Read Part 1 of this story.
The grand house at 70 Willow Street has long been one of Brooklyn Heights’ most famous houses. The first part of our story began here, in Part One of our story, which begins with the first owner, wealthy businessman Adrian Van Sinderen, who had the house built in 1834. The tradition continued when the house became home to William Allen Putnam, and his family.
Putnam was a very successful stock broker and businessman who bought the house in 1886 for himself and his wife, and three children. The Putnam’s were philanthropists, donating time, support, artwork and objets d’art to the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, now the Brooklyn Museum, one of William Putnam’s favorite causes. Mrs. Putnam put the house on the map, however, as the president and leader of an Anti-Suffragette Movement, which organized out of her house.
The cause of universal female suffrage, more commonly known as the women’s right to vote, was strong in New York State, home to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the great organizers for 19th century women’s rights. But not every woman supported the right to vote.
A loud and vocal minority were actively against it, and in Brooklyn, this movement was led by Mrs. Caroline Putnam. She started her organization in 1894, with the support of many of Brooklyn Heights’ other society ladies.
They felt that women were well represented by their men in the voting booth, and were too busy running their homes to involve themselves in the dirty business of politics. Her society was very active, until 1920, when the 19th Amendment gave women the vote. For more on Mrs. Putnam and this subject, see this Walkabout piece.
Both of the Putnam daughters were married in this house, which was home to son, A. William Putnam, as well. When they got married, they all eventually moved out. By the 1930 census, only the parents and a large staff of five were living here. Mr. and Mrs. Putnam were both long-lived.
William Putnam died in 1936, at the age of 88, and Caroline Putnam died at the age of 86, in 1940. For the first time in 54 years, there would be no Putnam’s living in the house, and it remained empty until 1944.
That year, during the height of World War II, the Putnam children donated 70 Willow Street to the Red Cross. It was a very generous gift, but the organization had no clue what to do with it, at first. The house was old, needed work, but had large rooms, electric power and a kitchen.
An article in the New York Times on October 14, 1944 quotes a Red Cross official as saying the house’s kitchen was fairly complete, with a modern gas stove and “an enormous old-style coal burner.” The Red Cross decided to open it for volunteer meetings, first-aid classes and other meetings to aid in the civilian war effort.
They taught Braille classes here, as well as cooking classes for the wives of returning soldiers. The Red Cross held onto the building for six years, and sold it in 1950. That owner didn’t hang on to it for very long, selling it to another party a year later, and he, in turn, sold it to Oliver Smith, in 1953.
Oliver Smith was one of the most important stage and set designers of the 20th century. He was born in 1918, went to college at Penn State, and then came to New York to begin a stellar career. His career started with the ballet, and in 1942, he designed the sets for Agnes DeMille’s groundbreaking ballet Rodeo. His career took off, and he became the set and scenic designer for some of the post-war 20th century’s most important stage productions, plays, operas and ballets that are now legendary mainstays of their genres.
A list of his productions is a catalogue of greats: Brigadoon, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Hello Dolly, Flower Drum Song, Candide, Paint Your Wagon, Auntie Mame, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Odd Couple, The Sound of Music, Barefoot in the Park, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, on Broadway.
Rodeo, Fancy Free, Fall River Legend and other masterpieces were designed for Agnes DeMille, Jerome Robbins, Eliot Feld, and the American Ballet Theater, and productions of La Traviata, Martha, Naughty Marietta, and The Tender Land, were designed for the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.
That was only a partial list. He became Co-Director of the American Ballet Theater in 1945, and remained in that position until 1980. He won many Tony awards, Donaldson and Critics Choice awards, as well as numerous other awards and accolades. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1981.
Mr. Smith was a tremendous encourager of talent. He taught master classes in set design, and mentored students as a faculty member of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. But he will always be best remembered in Brooklyn Heights for his ownership of 70 Willow Street, and the people he invited to live or stay at the house. When home, he worked from his studio on the top floor, and often rented out rooms, or invited guests to stay.
If you are a lover of culture and the arts, the amount of talent that passed through this house is staggering, and reads like a Who’s Who of the arts. Theatrical director Sir Tyrone Guthrie stayed here, a giant in the theater world, and the director of some of the hits that Smith designed, such as Candide.
Both men were working with Leonard Bernstein, Candide’s composer, who was no stranger to the Heights, having crashed there in the ‘40’s at 7 Middagh Street, along with Aaron Copland, another great American composer who worked with Smith on his Rodeo and the opera, The Tender Land.
His most famous tenant was writer Truman Capote, who lived at 70 Willow Street for ten years, between 1955 and 1965. During that time, from his basement apartment, Capote wrote his best works; Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a short story called “A House in the Heights”, and of course, his masterpiece, In Cold Blood.
According to his own stories, Capote was a friend of Oliver Smith, and convinced him to let him rent the basement apartment after multiple martinis, one night in 1955. From all reports, he probably didn’t pay any, or very much, rent, having charmed himself into the house.
He was said to have loved the house, and its cheery yellow color, magnificent staircase and wide Southern-style back porch, which reminded him of his childhood in the South. He told a reporter from the Brooklyn Heights Press, in 1957, “I love Brooklyn Heights, it’s the only place to live in New York.”
Although Capote lived here for only ten years, the house will probably forever be called the “Capote House”, even though he never owned it, and lived in the basement. He did invite Jackie Kennedy to lunch once, and forgot to mention to her that he didn’t own the house.
She figured it out halfway through the luncheon, when Oliver Smith acted as if it were his house, which it was. After he achieved great fame and fortune from In Cold Blood and other works, he moved out in 1965, gravitating more towards the wealthy areas of Manhattan and Long Island, and his socialite friends, until he tired of them.
He did not return to Brooklyn. Capote died of liver cancer in Los Angeles, at the age of 59, in 1984. His life after Brooklyn, although filled with great successes, was ultimately a self –indulgent, and self -induced train wreck.
70 Willow, as part of the neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights, was landmarked in 1965, as part of New York City’s first Historic District. Oliver Smith owned 70 Willow Street until his death in 1994. The house had two more owners since then, and is now about to become home to a new owner.
These new owners will become stewards to a home that certainly has seen a lot of characters play their parts in its 178 year history. I’m sure they will enjoy the echoes of the greats who passed through here, and will certainly get a lot of use of that incredible stairway and that very gracious, and enviable, back porch. Congratulations. GMAP