Thomas Rowland, local millionaire and builder of the USS Monitor

In a previous post I reported that there was an application to demolish 85 Calyer Street, the historic home of the builder of the first ironclad battleship in the United States Navy, the USS Monitor. The situation looks bleak and the historic house seems doomed. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov, has received an approval to have the historic building demolished. Although the building is rich with local history, the building is not protected by landmark status, so little can be done to save the historic structure.

Sadly, the previous owner of 85 Calyer Street, a man named Tommy, not only knew the history of the house, but even expressed pride in owning this piece of local history. Once, when I was giving a historic walking tour he approached the group and showed us some of his historic photos of the house when Rowland owned it. The house once had a grand entrance for carriages and an elegant facade that has since been covered over with drab vinyl. The owner also told me of a kind of bunker in the back garden that might have been used to help smuggle booze into the area from the nearby Noble Street pier during the prohibition era.

Rowland’s blueprints for the monitor

The house will be replaced by two townhouses, and demolition will begin as soon as permits are issued for the new structures. It seems that there is little neighbors can do to save this historic home, which is perhaps the only extant building we know which John Ericsson visited. Rowland and Ericsson built the revolutionary ship in a miraculous 101 days and the house was just around the corner from Rowland’s Continental Iron Works, which once stood on Quay Street. The iron works lasted until the early 1930s, when it was tragically demolished. A local couple is trying to create a Monitor museum, not far from the works and the doomed house. The museum would be a huge tourist draw, as would a restored Rowland home, but the museum project has serious funding issues and its construction anytime in the near future is highly unlikely.

Rowland was also unusual for his time by giving African-Americans job opportunities. A millionaire, Rowland became a demanding gourmet who insisted his African-American butler, a man named John McKeal, prepare elaborate dishes for him, and McKeal rose to a high level of culinary excellence that Rowland demanded. McKeal later left Rowland’s service, and despite the pronounced racial prejudice of late 19th century Greenpoint, became the foremost local caterer for decades, renowned for his food and complete attention to every detail. McKeal overcame huge amounts of prejudice and grew wealthy from his catering business. McKeal was actually one of the richest local businessmen and for many years a respected local figure. McKeal thanked Rowland for his success in an article he wrote at the end of his life.

All this history though will soon be lost if nothing is done to stop the demolition.

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  1. This house was “lost” years ago. Clearly nothing left to preserve at this point. Only an ugly vinyl clad box remains. Your piece was informative and fun to read but your efforts at preservation are better directed towards buildings which can still be saved.

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