Archive | January, 2016

Vanderbilt Avenue & Lafayette Avenue

29 Jan

So far, I have to say, I’ve been pretty good about keeping my winter promises – well, except for the whole New York City Charter, Multiple Dwelling Law, and broadcast tv thing. Though to be fair, I tried! but there are actually several “movie” channels on broadcast television (the old rabbit ears) and I wasn’t sure just where to start. Also, each one was already half way through when I turned them on. It’s intimidating! I mean, these are some seriously random movies and I’m not exaggerating when I say you’d probably be a more interesting person if you watched them all the time (though you’d probably have nobody to talk about them with at work). Actually, I kind of think that you could write a novel about somebody who does that. (I promise you I won’t.) So anyway, let’s stick to some other promises instead and continue systematically looking back at some older posts. Like this one, on the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, written way back when I used to actually go to shows. I haven’t been to the Masonic Temple since, though I have to say, looking at it now, I don’t find it quite as unremarkable as I seemed to find it then. It’s actually a pretty arresting building. Ah well, that’s part of getting older right? (Besides not going to shows.) Appreciating things you didn’t get the first time?

Now that wasn’t the case with the nearby Steele House of course, one block away on Vanderbilt and Lafayette. Like everyone, I’m sure, I thought that it was pretty remarkable the moment that I saw it. Maybe that’s because, in the words of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, “it is so situated that its noble proportions can be viewed advantageously from the other corners of the intersection.” Or maybe it’s because it has, “the unique distinction of being unequaled in its style, in Kings County, as an example of clapboard Greek Revival architecture.” (Oh man, I just thought of another promise, reading every Landmarks designation report I can get my hands on.)


Well, I get how it can be viewed advantageously – the place definitely stops you in your tracks as you go by it – but I’m not sure what makes this specifically Greek Revival architecture, as opposed to, let’s say, Federal (though it’s wood frame, so yes, I get the clapboard part). Not because I doubt it is Greek Revival, you understand, but because I actually don’t know what makes that the case; the Landmarks Commission doesn’t specify exactly. Let’s see, they do mention the pilastered doorway (those flattened columns on the side), supporting a fine entablature (the rectangle thing above the door) with a modillioned cornice (that is, a cornice, having those same spaced blocks that you see on the actual, larger, cornice of the house). And they mention how the front windows are all pedimented (those triangles above them). So I guess it probably has to do with that stuff. So shit, now we know how to build a Greek Revival House!


No one seems certain when the house was built exactly, beyond saying the second quarter of the 19th century, so 1825-1850, and no one knows the architect either. They can say that whenever it was built, the cupola (that octagonal room on top) would have afforded views of the fields of Brooklyn rolling off towards downtown and the harbor, back when most of this area was still farmland, or close to it, I guess. And in fact that smaller wing on the side might be even older still, perhaps moved from elsewhere on the property and joined to the Steele House at some later date, though its style is essentially the same (you know: entablature, pediments, a cornice (not modillioned I think)). They also know that Joseph Steele, a resident of Brooklyn Heights, from which the house takes its name, sold it in 1853 to Joseph K. Brick. By then, or soon after, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill was becoming an upscale residential neighborhood: what historian Harold C. Syrett (care of the AIA Guide) referred to as “Brooklyn’s other fine residential district, the Hill; its position was not unlike that of the Heights; but its elegant residences were fewer in number and their owners slightly further removed from the traditions of genteel respectability.”

I’m not sure if Joseph K. Brick was genteel and respectable, but I imagine that he was.  He was apparently the first president of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company and co-owner of the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works, based in Red Hook. The Brooklyn Union Gas Company was established in 1825, as the Brooklyn Gas Light Company, and it’s actually not entirely clear if it was ever called the Brooklyn Union Gas Company in Brick’s day – he seemingly died in the 1860s and Brooklyn Gas Light didn’t change its name to Brooklyn Union Gas until a series of mergers in 1895. Their old headquarters still stands in Brooklyn Heights, though it’s been the Saint Francis College art building since the 1960s. Incidentally, Brooklyn Union Gas merged with Long Island Lighting Company in 1998 to become KeySpan – the fifth largest distributor of natural gas in the United States. Until 2006, at least, when it was purchased by National Grid USA, itself a wholly owned subsidiary of the British National Grid plc – the 20th largest company on the London stock exchange. So anyway, that all happened. Sorry! I didn’t mean to jump down this kind of corporate history rabbit hole but it can be hard to stop once you start digging. Not that you even really have to dig – it’s kind of always the same story right? All the small ones get bought up by the bigger ones, or else buy up the other ones themselves as they get bigger. It’s part of why we like looking at these old houses right? They seem much simpler. Slapping triangles and rectangles and pillars on shit – dreaming about Greece.


