Walkabout: The Lords of Owl’s Head, Part 3

Photo by Matt for imjustwalkin.com

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    Photo by Matt for imjustwalkin.com

    Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this story.

    When the Brooklyn industrialist Eliphalet W. Bliss died in 1903, he stipulated in his will that his estate, called Owl’s Head, should become a city park, open for the enjoyment of all. Owl’s Head, aka the Bliss Estate, was a large property nestled on the promontory overlooking the Narrows, in the neighborhood of Bay Ridge.

    Before Bliss, the estate had belonged to a former mayor of Brooklyn, a man named Henry C. Murphy, who was indeed one of the great movers and shakers of mid-19th century Brooklyn. In the first chapter of our story, we learned that Murphy had been the legislator who wrote the bill authorizing the Brooklyn Bridge.

    That bill was signed here in his home at Owl’s Head. Our second chapter told the tale of E.W. Bliss, whose huge munitions and metal stamping plants in Bush Terminal could be seen from his front porch, a highly successful man who built an observation tower on the property so he could see for miles around, watching the sea traffic in the great bay below. Nearby streets still reference the estate’s past owners, Bliss Terrace for E.W., and Senator Street, for Henry Murphy.

    The latter part of the 19th century saw many wealthy people coming to Bay Ridge, building summer homes along the Shore Road, to take advantage of the space, the sea breeze and the incredible view. But there was only one Owl’s Head.

    No one is quite sure where the name originated, some speculate Bliss named his estate for local owls, or for the shape of the promontory, or perhaps it was named after the stone owls that Mr. Murphy placed at the beginning of his road.

    At any rate, in his will, E.W. offered the city of New York the opportunity to buy the twenty-seven acre estate for $835,000. It was worth much more. Included in the offer was the land, the house, an enormous stable designed by the Parfitt Brothers, and the observatory tower.

    His will stipulated that the estate must be used for parkland, and couldn’t be developed. The city took him up on it, although it took them until 1928 to officially designate it a park.

    The observation tower became an instant landmark, the subject of many postcards from the first decade of the 20th century. It seems to have been shot from every angle possible, and was as much a part of Bay Ridge’s local scenery as were the very photogenic views of the Shore Road and the mansions along it. Quite surprisingly, there don’t seem to be postcards of the mansion itself, or the stable. Some might say that this was a sign.

    Although the city had bought the estate, and opened the grounds up to the public, they didn’t put any money into it, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise that in only a few years, the mansion, the stable and the tower began the slow slide into decay.

    By the time the park was officially designated, in 1928, the structures were deteriorating badly, with the observation tower, seemingly the first to go. An aerial photo of the site in 1934, taken by the Parks Department, shows the mansion at the top, with the stable to the right of it.

    The observation tower is gone. From postcards and other views, it was probably located in the center of the photograph, where something appears to have been recently excavated, or demolished.

    Robert Moses, bless him, loved parks. He liked small parks, especially, and as NY City’s Parks Commissioner, took Owl’s Head on as a city project. Between 1934 and 1937, the city poured federal and city funds into Owl’s Head.

    Since the mansion and stable were in bad shape, they just tore them down instead of funding any kind of adaptive renovation or re-use. Moses loved parks, but he didn’t like old buildings. But the park had some great old-growth trees, and pathways, and the engineers and designers of the park used them and built a system of pathways, playing fields, open parkland, comfort stations, and seating areas, taking advantage of the topography and the views. Owl’s Head Park became one of the jewels in Robert Moses’ crown of small neighborhood parks.

    In 1938, work was begun on the Shore Parkway, a federally funded part of Robert Moses’ system of highways crossing the city, part of the Federal Public Works Administration. The Shore Parkway began at Owl’s Head Park, and ran around the bay to the Aqueduct exit, in Queens, where it became the Southern Parkway.

    This highway was officially named the Circumferential Parkway, a name that thankfully, didn’t stick. Today, it’s all called the Belt Parkway. On the other end of Owl’s Head, the highway joined the Gowanus Expressway, which merged with the BQE.

    In 1941, the last link of the Belt Parkway was finished, at Sheepshead Bay, making it possible to drive from the Whitestone Bridge in the Bronx, through Brooklyn, and around to Queens and Long Island. The new highway was not only supposed to be a boon to trucks and commercial traffic, but also to civilian traffic, opening up the city for excursions, with parklands, including Owl’s Head Park, as one of the many attractions. It was a grand and egalitarian idea.

    Alas, things always come along and ruin great plans. In this case, it was time, maintenance and money. By the 1970s, the park was a mess. Like most city parks, Owl’s Head was a victim of a city gone broke. The lawns were not mowed, the benches, those horrible city park benches with the concrete legs and wooden slats, were broken, many missing so many slats that they were unusable as seats.

