Past and Present: The Third Unity Club

1944 photograph: Brooklyn Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Unity Club was founded as an upscale Jewish men’s organization in 1896. They organized in order to provide social, philanthropic and communal activities for their members, many of whom were not welcome in Brooklyn’s other clubs. Their first clubhouse was at 482 Franklin Avenue at Hancock Street. In 1914, they took over the Union League Club building at Grant Square, on the corner of Dean Street and Bedford Avenue. This large building was perfect for the clubs social and educational activities.

Many of the members were German Jews whose families had come to America just after the Civil War or a bit later. They had succeeded in business and assimilated in many ways into American society, with many leading citizens in their ranks. But the poorer, less skilled Eastern European Jews who came to the US at the turn of the 20th century did not fare as well. The Unity Club provided programs to teach these immigrants English, hone job skills, and help them make their way in American society, while still holding on to their Jewish traditions.

The club had been founded by, and still continued to be home to some of the most influential Jewish businessmen in Brooklyn. They offered the usual club amenities to their membership, but also placed a high value on philanthropy in general and especially help to Jewish charities. In 1929, they issued a statement to club members telling them unequivocally that if they could afford to pay dues to the club, then they could afford to donate the same amount or more to the Brooklyn Federation of Jewish Charities. If they could not find it within themselves to do that, they would be barred from membership to the club. At the time, dues were $150 a year.

The club flourished through the century, but by 1944, the neighborhood was changing and many of the area’s prominent Jewish families were moving to apartments in Manhattan or to the suburbs of Long Island. The clubhouse was also getting too large and the maintenance too costly, so they decided to make one more move, this time to Park Slope.

In 1944, the club bought this building, 101 8th Avenue, on the corner of President Street. When the photograph on the left was taken, the club had just moved in, and the photo was taken and cropped to run in conjunction with a Brooklyn Eagle story on the move. They were moving into what had been a private house built for John W. Weber, the president of the Ulmer Brewing Company, in Bushwick. Weber had done well by Ulmer Brewing; he was married to Caroline Ulmer, the daughter of brewery founder William Ulmer. When he retired, Ulmer sold his interest in the company to his two sons-in-law. Weber, who was a lawyer, became president of the company in 1900.

In 1909, the well-respected architectural firm of Daus and Otto designed this Neo-Georgian home for the Weber family. Rudolf Daus, with and without Otto, was responsible for many of Brooklyn’s finest Beaux-Arts style buildings, including several banks and the NY & NJ Telephone Building downtown on Willoughby Street, as well as the 13th Regiment Armory in Bedford. He had also designed row houses in Park Slope and other communities.

This building represents the progression of Daus’ stylistic growth. He began designing when Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles were popular, now he was moving on the 20th century’s favorite style; Colonial Revival. This Georgian house is perfect in its symmetry and construction, on both the 8th Avenue and President Street sides of the house.

The Unity Club operated out of this house from 1944 until the 1970s. During those years, the club became the unofficial headquarters of Brooklyn’s Democratic leadership. But they couldn’t stop the exodus out of the city. By the 70s, there were no longer enough interested members left to keep it going. Once again, the suburbs and Manhattan had beckoned, and people were still leaving Brooklyn in droves, as the city underwent the worst urban flight in its history. No one wanted to invest in a large house in Brooklyn. The house remained empty for two years.

In 1979, two brothers, Jeffrey and Steven Kossak, bought the house for $275,000. They were young guys, only 33 and 31 at the time. Jeffrey had been on Wall Street, and Steven was a Yale trained artist. Borrowing from friends and business associates, they bought the building and converted it into 11 co-op apartments. The most expensive of them went for $175,000.

That unit was a ground floor and excavated basement duplex, with three bedrooms, a garden, and a private entrance. The architect of the project, Matthew L. Kaplan, kept as much of the original details as possible. The story of the conversion ran in the Times back in the good old days of 1981, when Park Slope houses in the surrounding historic district were selling for $150,000 to $300,000. Now you have to add a few more zeros.

GMAP

1944 photograph: Brooklyn Public Library

1944 photograph: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: Kate Leonova for Property Shark

Photo: Kate Leonova for PropertyShark

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Google Maps

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