Water Street & Dover Street

15 Jan

It’s finally feeling like winter, for now at least, and right on cue I’m starting to think of all the winter promises I like to make myself that I know I can never really keep. Let’s see, besides the endless books and movies and albums to digest I’d really love to try to read the New York City Charter from start to finish, and the Multiple Dwelling Law as well. (Incidentally, isn’t it crazy that we write laws to govern our society and then need an entire profession to actually understand them? That’s gotta be intentional, right?) Also, I’d like to watch whatever movie is showing on the broadcast television movie channel (WNYWDT2), from start to finish, every couple of nights. That’s gotta be worth something.

I know, I know, it’s never gonna happen (damn other things!). But hey, that’s kind of a recurring theme of this blog in general, isn’t it? The  endless tangents I can’t ever hope to explore; the overlapitude of life; my own personal attempt to be Wikipedia; shamelessly linking to old posts all the time. Well, what else?  I suppose another winter promise of course is to write more about all the places I noticed in those warmer more carefree days. I think I can keep that one at least (as long as there’s nothing good on the movie channel). Like the old Captain Joseph Rose House on Water and Dover Streets (273 Water Street to be exact), in the South Street Seaport Historic District. Why don’t I start there?

Because it turns out that it’s a doozy. It’s not just that it’s the third oldest extant building in Manhattan (though it is! – after the Morris-Jumel Mansion and Saint Paul’s Chapel), but that its narrative arc so closely resembles that of the city in general. As the name implies, the house was constructed as the family home of Joseph Rose, perhaps as early as 1773 but no later than 1781.  Rose was a sea captain and merchant, trading specifically in Honduran mahogany (the only kind of mahogany I ever buy). At the time of construction, Water Street – itself essentially landfill added to the original shoreline of Pearl Street – ran right along the East River and Captain Rose could park his ship, the Industry, on his shared pier right out back. His neighbors were mainly merchants as well, back when this area was kind of a live/work residential neighborhood (as most neighborhoods back then were), though the size and fashion of his house spoke to Rose’s success. He would move to Pearl Street in 1791, passing on the Water Street property to his son.


I’m not sure how long his son stayed put exactly, but by the early 19th century the first floor had been converted into commercial use, befitting the changing character of the neighborhood (and the city in general) as merchants, artisans and anyone else of that class moved away from living and working in the same location. Incidentally, one outcome of this separation of work from the residential household was the beginning of “bad” neighborhoods. Before you tended to have a mixture of classes (master, apprentice, servant) all living in the same vicinity, if not building; with the end of that came the sorting of classes into physically separate neighborhoods. By the mid-19th century (if not sooner) Water Street and the surrounding area had become a poor one, as was true of most of the city’s water-front neighborhoods.

It’s reputation probably wasn’t helped any when the old Rose House was bought by Christopher Keyburn in 1863 and turned into “Sportsmen’s Hall.” Keyburn, better known as Kit Burns, and even better known as one of the last known leaders of the Dead Rabbits gang, was a saloon keeper and “sportsmen,” and his hall offered drinking, dancing, gambling, bare knuckle boxing, and – most famously of all – dog and rat fights. The center of the tavern was an 8 foot wide “rat pit,” surrounded by tiered benches for the crowd; for the main attraction burlap bags of wharf rats would be released into the pit, with bets made as to how quickly a dog could kill 100 of them. (The record, apparently, was under 6 minutes, set by Burn’s prize terrier Jack. He was stuffed upon his death and given pride of place above Burn’s bar). Another star attraction was Jack the Rat, Burn’s son-in-law, who for a dime would bite the head off a live mouse. For a quarter he’d do the same with a rat. (Don’t give him a dollar.)


So yeah, they knew how to party back then. But like all good ones it couldn’t last. Sportsmen’s Hall was closed down in 1870 after an intense campaign by Henry Bergh, founder of the newly created American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (though apparently Burns simply opened a new “rat-pit” further down Water Street; he would die, at age 39, that same year). The old Rose House was leased to the more respectable Methodist Church instead, as a home for “fallen women.” After a fire in 1904 the building was turned into a warehouse, until another fire in 1974 gutted the place, leaving it essentially a roofless facade. The city would seize the property two years later for back taxes, as they were doing on a massive scale back then across the boroughs.


They held it for over two decades, until 1997, when it was sold for $1 and a 14 year tax abatement to the Sciame Development Company. Using photographs and historical records the company spent over a million dollars restoring the building to something like it’s original appearance and today, of course, its four units could command prices well over a million dollars apiece. As always with these buildings that have been gutted and then rebuilt I’ve got to wonder, is it really fair to call this the third oldest building in Manhattan? Isn’t it really the third oldest wall? I’ve asked this kind of question before I think. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool; it’s a good wall. I would have bought it for a dollar.