    Garbage was strewn everywhere, and cans were overflowing. In 1971, the entire park was assigned only two workers for maintenance and clean-up, and only one was full time. They battled vandals gone wild, kids who destroyed property, including burning down an ice cream stand, breaking windows in the comfort stations, and generally running amok.

    A New York Times article in 1971 chronicled the problems in a long article: inadequate police patrols, too many disaffected and unsupervised young people, and a two man parks crew that couldn’t keep up with repairs to vandalized property, as well as mow 27 acres of grass.

    One central location for trash pickup and a sanitation department that was only scheduled to pick up from the park twice a week, leading to mountains of trash standing in the park, an easy target for vandals and animals, especially rats. The City said it wanted to improve the park, add a recreation and entertainment center to extend to cover the roof of the new sewage treatment plant, but it didn’t have the funds. Owl’s Head Park looked doomed.

    But somehow it survived, as did New York City. In 1994, Borough President Howard Golden and City Councilmember Sal Albanese funded a $400,000 restoration that brought new life to the park. Roads were paved, equipment replaced, and amenities added.

    Since that time, Owl’s Head Park received new concrete basketball courts, and in 2000, the city’s first skateboard park. In 2002, the original gates of the Bliss estate were found in storage, and returned to the entrance of the park.

    They are beautiful, ornate wrought iron gates, with a large cartouche with the initials “EWB”. For older Bay Ridgers especially, this is fitting, as to them, it will always be Bliss Park.

    Our story can’t end without this coda. The Lords of Owl’s Head both had children, about whom not all that much is known. Henry C. Murphy had a son, also named Henry C. Murphy, and he, in turn produced a grandson for his father, whom they very creatively named Henry C. Murphy, as well.

    He was born in Brooklyn in 1886. He would be known as H.C. Murphy in his professional life. His father had not gone into government, but rather had become a chemist, whose claim to fame was that he invented artificial flavorings for soda water.

    One could argue this was very important. The family was pretty well off, anyway, and lived at 390 Union Street, in Boerum Hill, with a country home in Greenwich, Ct.

    Young H.C. went to public school in Brooklyn, and then on to Columbia University, for a degree in Electrical Engineering, class of ’08. He had always been a gifted cartoonist, who was popular for amusing his friends with his drawings, and he ended up as the cartoonist for the Columbia student paper. By junior year, he had switched his major to art, and began taking art classes at the Arts Students League, and never got his degree from Columbia.

    In the grand tradition followed by trustifarians today, H.C. moved to a seedy tenement in Manhattan, and tried to find work as a cartoonist for newspapers and magazines. He opened an art school in lower Manhattan, to teach painting and cartooning.

    When World War I broke out, he went down to his draft board, but at the age of 32, he was never chosen. He ended up moving back to his parent’s home, now at 105 Willow Street, in Brooklyn, and then spent summers in Greenwich, painting.

    Lest this sound like a typical tale of a ne’er-do-well, H.C. broke the mold: he became successful. He found jobs illustrating the covers of the wildly popular pulp magazines of the 1920’s.

    His artwork graced the covers of Everybody’s Magazine, Ace-High Magazine, Action Stories, Adventure, Air Stories, All Fiction, Fight Stories, Frontier Stories, Lariat, North West Stories, Sea Stories, Short Stories, Soldier Stories, Star Magazine, The Popular, and West Weekly.

    In 1921, he married Claire Van Helme, a Belgian pianist, and they had a daughter, Clairette. He went on to paint the historic World War I battle scene of the US Army 27th Division breaking through the Hindenburg line. Today, that painting is in the permanent collection of the National Museum in Washington, DC.

    He would go on to paint covers for Field and Stream, and the extremely popular pulp magazine Black Mask. His cover painting for the magazine in September, 1929 illustrated the first publication of excerpts from Dashiell Hammet’s novel, “The Maltese Falcon.”

    H.C. Murphy had placed himself in the annals of popular American culture. He didn’t live to really enjoy it, however. He died on New Year’s Day, in 1931, at the age of 45. Cancer claimed this grandson of the great Henry C. Murphy, the first master of Owl’s Head. He would have loved to have painted the estate. I wonder if he ever saw it. GMAP

    Bliss estate, showing house and tower, early 20th C.

    Owl’s Head Park, the Bliss Estate in 1934. Photo: nycgovparks.org

    Photo: Neversitstill.tumblr.com

    Photo: Daniel Avila for nycgovparks.org

    Photo: Daniel Avila for nycgovparks.org

    Constructing the park in 1935. Looks like R. Moses in center. Photo: nycgovparks.org

    A young H.C. Murphy, artist. Photo:pulpartists.com

    HC Murphy cover, 1929. Photo: pulpartists.com

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