Charles Pratt was the richest man in Brooklyn in the 1880s, but his conscience was bothering him. The founder of Astral Oil Works, the first modern oil refinery in the United States on the shores of Bushwick Creek, Pratt grew very rich by joining forces with John. D Rockefeller and sitting on the board of the country’s richest company—Standard Oil. But Pratt, a devout Baptist, had grown up poor in New England, and he felt he owed a debt to his workers and to Greenpoint. Aware that many of his workers and many other factory workers lived in squalid, crowded local tenements, Pratt decided to commission a model apartment house that would not only house his workers, but also show the world the definitive example of workers housing. Pratt addressed what The Brooklyn Daily Eagle described in 1886 as, “the problem of how to live decently and economically.” As local overcrowding became a serious issue, our area needed a better solution than squalid tenements. Influenced by philanthropists like London housing benefactor George Peabody, Pratt conceived of a building that would provide attractive, wholesome apartments for working people at an affordable price.
The result is a neighborhood gem and a place listed on the National Register of Historic Places due to its innovative design and stately façade. The Astral Apartments building, occupying the entire block of Franklin Street between India Street and Java Street in Greenpoint, was completed in 1887. Designed in the Queen Anne style by New York architects Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonso Rich of the architecture firm Lamb & Rich, the elegant building is constructed of terra cotta, brick and stone. The Queen Anne style uses wall surfaces as the main decorative element, attracting the viewer by varying the facade’s depth and texture. The Astral’s façade is fascinating with its huge arched entrances, ornate details, and varied textures. It is every bit as elegant as Lamb and Rich’s other iconic structures: Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill and the main building at Pratt Institute.
The Eagle raved about the Astral, declaring it, “the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world.” An advertisement from that year promised three-to-five-room apartments with hot and cold water, bathrooms, natural light, and ventilation. Profits from the apartment building, which in 1887 were expected to total $30,000, were intended to support Pratt’s other new project, Pratt Institute—a school that would teach Brooklyn’s workers marketable job skills.
The building provided amenities few workers could dream of in the 1880s. The apartments had an abundance of light and air, private halls, and hot-water boiler. Each toilet had its own window and another flue for ventilation. Each tenant had his or her own coal and wood-burning bin in the cellar, and a portion of the roof for drying clothes. Plumbing in The Astral was carefully designed to supply water to every tenant at all times. The affordable rents varied from $12 to $30 per month, giving workers a spacious, cheap comfortable home. There was even a library and a settlement house to teach the tenants how better to adapt to life in Brooklyn. It was a dream to live in at the time, but times changed.
The apartments today are a far cry from the pinnacle of perfection that The Daily Eagle once described. The structure has not been well maintained, with water damage having been reported by residents. Mold has been an issue in many apartments. The building became such a metaphor for dilapidation that Kate Christensen set her novel The Astral about a relationship falling apart there. In the mid-2000s, the superintendent was accused of running an amateur softcore pornography photo studio out of his apartment. A bedbug explosion and thriving rat population have been reported over the years. It is a shame when historic buildings are managed so poorly. The Astral could be brought back to its former glory, but it’s an expensive proposition and one that the present management does not seem very committed to.