitals and dispensaries, children’s charities, housing and educational concerns. He sat on the boards of several large charities, and in his capacity as president of the Brooklyn Trust Company was also an active participant in city affairs.

Although he did not hold a city office, he was a citizen watchdog into the affairs of finance in Brooklyn’s city government, which had a reputation for cronyism and corruption under several administrations, including that of Mayor David Boody, who was mayor between 1892 and 1893. The terms for mayors back then were only a year at a time, so it was possible for someone to only be a footnote in the history books, but have quite an impact for those who had to live through them. Christiansen became a thorn in Boody’s side, as he tried to stop payments the city was making to institutions that were fronts for slush funds. He and his fellow reformers were successful, a story for another time.

General Christiansen lived at 90 8th Avenue with his wife and eight children. They needed this big house. They appear quite often in the society pages, especially when some of the daughters got married. The family was quite active at Plymouth Church, where the General was one of the more active deacons, and Mrs. Christiansen was also active in her own charity work. Quite interestingly, both the General and his wife were involved in the cause of woman’s suffrage. Both made sizable monetary contributions to help the women’s movement, and meetings of Park Slope ladies working to get the vote often took place here at the house. He also spoke at rallies and public affairs supporting the cause.

At the age of 70, General Christiansen retired all of his business affairs, and took a long trip back to his native Denmark, staying for over three years in Copenhagen, the city of his birth. He died there in 1905. The house at 90 8th Avenue had already been sold by then, going to Timothy Lester Woodruff.

Woodruff also had an impressive resume. The son of a US Congressman, he was also a Yale man; a member of the secret society, Skull and Bones. He went from there to Eastman National College of Business in Poughkeepsie, where he honed his business skills, and managed to marry the daughter of the founder of the school. He then came to NYC, where he clerked for a salt company, becoming a board member the next year. He then moved on to warehouses in Brooklyn, and gained control of several grain elevators, establishing a company that would become the Brooklyn Grain Warehouse Company. By now, he was very rich.

He was president of a couple of other companies as well, and the director of the Merchants Exchange Bank. He then did what many wealthy men do, he went into politics. He rose through the Republican ranks, beginning under Seth Low, and by 1889 was elected to the NY State Republican Committee. From there he became head of the Kings County Republicans, and then Chairman of the State Republican Committee. It was only a matter of time before he got into office, in 1896 was appointed Parks Commissioner of Brooklyn.

As Parks Commissioner, he championed bike lanes, influenced no doubt, by his cousin, who was one of Brooklyn’s champion cyclists. He oversaw the development of bike paths between Coney Island and Prospect Park. Between 1897 and 1902, he was elected to the office of Lt. Governor three times, the only man to serve under three different governors, one of whom was Theodore Roosevelt. In this position, he was instrumental in the development of state parkland in the Adirondacks, preserving this untouched reserve for future generations. He returned home to become a trustee at the Adelphi Academy, a position he held until his death in 1913.

As far as his home goes, it is unknown how long his widow, who was his second wife, lived there, but by 1928, the house was for sale, as can be seen in the photo. More than likely, the sign was just a placeholder, as records show that by 1927, plans had been drawn up by the firm of Sugarman and Berger for an apartment building on this lot, even though from smoke in the chimney, someone was still here. The house was razed soon after this picture was taken, and the apartment building, now called the “President,” was completed the following year. GMAP

1928 Photo: New York Public Library

Photo: Nicholas Strini for Property Shark

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