Tag Archives: Clinton Hill

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.)

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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!

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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.

Warren Place

25 Nov

Time, my friends! You know what I’m saying? There’s not enough of it…..or else I mean to say, it passes. But what can you do? That’s the entire medium we live our lives in right, time passing – like what water is to the fishies or mayonnaise to an egg-salad sandwich. I mean, nothing would happen without time passing. So I guess we should enjoy it. And I do! Most of the time. It’s just that I have all these things I want to write about and I kind of try to keep a list about them even and stay on top of things but then time keeps passing and I can’t even begin to keep it up. I was going to try to blame it on the Red Sox winning the World Series but damn, even that was a long time ago! Still, there’s some kind of lesson there about time passing too, right? In baseball, I mean: the drama of each anticipatory moment becoming reality a few seconds later, a reality that can never be undone. Actually, that’s kind of what the game is all about. Maybe it’s just cause I’m the last true American (no pressure though) but I pretty much enjoy watching playoff baseball more than anything in life. Well, my sons pretty cool too I guess. And you know, my parents. Oh yeah, and my wife. Hi honey!

But back to those lists. Cobble Hill was on there at some point, though it’s getting on a ways. I remember that I was wearing a t-shirt when I walked through here and thought about it, and it seems the t-shirt days are long behind us. I’m a little embarrassed  to say this (being the last true American and all) but I’ve only just gotten around to finally knowing the difference between Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill and (here’s the embarrassing part especially) Clinton Hill, but now I’ve finally gotten it straightened. But even having it straightened I was unprepared for how arresting the streetscape of Cobble Hill is. I don’t know 19th century Philadelphia too well, but it reminded me of that: narrow streets and close set, squat brick houses. It’s beautiful but it’s not beautiful like Brooklyn Heights or Park Slope I guess, is what I mean to say. I don’t know, maybe someone who knows it better might disagree.

But here’s a pretty damn good example: the Workingmen’s Cottages on Warren Place. I can’t think of an equivalent anywhere in the city.  These 34 “cottages” run along the private Warren Place, gated at both ends. They’re all 3-stories tall and 11 feet wide and included a total of 6 rooms in their original iteration, as well as a rear alley in the back that it seems have now been turned into private patios. As the name implies they were built as affordable housing: one-family homes for low and middle income tenants, and they all included private toilets – quite a treat at the time. The time by the way was 1879, when most “affordable housing” didn’t look like this. Of course most affordable housing doesn’t look like this now. (And yeah, I’ll just go ahead and mention that one of these sold for $1.3 million in June…are you surprised though?)

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The houses were built by Alfred Tredway White, who was apparently known as “the great heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self,” (they don’t make nicknames like they used to) and who was responsible for a number of highly lauded affordable housing projects in the late 19th century. White was a Brooklyn native, coming from what you could call good (wealthy) Brooklyn stock; he married one of the granddaughters of former mayor – of both Brooklyn and then New York City – Seth Low, which is pretty good stock too. And it seems he was a pretty good guy – “heart and mastermind of Brooklyn’s better self” and all. He was the superintendent of Brooklyn’s First Unitarian Church’s settlement school for something like 50 years, and through his experience with the homes of his poorer pupils he became involved in building innovative affordable housing. Right next door to his cottages he built the Tower Buildings (1879) and the Home Buildings (1877), also for the working classes. His motto was “philanthropy plus 5%” encapsulating his belief that work for the public good could still return a decent investment. That’s all around a better motto than what you might find in action today isn’t it – which I guess I’d describe as  “tax breaks and as much profit as I can get.” It’s cool though you know? I mean, time passes, it doesn’t always have to be this way.