Tag Archives: Lafayette Avenue

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.


The Tombs

23 Apr

It’s unfortunate we don’t have any catacombs in New York City – those secret, labyrinthine grave sites for the dead.  I can’t think of many things that strike closer towards that secret wellspring of mysticism that I believe all humans share.  Maybe the caves at Lascaux; I’m not sure, I’ve never seen them.  Any underground burials or tunnels you might find here in the NYC are more likely to be of the industrial variety, like the IRT’s old City Hall subway station, which I’m pretty sure is where the Ghostbusters discovered that giant river of slime.  Pretty awesome, although not in the same league as catacombs.  What we do have is The Tombs, a name that whiffs of some type of mysterious adventure, or at least the older New York of Williams Burroughs or Jim Carroll.  Alas, in truth I don’t think it’s a place that anyone would choose to visit.  Its official title is the Manhattan Detention Complex, and it’s the fourth and most recent building in this area to have been called The Tombs as a nickname.  This newest addition of the jail doesn’t look like a tomb at all, but the sobriquet seems too appropriate for a place of incarceration, and so it sticks.  The two versions of the Complex that came before it didn’t look like tombs either.  It was the original building that inspired that name, and passed it on from there to all the others.

The New York Halls of Justice and House of Detention, as it was officially called, was built in 1838 and took up the entire block bounded by Franklin, Centre, Leonard, and what was Elm Street (now Lafayette).  It was built directly on top of the site of the old Collect Pond, a freshwater, spring-fed pond that sometimes overflowed through the Lispenard Marshes west to the Hudson River.   The Collect (a bastardization of the Dutch word for pond) was as deep as 60 feet at some points and was a popular ice-skating spot in the winter; a small island in its center was used as a gallows from time to time as well, just to add to the festive atmosphere.  By the turn of the 19th century though it had become polluted by industry and was considered an eyesore and a health hazard.  It was slowly drained, filled in with land taken from the leveling of a nearby hill, and by 1813 the pond had all but disappeared.  Its removal upset the natural drainage of the area though, making the ground around it a sinking and uneven bog.  A giant ditch was erected in response, cut down the middle of Canal Street, from whence it got its name.  The ditch was supposed to help relieve rain water and carry it to the Hudson, but it ran so slowly that it soon become a disgusting sewer in its own right.  The marshy land and offensive odors brought down property values in the area, and soon most of the surrounding neighborhoods were slums.  All and all, the perfect sort of place to build a jail.

Its design was based upon an ancient Egyptian mausoleum, foreboding imagery for those about to be convicted.  It basically looked like a giant tomb, hence the nickname.  When construction first started wide platforms of hemlock logs were laid into the soft earth, to help shore up the foundation.  It didn’t work; five months before the jail opened it started sinking into the ground.  The movement warped the cells and caused cracks in the walls through which water would often trickle.  It created a damp, unpleasant environment that seemed perfectly fitting for the moniker the place already bore.  The large rectangular complex was laid out around a courtyard, in the middle of which was the free standing men’s prison.  The main building around it housed the women’s prison, boy’s prison, and the courts, as well as “Bummer’s Hall,” for all the bums.  Every person arrested in Manhattan passed through the Tombs on their way to trial, about 50,000 of them a year.  Most, if convicted, would move on to whichever prison they were serving time in.  But those sentenced to death stayed here, albeit for a short time.  The “Bridge of Sighs,” less famous than its Venetian counterpart and namesake, was the path the condemned took between the main building and the men’s prison, on their way to the gallows.  Around 50 convicted murderers were hung here throughout the years.  Once the electric chair was invented in 1890 executions stopped taking place in the city and moved upstate to Sing Sing and Auburn.

It was difficult to prove someone guilty of murder in the days before forensic science.  There were only 13 homicide convictions in the city between 1838-1851, about one a year.  All the more reason for alarm when 13 convictions were registered in the three years following, from 1852-54.  The city was growing, and guns were coming more and more into play.  One of the most famous cases of the era was that of the Daybreak Boys, a gang of river-pirates operating out of Slaughter House Point, near where the Brooklyn Bridge stands today.  Two of its young members were tried and convicted for the shooting death of a ship’s night watchman.  They were hung in the Tombs in 1853, surrounded by a large crowd of Bowyerites who looked on them as heroes.  The Tombs was also the home (though not the final resting place) of the world’s first con man, William Thompson.  Dressing as a gentleman, in a city growing crowded by strangers more and more each day, he would approach his mark as if they were an old acquaintance, striking up a conversation before eventually asking, “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?”  They often did.  But the city wasn’t big enough for him to hide from his victims forever.  After his arrest in 1849 he was described in the papers as a “confidence man” and the name stuck around forever after.

