A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Last time we visited the Bedford Rest, a unique restaurant/café/rest stop developed primarily for the thousands of people from all walks of life enjoying the cycling craze of the 1890s. A place like that would be equally popular today. The owners wanted to expand with the new century. But how far could they go?
The Bedford Rest was Brooklyn’s most popular restaurant/café/event space of its day. Opening in the last years of the 19th century on the corner of Bedford Avenue and Eastern Parkway, it catered to the young men and women of the new leisure class.
Eastern Parkway was still primarily a beautiful road through undeveloped fields at this point. The Rest stood alone, a large tented structure on the northwestern side of Bedford and the parkway. It was a convenient rest stop for the many cyclists taking a break here at the top of the hill.
Bicycles were enormously popular at that time. Cycle technology had advanced the bike so that it resembled and rode like the single-gear bikes of today.
Unlike most sports, bicycling was equally popular with men and women, and it was one of the few sports a couple or a family could do together.
The streets of Brooklyn were filled with cyclists, and on weekends they rode up and down Bedford Avenue and Eastern Parkway by the hundreds, even thousands.
Bedford Avenue was part of a popular route to both Long Island and Coney Island. Professional and amateur racing clubs and excursionists used the Bedford Rest as a starting and ending place for their trips.
Female cyclists, 1890s. Via the Online Bicycle Museum
One of the most popular races was the Century Run. It was a 100-mile course, generally starting at the Bedford Rest, going 50 miles out to Long Island and then back to Brooklyn.
There was another run that went to Coney Island and back, less than 100 miles, but certainly quite a journey for many. It was extremely popular.
In August of 1900, the Jefferson Wheelmen sponsored a Coney Island run. Over 450 people, including eight women, met at the Bedford Rest a little after dawn, ready to roll.
Kings County Wheelmen, 1896, Brooklyn Eagle
The men were in their riding silks, or rolled up shirtsleeves and cycling trousers, the women in divided riding skirts or bloomers, corsets, long sleeved blouses, tight jackets and straw hats.
They set off in the coolness of the morning, headed for the beach. Everyone who finished the run would receive a coveted medal, with prizes for the top times.
People always dropped out due to heat, broken bikes, or exhaustion, but at the halfway mark, all of the women were hanging in there. Suddenly, it began to rain, and a torrential thunderstorm drenched everyone.
Many more riders quit, but not one of the women. They continued riding, although their long skirts were weighed down with mud, their skirts got tangled up in the spokes, and they were soaking wet.
The riders made the last leg of the race up the hill from Malbone Street (now Empire Boulevard) and north to Eastern Parkway, each rotation of the pedals getting harder and harder.
They craned their necks to see the pennants of the Rest, the tented building among the most beautiful sights they had ever seen. There were cheering crowds, refreshments, and the end of the race for the exhausted riders.
All eight women finished, much to the surprise of many of the men and the reporters covering the story.
This was just another weekend for the Bedford Rest.
Ocean Ave bicyclists, 1890s. Via NYC Parks
They had races coming and going from here every weekend, and some during the week as well. It made for a thriving business.
As mentioned in Chapter One, the three owners of the Rest wanted to make their tent-housed business more permanent. They had an architect named Joseph H. Taft draw up plans for a fantastic theme park establishment that resembled a stone Swiss chateau on steroids.
Proposed new Bedford Rest, Brooklyn Eagle, 1986
A theme park on Eastern Broadway, it would feed, entertain and house hundreds of people. They just had to build it, and they knew people would come.
But it never got built. We’ll probably never know why.
Detail on 1904 map. New York Public Library
Instead, the owners greatly improved what they had. As seen in the 1904 map, the Bedford Rest became a large wooden structure with quite a footprint.
In all of my research, I found no contemporary photos or drawings, or even good descriptions. But by 1904 it seems to have had a corrugated metal roof over parts of it, but it was still essentially a wood-framed open-facing building, some of it still a glorified tent.
It was a place for assignations. It was robbed a couple of times, including by Clarence Van Buskirk, the architect of nearby Ebbets Field, who made off with 14 boxes of cigars. It was a favorite place to be seen by the famous and infamous. The Rest has many more stories for another time.
It may have been hugely popular with the public, but not everyone loved it. The City didn’t love it at all.
In 1903, the city tried to close the Bedford Rest on a technicality. They said the structure was illegal, and furthermore was on Parks Department property, as it faced Eastern Parkway. A judge threw out the city’s case, but did uphold that the restaurant was on city property. The Rest had to work out a deal in order to stay.
They did, and the Bedford Rest stayed open, more popular than ever. Perhaps too popular.
1890s bikers, via Etsy
A neighborhood reader complained to the Brooklyn Eagle about the Bedford Rest in a letter printed in 1909. There were too many rowdy young men hanging around the Rest, he said. They were, he said, the well-dressed sons of neighborhood doctors, merchants and businessmen.
He said that the men harassed many of the young women at the Rest. Not that the ladies couldn’t handle themselves. He saw one woman take out her six-inch hat pin and use it to fend off the hand of a young man getting way too familiar.
The reader was disgusted with their behavior. He said the police were never around, and the young men were bold. One young man followed a girl up the street making lewd remarks as she went along. She turned around, and he was horrified when it turned out to be his own sister. She had recently purchased a new dress, and he hadn’t recognized her. It had to stop, the reader said.
By the beginning of the 1910s, Bedford Avenue and Eastern Parkway were hopping. The surrounding neighborhood was rapidly developing on both sides of the parkway, and fine new apartment buildings and elegant white row houses were going up along the parkway itself.
Local residents were finding this area to be a fine promenade for strolling and showing off one’s finery. Writing in 1935 about the posh places of her youth in 1912, Brooklyn Eagle correspondent Alice Rafiel Siegmeister remembered:
“The Bedford Rest, a very popular restaurant, occupied the northwest corner of Eastern Parkway and Bedford Avenue. From a table lining the windowed wall one might watch the passersby strolling along in Spring finery.
“Carousel hats topped with ostrich, aigrettes or a rare bird of paradise. Fur stoles and dolmans with tiny mink tails. Gentlemen with cutaway coats and gold knobbed canes.
“The orchestra played the ‘Bogey Man Rag.’ A spangled lady sang ‘My Little Persian Rose.’ She wept towards the end.”
1912 Promenade, Brooklyn Eagle
Other things were changing as well. While cycling remained popular with many, the craze had passed. The wealthy young swells had a new toy, the automobile. Bedford Avenue had become Automobile Row, with auto showrooms, service stations and other auto-related businesses popping up along the avenue and surrounding streets.
Many of the bike shops had converted to auto shops. Although the automobile was still a luxury item, this was still a wealthy neighborhood, and more and more cars were being purchased.
Our correspondent Alice Siegmeister also told of counting the cars on Bedford Avenue, and making note of those with out-of-state plates. Every week, there were more cars.
Amid the growing fascination with the automobile, most of the bicycle clubs disbanded. Their members were now joining auto clubs. But the Bedford Rest adapted, giving up their free bicycle repair shop and expanding their restaurant and bar capabilities.
They had room for their own orchestra and dancing, and the Rest remained a popular nightspot. With the opening of Ebbets Field, and the traffic on Automobile Row, they were primed to continue a brisk business.
No one expected Prohibition.
Next time, the end of the Bedford Rest, the birth of a new Bedford Rest, and an automobile showroom designed by an architectural giant.
Top illustration: Coney Island Bike race, via theroadswerenotbuiltforcars.com. Below: 1904 map via New York Public Library.