Looking for a great local trivia question? Which two men associated with Greenpoint ran for president of the United States? The answer: Samuel Tilden who was cheated in the election of 1876 and Charles Evans Hughes, who lived on Milton Street, who lost in 1916.
If you are a Brooklynite you might have heard of Tilden High School, but few people know anything about this important figure in local and state history. Although he is a forgotten figure today, few men did more to help New York State. Tilden was first elected to the New York State Assembly in 1846, and few legislators in state history did more good. He used his position to expose corruption in state government, most notably through the impeachment of New York State Supreme Court Justices George G. Barnard, Albert Cardozo, and John H. McCunn.
His exposure of corruption within the U.S. Customs House was soon overshadowed by his most famous political achievement: the exposure and prosecution of the Tweed Ring, led by William M. “Boss” Tweed whose name lives down through the ages as a symbol of Tammany Hall Corruption. Tweed introduced a new city charter, which would further consolidate his corrupt hold on power, but Tilden, as chairman of the Democratic State Committee, denounced him and began a pitched battle to disable the Ring and end Tweed’s corrupt practices. Tilden’s successful prosecution of the Tweed Ring paved the way for his election as Governor in 1874. Two years later, Tilden became the Democratic nominee for president and probably won the election, but his own party sold him out in the corrupt bargain of 1876 that ended Reconstruction.
In the 1850s Tilden became one of the most successful corporate lawyers in America and a rich man. He also invested in Greenpoint real estate. The piece of land Tilden bought covered an area from Oak Street to Noble Street and ran from the river to Leonard Street. Tilden helped Greenpoint and increased the value of his real estate through his efforts in Albany supporting the bill allowing Neziah Bliss to open a ferry to Manhattan.
Tilden sold off his holdings piece by piece in the 1870s and he must have profited massively from these sales. He sold a piece at the top of Milton Street to Thomas Smith, the millionaire ceramicist whose home became the Greenpoint Reformed Church.
However, today we remember Tilden more for his charity than for his wealth. He was one of the founders of the New York Public Library System, but his charity had many positive local effects too. He believed that Greenpoint should have churches. He gave a cut-rate price to the congregation of the Noble Street Baptist Church (known as Union Baptist Church), allowing them in 1860 to build their landmarked red brick home. He also owned the land on which St. Anthony of Padua sits. Although not a Catholic himself, he gave Bishop Loughlin a sweetheart deal, charging the church for only one of five lots they purchased on Manhattan Avenue and Leonard Street. The stately church was built in 1874.
His one enduring personal gift to Greenpoint is the landmarked Greenpoint Home for Indigent Women on the corner of Oak Street and Guernsey. In the late 1880s, he hired the great German-American architect Theobald Engelhart to build a home for local indigent women at 137 Oak Street on land that he owned. In the days before social security, many widows, spinsters or childless women ended their days in poverty. Eventually, the home became an S.R.O and it’s privately owned today, but remains one of its most unique structures.
Hopefully, those who become wealthy in the future will take an example from Tilden’s great charity. It would be nice if those building the great towers along the Greenpoint waterfront would follow Tilden’s generous example and also help the community.