A Stroll Down Historic Calyer Street
Calyer Street has one of the most beautiful groups of landmark row houses in Greenpoint, where Calyer Street meets Clifford Place. These five Neo-Greek brick houses were built between 1879 and 1880. The quaint landmark houses seem to have jumped straight out of the Edward Hopper painting Sunday Morning. These houses delude you into thinking that Calyer Street is frozen in time—but change is coming quickly to Greenpoint, even to historic Calyer Street.
Perhaps no street is more historic than Calyer Street. The history of the street even predates its official opening, going all the way back to 1645 when the first European home in Greenpoint was built by Norwegian immigrant Dirck Volckerstzen 100 feet from where Calyer and Franklin meet. The house was built on a knoll, but was burned by the Native Americans in 1655 and rebuilt after the conflict had ended. The house and the hill it stood on were leveled to provide landfill for shipyards in the 1850s.
Calyer Street takes its name from the second resident of Volcekertszen’s house, Jacobus Calyer, a veteran of the battle of Brooklyn in the revolution, whose farm was carved in 1852 for the street’s construction. Thomas Rowland, the owner of 85 Calyer Street made history in 1861 by building a revolutionary battleship, the Monitor, which saved the Union during the Civil War. The designer of the ship, John Ericsson lived in a rooming house on Calyer Street and went each day to 85 Calyer St. to meet with Rowland and check on the ship’s construction. Sadly, Rowland’s house was recently demolished and with it went a huge piece of local history. A Monitor museum is planned near the East River at Quay Street.
Most of the houses on Calyer between Franklin and Manhattan were built between 1865 and 1880, giving this part of the street a historic feel. 156 and 159 Calyer St. have attractive Queen Anne style shingles, a decorative feature found on many historic Greenpoint houses.
Calyer’s street’s antique bar, the Capri Social Club, once known as Murphy’s, further adds to Calyer Street’s timeless aura. The dark mahogany woodwork, ancient mirrors and antique fixtures have survived unscathed for decades. Sitting at the bar and admiring its antique features, it’s not hard to imagine 1880s Brooklyn. Many films and television programs have been shot in the historic bar.
At the corner of Calyer and Manhattan Avenue, was one of the area’s most beautiful buildings, but sadly it has been demolished. The 1673-seat Greenpoint Theatre opened on October 10, 1908, as one of the first large vaudeville palaces in Brooklyn to be located outside of downtown Brooklyn. The Greenpoint was designed by architect William McElPatrick to awe patrons with its majestic appearance. The auditorium was breathtaking, with ceiling murals and a grand arch, suggestive of a European opera. Starting at the ground floor, there were three levels of boxed seats on the sides of the stage and it also had two balconies. In 1912, the Greenpoint was sold to Keith’s, a string of Vaudeville theaters.
Sometime around 1912, Greenpoint’s most famous incident of attempted censorship took place when the famous Eva Tanguay, the Lady Gaga of her day, tried to perform at Keith’s. Notorious as the “I Don’t Care Girl”—the title of her signature song—Tanguay established herself as the queen of Vaudeville in 1901 with the New York City premiere of her controversial show “My Lady.” Tanguay was brazen, impudent, and shameless in the eyes of the Prudish. Some of her hit songs like “It’s all been done Before But Not the Way I Do It” and “Go As Far As You Like” boldly suggested illicit pleasures. She wore a shockingly revealing dress made entirely of pennies and filled her act with racy double entendres. The pastor of St. Antony of Padua Fr. O’Hare, learning that Tanguay was set to appear on stage, appeared and drove her from the stage, but the next night Tanguay reappeared, taunting Fr. O’Hare by changing the words to her hit song singing,
“ Father O’ Hare I don’t care.”
It is quite possible that a talented young local girl, Mae West, saw the Tanguay performance and incorporated many of the elements of Tanguay’s stage persona and act into her own provocative routine. It is also probable that West herself appeared as a child actor on the stage of the Greenpoint Theater. In 1927, the first talkie movie ran and Vaudeville was doomed. Eventually, the Greenpoint became an RKO movie house. As the RKO Greenpoint, it played double features that were first-run for the neighborhood.
Like almost every other street in Greenpoint, condos are being created on Calyer Street. A former bank office near the corner of the intersection with Lorimer Street is being transformed into condominiums. The former site of the Otom gym on the north side of the street is slated to become a six-story condominium building as well. On the south side of Calyer just off Manhattan Avenue sits a bank of old-time light poles that date from the 1940s. The historic poles have somehow survived on a street where so much history has been made.