Walkabout: The Hazzards of Schermerhorn

1886 map. 211 is the large house with the big extension, in between plots 58 and 60. New York Public Library.

People always remember those houses that are survivors. You know the ones, the houses that are sandwiched in between new buildings; usually much taller and larger than they are, or the one building that remains after all others fall. These are often building owned by stubborn people who just refuse to leave, or sell out. I haven’t been down Schermerhorn Street in a while, so I’m hoping one of these survivors is still standing. I know it won’t be for long. It’s had a long history, but was a seedy hotel for the last fifty years, and unfortunately, that’s what most people will remember it for, if they remember it at all. It’s 211 Schermerhorn Street, one of only two surviving row houses on a block that was once residential, then commercial, and is now set to become entirely new again.

I remember it well, only because I used to work downtown, and passed it almost every day on my way to the Schermerhorn A train subway stop. I used to always wonder who had lived there, as it was obvious that this was once a fine home, a mansion of the finest sort, equal to similar homes in nearby Brooklyn Heights. Brooklyn had grown up around it, and progress had relegated it to obscurity and back alley tawdriness. It’s a wonder it survived as long as it did.

The home was probably built by its first and long-time owner, William Henry Hazzard. He was another of those self-made millionaires and captains of industry that Brooklyn seemed to produce every week, back in the latter half of the 19th century. William Hazzard was born in rural Delaware in 1823. His father died when he was a child, and he and his many brothers and sisters grew up quite poor, their mother having to send them out to work quite early. He learned the carpentry and building trades by the time he was a teenager, and came to New York in 1847 to make his fortune.

An unnamed, but powerful developer took a liking to this honest and hard-working young man, and gave him opportunities to excel over older and more experienced contractors. Hazzard soon was building larger and larger projects, and gaining a fine reputation, which he turned into a very profitable contracting company. He moved to Brooklyn in 1846, and built many of the storage warehouses and factory buildings along the Fulton docks.

He branched out into residential building, and according to his biography in a late 19th century history of Brooklyn, he built “some of the finest residences in the city.” One of his more notable achievements was his construction of the Brighton Beach Hotel, an enormous wood framed hotel that became one of the finest upscale resorts on Coney Island. He continued his practice with his son, renaming the company William Hazzard & Son, and conducted business until his retirement in 1882. His last project was laying the foundations of the New York Produce Exchange, a large and important George Post-designed building in Lower Manhattan.

Hazzard married his first wife, Rhoda Ward, in 1848. The couple had eleven children, six of which died and were buried in Green-Wood with their mother, before 1890. In 1891, he remarried, this time to Elizabeth Rockefeller, who was thirty years his junior. She bore him one son. From maps and newspaper clippings, I estimate the house was built in the early 1860s. They were looking for maid service in 1864, the earliest notice in the paper.

The house was indeed a fine mansion, over 33 feet wide and 45 feet long. It’s five stories tall, and originally had more than twenty rooms. Much of the exterior and certainly all of the interior detail is now gone, but this must have been some house. At the time, there were many residences along Schermerhorn Street, as well as on Livingston and State. The State Street homes survived, for the most part, but Schermerhorn and Livingston became commercial. First Livingston became home to stores, warehouses and shops, by the late 1800s, and then Schermerhorn, as the 20th century progressed.

With commercial success also can also come political attention, and Hazzard had been noticed back before the war. Like many movers and shakers in Brooklyn at this time, Hazzard had joined the new Republican Party, and was appointed to two terms as a member of the Kings County Board of Supervisors, beginning in 1862. He later became the Commissioner of Public Works in 1879.

Although Hazzard retired from building in 1882, his son kept the family business going. Meanwhile Dad moved on to the even more lucrative transportation and banking industries, becoming president of the Brooklyn City Railroad Company only months after his official retirement from Hazzard & Son. The BCRC was the city’s largest horse drawn trolley company, with lines that crisscrossed Brooklyn. Some of these routes would soon become elevated train lines, while most became trolley and then bus lines. The legacy of the BCRC is still with us today, as many of our MTA buses still travel the same routes.

Hazzard was the head of that company for four years, and was responsible for the gradual transition from horse power to electric power. He spent a lot of time traveling across the country, and to Europe, examining the public transportation systems of other cities, taking the best ideas and bringing them back to Brooklyn. But at the end of those four years, yet another industry called, and this was even more enticing; they wanted him to become president of the Fulton Bank of Brooklyn.

William Hazzard was president of that institution for almost ten years, until the bank merged with the Mechanics Bank of Brooklyn. By this time he was in his 70s, and was at last, retiring for good. In 1895, when he was 72, he scared everyone when he fell while getting off a trolley. His foot had caught on the railing, and he pitched forward to the ground, striking his head. Fortunately, the car hadn’t begun moving, and passengers and bystanders helped him as soon as he had fallen. He was shaken up, but only suffered a few bruises.