By the 1880s the Tombs was completely overcrowded, and growing obsolete.  Originally built to hold 200 people at a time it was maxed out at around double that amount.   In 1902 a new, chateau-like building was completed and the Tombs were torn down.  Or were they?  The new building, the Manhattan House of Detention, immediately picked up the old nickname.  Same purpose, same feeling, different building.  When that one was replaced in 1941, with another building on White Street, again the Tombs moniker stuck, and yet again, when the building that we see today went up in 1974.  The site of the original Tombs is a parking lot now, and a tiny concrete patch with benches called Collect Pond Park.  It looks the opposite of its past, barren and sterile, what you might call urban-arid, as opposed to crowded, damp and noisy.  It’s unappealing, just like it must have been back then, only in a completely different fashion.  The Tombs were considered a mausoleum for the living, made up of a whole mess of humanity.  This space now is nothing but a graveyard of history.  I mean a place where history just dies.  I won’t call it a catacomb, although it’s secret and disguised, as if its past was not intended to be found.  There’s nothing moving here.  And where did all those spirits go?  Did they sink back into the ground, beneath the asphalt and the hemlock logs?  Can something ever truly disappear from off the earth?  What else is it that we’re standing on?  Except for that one split second, over and over again, everything that ever happens is the past.  And deep beneath it all the spring that fed the Collect Pond keeps running.

(Originally posted May 1st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)

Clermont Avenue & Lafayette Avenue

10 Feb

Alright, alright, so books are great – I’m sure you understand that all by now. To quote Mark Twain, “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” And let me tell you something, this is the ideal life! This one we’re living in right now. You got another one you can compare it with? I especially like how Twain mentions the “sleepy conscience” part. That sounds just right really – it’s good to keep things loose around the edges. You keep in mind tomorrow’s gonna come no matter what, and then you’re somewhere new. And you always follow your thirst. Now sometimes that thirst gets mighty big; a lot of times that happens. And so you have to satisfy it. You know what I’m saying? I’m saying, get this man a drink!

That doesn’t mean you still don’t pay attention though. As Mr. Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen sings, “I’ve got my hands full, most of the time.” And that is pretty awesome. And it really doesn’t matter what you fill them with. I saw those guys the other night at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple. Alright, I thought ahead of time, alright, what is the story behind this place? And always more importantly: in learning that, in learning something new, what tangent and what thought dream will this send my mind upon? That’s something to look forward to.


The Temple was constructed for the Masons of Brooklyn, starting in 1907, when the cornerstone was first laid at Clermont and Lafayette Avenue – apparently as an exact replica of King Solomon’s Temple. You know, that King Solomon’s temple, the one he built in Jerusalem about 3,000 years ago, the one that was then destroyed by the Babylonians. The one in Brooklyn was constructed to great architectural reviews, for a lot of reasons that I don’t understand, including its innovative use of terra cotta columns and its color scheme. The thing is – the building hardly looks like anything remarkable today. It looks like what it is – a giant utilitarian space that serves a lot of different functions for the community. It’s still owned by the Masons’ Empire State Grand Council, and still used as their meeting space as well.

Alright, so who are the Masons? That’s not for me to say really, though honestly, I don’t think it’s as dark or mysterious as has sometimes been assumed. I do like this description though, “a system of morality veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols.” That sounds like something most humans in our neck of the world don’t have so much these days. A collective well-spring; shared images that actually signify. Masons aspire to be master builders – in the metaphorical and spiritual sense – and so King Solomon’s Temple represents to them the acme of the builder’s art. It’s what they all aspire towards. Okay sure, they share that aspiration in rooms with linoleum floors, and fluorescent lights, with coffee served in large urns – and the Shriners at least are always driving those little cars around, wearing fezzes (incidentally the full name of that sub-sect of Masonry is called the “Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine” – those dudes who drive the little cars around). But still, there’s something to be said about remembering today a temple so old it was destroyed by Babylonians. I guess religions do that kind of thing most pretty regular. Myself though, I’d take it to heart in a different fashion – to help me hold on to my sleepy conscience; to keep one bit of wakefulness upon the walking dream. This world is changing, sure, just like it did back then. The circumstances may be different, but it’s the act of changing that always stays the same. And Babylon was just a way that people thought.

(Originally posted Dec. 19th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)