Tag Archives: Vanderbilt 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.)

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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.

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Vanderbilt Avenue & Sterling Place

15 May

All right, it’s time to start talking about someone other than the rich folks for a change. But man, it can be hard; I seem especially drawn toward corners distinguished by large landmarks, ornately designed and realized — material wealth made flesh, or stone at least. Old mansions, skyscrapers, fancy apartment buildings. What can I say? I’m a classy guy, with a reserved and undemanding disposition and a fine, peppery after-taste.  A nice mellow finish. You might also pick up on some subtle notes of blueberry, lemon peel, and tar. I go very well with most Italian foods, goldfish, and egg salad. Or anytime you wanna get the gang together and just have a little fun!

Oh boy. So what else is there to look at in this city? Do I really need to ask that question? The other day I passed by the old Public School 9 Annex, on Vanderbilt Avenue and Sterling Place in Prospect Heights. It’s across the street from the original Public School 9, which is now Intermediate School 340. They’re both beautiful buildings, although it’s the Annex that particularly catches the eye. P.S. 9 goes back to 1868, finished before Prospect Park was completed, and just a few years after horse-drawn streetcars had opened up the neighborhood to urban (or suburban) development. Population growth was enough to warrant additions built in 1887, and by 1895 the overcrowding necessitated an entirely new building, the Annex, to be constructed across the street. P.S. 9 was designed in a Romanesque Revival style and the Annex kept along in that same vein, although more spectacularly. Apparently by 1895 Romanesque Revival, used throughout Brooklyn in the decades before, had become a bit unfashionable and out of date. I’m glad they stuck with it though. This is one of the prettiest old school buildings in all of New York.

The “they,” specifically, who stuck with it was James W. Naughton, the Superintendent of Buildings and Repairs for the Brooklyn Board of Education from 1879 to 1898. He was responsible for the design of all of Brooklyn’s public schools during that time period, and a large number of them are landmarked sites today. His predecessor, and the designer of P.S. 9, was Samuel B. Leonard, who had served in the post since its creation in 1859.  A lot of his designs still stand as well, including P.S. 34 in Greenpoint, on Norman Avenue, one of the oldest public schools still in use in the city today.  Both men were the only two to ever hold the title of Superintendent of Buildings.  James Naughton’s death in 1898 coincided with the annexation of Brooklyn by New York, at which point the Board was subsumed into the much larger New York City municipal government.

The city of Brooklyn was one of the earliest in the United States to start organized public education, beginning in 1816.  By the time it became a part of New York it was amongst the most extensive school systems in the country.  Now sure, I’m a fan of all things Brooklyn, but doesn’t that seem appropriate?  I mean it was Brooklyn, or New York in general, that invented public living, right?  Though that’s not quite it; public living – a social community inhabiting the same physical space – is humankind’s initial social paradigm.  I should say Brooklyn carried on the torch for public living, as most of the rest of America perhaps moved away from it.  You know what I’m saying?  You gotta live it right out on the streets in this burg, cause where else is it gonna happen?  Your business is everybody’s business, whether you want it to be or not, and vice versa — there’s no lawns and driveways separating us.  And that’s exactly how it should be.  If nothing else, New Yorkers are familiar; that’s where all the other stereotypes about their attitudes come out of.

Myself, the only reason I was even in this neighborhood was because I’d come down to wash my friend’s dishes, at a fee of $20 an hour, pro-rated, with a meal included equal to at least $6 in value.  Now how’s that for making the private space public?  It worked out pretty well.  The meal was good sushi, although I also had to empty out the garbage afterwards.  No biggie.  I think he asked me not to tell his girlfriend about it though.  Well sorry sucker!  This is Brooklyn, ya heard?

(Originally posted May 29th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)