Mr. Hazzard, his wife, and surviving children settled down to his very comfortable retirement. They travelled often, making the papers’ society pages, as they summered in the country, and took part in various charitable affairs. Both Hazzard and his wife Emily were very active in their church, the Hanson Place Methodist Episcopal Church. He was on the board of the church’s Home for the Aged, and Mrs. Hazzard taught Sunday school.

One of Hazzard’s sons, from his first wife, caused the family great anxiety when he got into a bar fight in 1897. Paul Hazzard, who was 21 at the time, had been in Lawson’s Saloon and Pool Room at nearby 66 Smith Street, when the altercation took place. He was playing pool with friends, when Bert Zundt, also 21, and the son of a former police detective, came in with two of his friends, and picked a fight with young Hazzard. They took the fight into the street, and were rolling around on the sidewalk when one of Zundt’s friends kicked Paul in the head, causing a bleeding head wound.

At that point, the police showed up, and everyone ran, except Hazzard, who was dazed and bleeding. He was taken to the station, where the gash in his head was stitched up by a doctor. He didn’t want to press charges or make a big deal of it, but the papers got word of the fight, and published the details. No doubt, his father was not pleased.

William Hazzard fell ill in 1903, and never fully recovered. The last months before his death in January of 1904, he had been bedridden and under the unceasing care of his wife, Emily. After his death, and burial in Green-Wood with his first wife and six children, Emily Rockefeller Hazzard fell into a deep depression, and was under a doctor’s care. He had been her life. She closed up the house and moved between relatives, friends, and hotels for four months, taking their 12 year old son with her. William had been thirty years older than she, leaving her a 53 year old widow with a considerable fortune. It didn’t matter.

On April 9, 1904, she checked into the Hotel St. Denis, on 11th Street, in Manhattan. She was dressed in severe black with a black veil over her head, covering her face. Most women no longer dressed in such severe mourning garb, but this was New York, and no one thought too much of it, as Mrs. Hazzard sounded calm and pleasant, and had engaged the bellboy in conversation, and was nice to the wait staff that brought her a meal that evening. She had registered under her own name, and listed her residence as in Brooklyn. She had a valise with her; enough luggage for an overnight stay.

That night, the bellboy smelled the odor of gas, and an investigation with the hotel manager traced it to her room. They knocked on Emily’s door, she groggily answered, and the staff could hear her go to the window and open it. She then called out that all was fine. But the manager was not satisfied, and had a bellboy spend the night outside of her door. The next morning, Emily rose, had breakfast, and again, engaged in pleasant conversation with the maid. All seemed fine.

At 4 pm, check out time, the manager came to her door to inquire about her. There was no answer. They entered and found her dead on the bed. She had shot herself in the head with the revolver that was still in her hand. The police interviewed those around her, and found out that she had been increasingly despondent since her husband’s death. She had spent the last months of his life at his bedside day and night. Her doctor ordered her out of the city, and she had taken a nurse and her son to a hotel in Lakeside, New Jersey. Ten days later, she discharged the nurse, and sent her son to relatives in New England.

Emily told the staff at the hotel that she was going up to New York to do some shopping, and would return in a day or so. She had seemed in good spirits. Apparently, she had been resolute, and planned to take her life for some time. Before she had closed up the Brooklyn house, she had written to the elderly black porter who had worked for the family for years, telling him that she wished to be “at home with her Heavenly Father.” Emily was not buried with her beloved husband in Green-Wood, but was taken back to her childhood home in Columbia County to be buried in the Rockefeller family plot there.

The house passed on to other hands, and immediately became a higher end rooming house, with furnished rooms. By the early 20th century, Schermerhorn Street, near Hoyt and Bond, was no longer a predominantly residential street. The house was home to genteel boarders in the beginning, single teachers, office workers and the like. But by the Second World War, was being rented to a much lower class clientele.

Newspaper mentions of the building now talked more about arrests and criminal behavior. The house was a low market hotel by the time I moved to Brooklyn in 1983. It was called the Prince Hotel, and was a notorious drug and prostitution establishment. It was taken over by the same owner who had the equally notorious Lefferts Hotel in Clinton Hill. He changed the name to the Princess Hotel, and marketed it as a small hotel for travelers and students. This was when there were no hotels in Brooklyn, to speak of. Imagine their surprise, and welcome to Brooklyn.

The hotel was recently sold to a developer for almost $5 million. This is, after all, a prime location. I don’t expect it to be here much longer. The Hazzard family was the one and only family to own this house as a single family dwelling. GMAP

1886 map. 211 is the large house with the big extension, in between plots 58 and 60. New York Public Library.

1886 map. 211 is the large house with the big extension, in between plots 58 and 60. New York Public Library.

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