Read Part 2 of this story.
Much has been made of the sale of 70 Willow Street, which recently set a record for the highest priced home in Brooklyn, selling for $12 million. That’s certainly impressive, but what is even more impressive to me is the history of the house.
Everyone knows that Truman Capote lived in the basement apartment in the 1960’s, but he was not the first, or the last luminary to call this huge house home. Brooklyn’s past is full of colorful and important people who shaped what the city of Brooklyn became, and their influence was often felt well beyond the small area they called home. 70 Willow has a long and storied history.
Looking up that history can often be interesting in itself. When the bluffs overlooking the waterfront were still considered suburban retreats, the house was built by one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens.
Back in those days, buildings didn’t often get registered by their number and street address, such as 70 Willow Street, they were often referred to in record by a less romantic designation. This house is Lot 16, located 50’ from Pineapple Street in a lot 50’x101’.
The house was built by Adrian Van Sinderen; a member of one of Brooklyn’s important Dutch families. He was the son of the Reverend Ulpianus Van Sinderen of Holland. Adrian was the only son of Ulpianus Van Sinderen’s second marriage, and he also had three sisters.
He had an older brother and sister from his father’s first marriage, and after wife number two died, his father married again, adding three more sons and a daughter to the line. Ulpianus Van Sinderen was one of the last of the Dutch speaking Reformed Church ministers sent from Holland in the late 1700’s. The family settled in New Lots, in a home that stood until at least the early 20th century.
He became well known during the Revolutionary War for his fiery oratory and patriotism, and well known in the local Flatbush Reformed churches for being “short of stature, very active, learned, but deficient in sound judgment.”
He apparently got into a lot of verbal battles with his congregants, right from the pulpit. Van Sinderen was a pastor in his church until 1783, when he was abruptly released from service with a note from the Reformed Church in Holland telling him his services were no longer required. He then retired to his home in Flatlands, where he lived until his death in 1794.
Ulpianus’ son, Adrian, became a wealthy Brooklyn businessman. His first house, which he had built in 1828, was on the corner of Columbia Heights and Orange Street. It was a large house known for its distinctive cupola. It had a stable and large grounds.
Many of Brooklyn Heights’ homes at this time were closer to suburban villas than city townhouses, and had a decent plot of land around them. In 1839, Van Sinderen decided to build a new house, and had this fine Greek Revival mansion built.
The house was a true urban villa, had twelve fireplaces, and a garden that stretched from the back of the house through to Columbia Heights. This was one of the larger Greek Revivals in the neighborhood, and one of Brooklyn Heights’ oldest surviving houses, although by no means THE oldest. Adrian Van Sinderen lived here until his death in 1843.
The house was left to his grandson, also named Adrian Van Sinderen, who lived there until 1858. Grandson Adrian Van Sinderen II, was a prominent and socially well connected lawyer, in both Brooklyn and Manhattan during the mid to late 1800’s. He must have also inherited his great-grandfather Ulpianus’ lack of sound judgement. In 1864, his law partner and close friend William Lawrence died, appointing him as executor and trustee of his million dollar estate. According to the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times, over the years that followed, the heirs began to receive less and less from the estate, and finally sought an investigation into Van Sinderen’s handling of the trust.
In 1886, an investigation and law suit against Adrian Van Sinderen revealed that he could not account for the loss of the money, as he had kept no records, whatsoever, and he was ordered to provide restitution. Van Sinderen, heavily mortgaged, could not do so, and both fled the country, and his family in Brooklyn, and escaped to Europe.
Already in his 60’s at the time, he eventually returned to Brooklyn, a disgraced and broken man. He had been living at 178 Columbia Heights at the time, a building no longer in existence. He ended up back in New Lots, shunned and avoided by all of his former family and friends, where he apparently died in 1892.
Incidentally, there was one other Adrian Van Sinderen, who also lived in Brooklyn Heights, at 40 Remsen Street. He was born in 1887, and died in 1963. This Adrian Van Sinderen was a successful banker, businessman and civic leader.
Among his many interests and charities were horses, travel, books, and providing for local hospitals and children’s charities. He was the president of the American Horse Show Association for over 30 years, and was an avid book collector, and an author of over 30 books on travel and other subjects.
A Yale man, his name is still well known in academic circles for the Van Sinderen Prize, two awards given to Yale undergraduates for student book collections.
He was also an accomplished organist, and had a large pipe organ installed in the Remsen Street house. Mr. Van Sinderen accomplished much in his life, more than making up for the sins of his namesake ancestor. But back to Willow Street.
In 1886, 70 Willow Street was bought by William Allen Putnam. He was a wealthy banker and philanthropist. Mr. and Mrs. Putnam and their three children, and extended family, lived in the house for the next fifty years. William Putnam was the last of a line of merchant vessel commanders who sailed between New England and China.
He went into banking and the stock market, and was a partner in the firm of Homans and Co. of Wall St. During his lifetime, he was a trustee and vice president of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, now the Brooklyn Museum.
He and his wife, Caroline, donated paintings, china and other objects to the museum over the years, including a collection of Rembrandt etchings and a rare and superb collection of Royal Copenhagen porcelain. He was also a member and trustee in many prominent clubs and associations throughout Brooklyn, Manhattan and Southampton.
His wife, Caroline Haines Putnam, appears often in both the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Times, as a hostess for, and leader in, the Anti-Suffragette Movement, an organization of women who were against women having the vote. In 1894, this group, whose members included many prominent Brooklyn society women, began meeting at 70 Willow to oppose universal suffrage.
They contended that women neither wanted, nor needed the vote, as their husbands could represent them adequately. They stated that women had too much to do in the home to involve themselves in the political process, and that what was needed was not more people voting, but a better quality of voters and that did not necessarily mean women.
This organization ran strongly, receiving press in the papers, and held frequent meetings with speakers, and supporters from all over, including like-minded sisters in England, which was also considering a woman’s vote. The group was active until women won the vote in 1920. A Walkabout piece expanding upon this subject appears here, if you’d like more information.
The Eagle also catalogued the engagements and weddings in the family, as well as their advertisements for domestic help and lost pets. Weddings: M. Vryling Putnam married Lawrence B. Dunham on June 10, 1915 at the house, and her sister, Carolyn Putnam, married Dr. Henry T. Chickering on June 1st, 1921, also at a ceremony and reception at 70 Willow St. Mrs. Putnam’s sister, Lillian Magie Haines marries Walter Hayden Crittenden on November 5, 1897.
There are many ads asking for domestic help, and the Putnam’s seem to have trouble holding on to their dogs. An ad in the Eagle on October 26, 1891, offers a reward for the return of a lost fox terrier, and ads beginning on November 4, 1902, offer a reward for a bull terrier puppy. These ads ran for several days. William A. Putnam died at the age of 88, on February 28, 1936. His wife Caroline lived in the house until her death at the age of 86, in 1940.
This piece contains excerpts of a report I wrote for Donald Brennan, of Brennan Real Estate. To see that complete report, with more information on census numbers and other details not covered here, please check out the report posted on Donald’s website, myhomebrookln.com. The history of 70 Willow Street will conclude next time. Some of the most interesting people are yet to arrive.