If I had to pick one house in Greenpoint to set a horror movie in it would be the big old house set back off the street at the corner of Oak and Guernsey streets. The red brick facade, spooky wooden double doors, cast iron railings at the building’s entrance, as well as the iron fence and gate at lawn’s edge all are original, dating to the house’s construction in 1887.
The house has a fascinating history and it is connected to an equally fascinating man who had the presidency of the United States stolen from him in 1876: Samuel Tilden. Tilden is probably one of the people who gets the least credit for making Greenpoint great. Tilden was an absolutely brilliant corporate lawyer who knew a good investment when he saw one. He bought a huge piece of land before the Civil War in Greenpoint that covered an area from Calyer Street to Milton and east to Leonard Street, including the land that St. Anthony’s church now sits on. Tilden did a lot for our state. He broke the corrupt Boss Tweed ring and helped write our state Constitution. In 1876 he really should have been elected president, but lost when his party, the Democrats, cut a dirty back room deal that ended reconstruction and sold him out.
Tilden was an extremely charitable man. He made millions and donated a lot of the money he made. He gave a huge gift that helped start our library system. His elegant home on Gramercy Park became the National Arts Club and he sold land at under market value to allow St. Anthony of Padua to build its church on Manhattan Avenue.
Tilden made a lot of money selling off his land in Greenpoint and felt that he had to give back to the community. In the late 1880s, Tilden hired the great German-American architect Theobald Engelhart to build a home for local indigent women at 137 Oak St. I’m a huge Engelhart fan because he built a lot of great other local buildings including the beautiful beaux arts bank on the corner of Franklin and Greenpoint and the beautiful Lutheran Church on Milton.
In the 19th century many older women ended up in poverty if their husbands died or if they did not have children. Realizing that older women were often poor, Tilden donated the building to Greenpoint in 1887. My friend, Gina Sheehan, remembers as a girl when the house still functioned for indigent women. She recalls that there was a real sense of sisterhood amongst the old ladies and described to me the communal effort of the ladies cooking together.
Today it’s a single occupancy residence building and the old women are long gone, but the house has changed little from the days when it was a haven for poor elderly women.
*This post was originally published on May 17, 2016.