Oil, Philanthropy, The Astral and Art: The Mixed Local Legacy of Charles Pratt

Pratt Institute

Perhaps there is no person in the long history of Greenpoint who had a bigger effect on our area than Charles Pratt. Pratt’s legacy, though is a mixed one: a philanthropist, Pratt felt a duty to use his wealth to give back to the community, but he is also heavily responsible for the massive local pollution that is a result of his business in oil refining. One thing though is sure, more than a hundred and twenty years after his death; Pratt’s long shadow still hangs over Greenpoint.

Pratt

Charles Pratt was born very poor in Massachusetts in 1830, one of eleven children. A true New England Yankee with a sharp eye for business, he became a clerk in a business dealing whale oil. Realizing that crude oil refining was an industry with a bright future, Pratt headed to the oil fields of Pennsylvania, which began to develop right before the Civil War.Experimenting in refining oil, Pratt succeeded in producing what he called “Pratt’s Astral Oil,” probably the best kerosene on the market.

At the end of the Civil War, Pratt headed to Greenpoint, which was already a center for the production of whale oil. Pratt became a millionaire and the richest man in Brooklyn by setting up the Astral Oil works on the banks of Bushwick Inlet in 1867. His refinery, the nation’s first modern refinery, was capable of producing tens of thousands of gallons of kerosene and other oils. It also spilled massive amounts of oil into local waters and started the destruction of the local environment. Later, John D. Rockefeller forced Pratt to sell Astral Oil and join Standard oil’s Board of Directors. Pratt soon became a multi-millionaire. Other refiners soon followed Pratt to Greenpoint with more than 50 of them lining the East River from Williamsburg to Greenpoint, replacing the declining ship building industry that had previously developed in the area.

NAG's Toxicity Map
NAG’s Toxicity Map showing Greenpoint’s pollution

Until refining came to Greenpoint, its creeks were clean enough to fish and swim in, but refining quickly killed all the life in the creeks and made Newtown Creek amongst the most polluted waterways in the world. Greenpoint today still experiences Pratt’s legacy with an estimated fourteen million gallons of oil that has seeped into the local aquifer and lurks as a huge health menace. For years, locals have had unusually high cancer rates, another dark legacy of oil refining.

We do not have any record of Pratt’s feelings about his role in local pollution, but it is clear he felt his wealth obligated him to better Greenpoint. He, was, genuinely moved by poverty and felt he wanted to do something to improve local housing. Pratt tackled what the Brooklyn Daily Eagle described as “the problem of how to live decently and economically.” When the city’s growing population spilled from Manhattan into Brooklyn, overcrowding became a local social concern, and Greenpoint quickly grew hundreds of squalid tenements.

The Astral © Greenpointers

Pratt conceived of a building that would provide attractive, wholesome apartments for working people at an affordable price. The result is the Astral Apartments building, occupying the entire block of Franklin Street between India Street and Java Street in Greenpoint, which was completed in 1887. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle fawned over the structure, 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. The profits from the apartment building, which in 1887 were expected to total $30,000, were promised to support Pratt’s other great social welfare project. The building won much praise for its amazing beauty as well as its aid to the housing crisis and today it is a landmarked building that occupies a place on the national registry of historic places.

Pratt’s gift did not end with the building. Pratt installed a library in the basement of the Astral in 1889, which the Eagle described as possessing a “an artistic and homelike air, suggestive of the cheer and comfort which may come to a wanderer on a stormy night.” Although membership was initially limited to Astral residents, the library was opened to the general public in 1890. By 1900, the library boasted a collection of 6,500 volumes.

Money from the rents Pratt collected in the Astral was used to fund his most powerful legacy: Pratt Institute. On October 6, 1887, a short, humble advertisement ran in the classifieds column of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

“Applications for enrollment in classes in mechanical and freehand drawing, designing and modeling, will be received on and after October 10. Class work will begin October 17. Circulars giving general information furnished on request. Personal interviews at office of Institute 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and 7:30 to 9 P.M.”

A little over a week later, on October 17, 1887, twelve intrigued students attended the aforementioned drawing class, and thus Pratt Institute was born.

When the college opened, it was among the first in the country to welcome students regardless of class, color, or gender. The rapidly industrializing economy at the turn of the 20th century required new training initiatives and educational experiences for workers. Pratt responded by providing programs that prepared students to enter the fields of design and engineering. Early Pratt students became architects, engineers, dressmakers, and furniture makers.

In 1891, Charles Pratt, died and his eldest son, Charles Millard Pratt, became president for the school. In 1893, Charles’ brother Frederic B. Pratt, was elected President of Pratt Institute taking over from his elder brother. Frederic Pratt is credited with transforming the institute into a unique and visionary school. By 1892, the number of students enrolled had reached 3,900. Charles Pratt Sr. Loved books and the plans for the institute’s library were dear to him. In 1896, the school opened its monumental Victorian-Renaissance Revival library with interiors designed by Tiffany. The library was available not just for students but to the general public as well. The Library was the first and only public library in Brooklyn for nearly 15 years. Additionally, the library served as a working classroom for the training of librarians and is cited as one of the first schools of Library science. The Pratt Institute Library also made available the first reading room for children in all of New York City.

By the turn of the century, The School of Science and Technology had gained fame and attracted the bulk of incoming students, but the school was not just focused on industry. Pratt also offered a large variety of courses dedicated specifically to women. Some of the 25 courses intended for women included library science, nursing, home economics, and fashion. The Clinton Hill school survived and became an anchor of stability when the neighborhood experienced many of the problems faced by inner-city areas in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, a huge number of creative people in Greenpoint are Pratt graduates.
Charles Pratt damaged Brooklyn’s environment, but also left an enduring educational and housing legacy that we can still appreciate today.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

2 Comments

  1. paul beissel says:

    True about what you wrote Geoff but you have to remember everybody did the same thing back then, ie pollute the air and water even the common citizen, except he did it more due to his business.

    Abraham Lincoln is considered by many to be the greatest leader in the modern era not only in the USA but throughout the world. Despite the fact he freed the slaves he was a technical racist.

    I think Pratt was 80% great and 20% “bad”.

    Reply
  2. Joyce Serra says:

    Nice article Geoff. I worked in the Pratt Library in the reference room while attending Pratt. A beautiful building. Loved going into the “stacks” which had glass floors and wrought iron stairs and elevator. So unique. Charles Pratt would be pleased with today’s campus – beautiful and peaceful.

    Reply

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