By Geoff Cobb

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.

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. Continue reading

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The Fascinating and Tragic History of The Wythe Hotel

The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation
The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation

The Wythe Hotel at North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue is a symbol of cool in trendy Williamsburg. The building is a combination of old and new, with a three story sleek glass tower rising out of the remnants of a 1901 industrial building. The hotel’s L-shaped rooftop bar The Ides has stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, attracting people from around the world to the 72-room boutique hotel. People use words like chic, trendy and ultra-modern in describing the building, but it has a fascinating and tragic past that stretches back to the 1890’s—and that past is still evident in today’s hotel building.

The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects
The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects

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The Story Behind Brooklyn’s Iconic Water Tanks

Courtesy of Ted McGrath on Flickr.
Via Ted McGrath on Flickr.

PARIS has its world famous Eiffel Tower. Pisa, of course has its leaning tower and London has its ancient tower. What about New York? We have towers, too, but here, they hold water.
Although the skyline of New York city has changed dramatically over the years, one element has remained constant; the city’s romantic wooden water towers, which are every bit as iconic as the Empire State building or the Chrysler Building. There are more than 10,000 water towers around the city, which feature prominently in the works of famous New York artists Like Edward Hopper and the Ash Can School.

In the 1880s, steel was transforming the New York skyline, allowing buildings to reach above five stories, but also creating a design problem. As the buildings soared upwards, water pressure could only reach the fifth floor. Taller buildings needed water for the upper floors and that’s why the water towers were built. Water towers use gravity to help create pressure in pipes on the upper floors. These wooden towers are still the water source for many of the city’s buildings, and they also contain enough water to feed the sprinklers if there’s a fire.
With demand spiking for water towers in late nineteenth century New York, Brooklyn’s large barrel making industry was perfectly positioned to build the city’s water towers. One of the firms that achieved market dominance was the Rosenwach Water Tower Company, which for decades was located in the Northside.
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The Miracle on Manhattan Avenue: Viking Fever at Lake Street

CreditBrad Rempel/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

None of the Vikings fans crowded into the bar will ever forget Sunday January 14th on Manhattan Avenue, and the football miracle that happened that day. Lake Street (706 Manhattan Ave) is a Minnesota bar, and home to local Vikings fans who take over the place every Sunday clad in purple uniforms. The Vikings were losing in the playoffs and were ten seconds away from a season ending loss. Looks of pain and anguish were visible around the room as their quarterback threw up the ball in one last desperate attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The ball flew up and a Minnesota receiver caught it. Then, miraculously the defender behind him missed a tackle allowing the Viking player to run half the field and score what was one of the most dramatic and unexpected touchdowns in football history. In a flash, local Vikings fans moods shifted from sorrow to rapture, exploding in wild ecstasy and unbridled joy.
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The Greenpointer Who Led a Prison Break from Sing-Sing

Charles Bergstrom

For years his wanted poster had hung in the Meserole Avenue Police station, but there was not a trace of Charles Bergstrom to be found. Bergstrom was wanted for being an accomplice in the worst prison break in Sing Sing history. He had become a wanted man for helping three of his buddies to break out of the maximum-security prison, and four people had lost their lives as a result of the breakout.
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A Brief History of the Puerto Ricans in Greenpoint

Members of the Assembly of God Church in 1928

Sunday, January 14th is a day of pride for the Puerto Rican community in North Brooklyn. It is the celebration of the feast of the Three Kings and there is an enthusiastic parade and celebration of Puerto Rican culture on Grand Street. In traditional Puerto Rican culture, the feast day was a day of celebration and gift giving that was actually bigger than Christmas for many Puerto Ricans. So it’s a good time to reflect on the long history of Puerto Ricans in our part of Brooklyn. Continue reading

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The Amazing Philanthropist Who Founded Williamsburg’s First Public Schools

Grahams Polley

So many of the wealthy in today’s world are both so selfish and self-interested that it’s easy to believe that rich people do not think of those who have nothing. The story of Grahams Polley, the great Williamsburg philanthropist, however, shows that wealth and concern for the poor and for public education are not mutually exclusive. Polley only lived to be thirty-four years of age, dying in a riding accident in 1860 and leaving behind a wife and ten children. His charity was legendary and left a legacy still felt today.

Polley was born in Manhattan to a poor family. He never had the chance to go to school for himself and he never learned to read or write, but he died as a bank president with a fortune of $40,000. He was determined to use his wealth for the public good and his chief interest was ensuring that all of Williamsburg’s children got educated. Continue reading

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January 9th: The Anniversary of the Great Fire that Destroyed the Domino Refinery in 1882

January 9th marks the one hundred thirty-sixth anniversary of one of the most destructive fires in North Brooklyn. On a frigid January night, the Havemeyer and Elder Refinery, which would forty years later be renamed as Domino, went up in one of the most spectacular fires the area had ever witnessed.

The refinery, the largest building in Williamsburg at the time, was nine stories high, covering an entire block on Wythe Avenue between South Third and South Fourth streets and stretching some two hundred feet in from the street to the East river shore. Having been in the sugar business for more than eighty years, the Havemeyer family knew the danger that fires often broke out in sugar refineries. The presence of steam, thousands of moving parts that could cause sparks in the refinery and the highly flammable sugar all made fire a grave risk. For a quarter century they had refined huge amounts of sugar without incident, but their luck would run out that January day.
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A 1910 Greenpoint Love Triangle: The Bride and Her Two Grooms

I am a high school teacher and historian—an expert in love and romance, I certainly am not, but I have heard from some local women looking to start a family that nowadays it is hard to find men who are serious about marriage. My local history research, however, shows me that this was not always the case for local girls. At least, it was not a problem in 1910 for Mary Dewey of 128 Guernsey Street who seemed to have the opposite problem. She had two men who wanted to marry her, but could only marry one. Continue reading

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A Short History of Noble Street

House on Noble Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe
A charming green house on Noble Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

Noble Street is one of the shorter streets in Greenpoint, but though just two blocks long it still is one of the prettiest streets in our area. The folks on Noble Street have to my knowledge (please correct me if I am wrong) the only block association in the area and the association is fighting to keep Noble Street just as pretty as it has always been.

The people on the block have come together to win some important victories in the battle to keep the street the perfect block to raise a family. Noble Street dates back to 1852 when it was opened off Franklin. It was named for James Noble, an early land owner in Williamsburg who owned an important coal yard. Continue reading

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