For anyone interested in exploring the history of Brooklyn, The Wooden House Project offers fantastic tours for lovers of Brooklyn’s wood-frame row houses. The walking tour I took through the streets of Greenpoint was an hour and a half long and was led by Elizabeth Finkelstein and Chelcey Berryhill.
Although it started raining when we arrived we were lucky in that it wasn’t a torrential down pour and turned out to be a very pleasant walk. Having been born and raised in Park Slope, I always had an appreciation for old architecture and brownstones. Now that I call Greenpoint my new home I was more than happy to learn what Elizabeth and Chelcey had to offer about its past.
Greenpoint, originally home to Keshaechqueren Indians, was purchased by the Dutch in 1638. During the 18th century it was a lush farmland that turned into an industrial town supporting shipbuilding and waterborne commerce, printing, pottery, glass works and foundries. We began by exploring Greenpoint’s then-thriving maritime industry where wooden houses were made specifically for the workers.
The Pencil Factory was originally built in 1872 for the Eberhard Faber pencil company and thrived throughout the 19th century.
The company had porcelain pencils designed onto the facades of one building on Greenpoint Ave and Franklin Street, above Lulu’s, as well as their emblem stars which can be found on other buildings close by.
One building is currently used by artists and a few businesses while the other buildings were bought and made into apartments such as 122 West Street.
Another interesting building that we surveyed was 67 West Street. One of the rare examples of sidewalks which are literally made out of wooden bricks, 67 West street has a strange appearance due to it’s having survived a horrific fire about seven years ago.
67 West street used to be a huge Rope Factory and is now used by musicians, artists, office workers, and art galleries.
Elizabeth and Chelcey provided us with some interesting stories about the settlers and their families.
Dirck Volckertsen, better known as “Dirck the Norman,” came into possession of Greenpoint in the 17th century, he was a Scandinavian ship carpenter who sailed the sea. The creek which ran by his farmhouse and emptied into a great salt marsh to the East became known as Norman Creek. Norman Creek has since been filled in, but the present day Norman Avenue still remains as a testament to Dirck and his family. After his death, his children sold the land and manifested their destinies throughout Brooklyn and New Jersey.
An interesting article dug up from 1915 mentions a certain house on Meeker Avenue in Greenpoint:
“The only house still remaining as a relic of the first settlers in Green Point may be found at Meeker Avenue adjoining Newtown creek. Some modern touches have been added to it during the almost two and one-half centuries it has stood, but it is still a good example of one type of the Dutch farmhouse of the time of Pieter Praa. It was built by Joost Durie (George Duryea), a Huguenot who came from Holland to America and settled in New Utrecht. Later, about 1681, he removed to the disputed land between Bushwick and Newtown and erected this house. Here the Duryea family lived for over a century. The house then passed into the hands of Josiah Blackwell, for whom Blackwell’s Island is named, and finally became the possession of William Bleser.” – William L. Felter, p.19, Historic Green Point, 1915.
The exact location of this Dutch house is unknown, but according to a 1970 article by The Helm, Louis W. Bleser, was the grandchild of William Bleser, and a Master Mason who grew up in this very house.
As the tour progressed, the stories got more interesting. We learned about the five families of Greenpoint, who are all lineal descendants of Captain Peiter Praa, who left no son to carry on his name, but four daughters who played huge roles in Greenpoint’s business and politics.
These four daughters were Elizabeth, who married Jan Meserole, Maria, who married Wyant Can Zandt, Christina who married David Provoost, and Anneti who married William Bennet. The Rite Aid at 723 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, used to be the location of the Meserole family’s farmhouse, but in the 1920’s it was turned into a movie theater. Maybe that can explain the cow skulls decorating the facade of the building.
With the influx of immigrants in the late 19th century, wooden houses took up too much land which led to the development of tenement apartments.
As well as the public bath house that was built in 1903, but closed down in the 60’s.
We continued our walk on Noble Street, stopping to admire the exterior of the wooden houses. Aluminum siding was applied onto some of these homes in the 1880’s and has since been restored. The 109 Noble St. house below was built in 1856.
Another staple of Greenpoint’s neighborhood are the playful shingles on many homes, some that were added on in the 1880’s and have since then been restored. The shingles are shaped fish-tailed, saw-toothed, or flat-edged, and their decorative designs side by side are constant eye candy when you are taking a walk towards Manhattan Ave.
In 1776, 1835, and 1845 a number of fires in Manhattan caused by wooden houses devastated hundreds of buildings and led to the establishment of building codes that banned the construction of any new wood-frame buildings. The ban was effective for Brooklyn towards the mid to late 19th century.
Owning, renting, or knowing anyone who lives in a wooden house is a rare thing indeed. There are so little of them left amid the new developments of condos with their modern and minimalist architecture.
There are some wooden houses that are so bare that you can almost see their skeleton.
We were also accompanied by Harold Weidman and his father, William.
William was the man who used his life savings to restore the Keramos Hall, located directly across the street from Saint Anthony of Padua Church. His reason for the restoration: “I did it because frankly I just wanted something nice, I wanted to bring it back to life.” For those curious about learning more about William, there is a great interview here.
As we continued on our walk, one little house stood out the most because it had colonnades, now covered up with aluminum.
Elizabeth also showed us a picture of Humboldt Street when it was a colonnade row.
Another beauty was the house next to Greenpoint Yoga. We wondered whether there was a Southern inspiration to the architect’s plan.
The tour was a great experience, Elizabeth and Chelcey were experts and very enthusiastic about the wooden row houses and the stories they tell.
For more information about these tours please visit The Wooden House Project.