Historical Greenpoint

Williamsburgs’ Enchanted Fillmore Place and the Author Who Immortalized the Street

 

The Henry miller House at 662 Driggs Avenue (Google Maps)

Thanks in large part to the writings of celebrated author Henry Miller and the stately Italianate houses on the street, Fillmore Place were landmarked in 2009 and will forever preserve the charm that enthralled the young Miller, who first saw it as a child in the late 1890s. The atmosphere of late 19th century Williamsburg is rtetained on the street in an area that rapidly gentrified over the past decade and lost much of its history: Fillmore Place is a gem and a throwback to an earlier era of local history. Gazing upon the austere brick facades of the old row houses on the south side of Fillmore Place, it is easy to imagine Williamsburg before the bridge and why Miller loved the neighborhood so strongly.

In the 1840s two merchant tailors could see that Williamsburg was prime real estate ripe for development. In 1846, Connecticut-born businessmen Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller began acquiring parcels of land on the block bounded by Grand Street, Roebling Street, N. 2nd Street (renamed Metropolitan Avenue), and 5th Street ( Now Driggs Avenue). They purchased 12 lots from one owner and Clock and Miller also acquired three more lots from another landowner in 1847. Finally, they added a small strip of the David Van Cott farmstead in 1848. Now owning a contiguous parcel of developable land, Clock and Miller then hired a surveyor in 1850 to lay out a new, more regularized set of city lots on the property. The cumbersome dimensions of the block—each frontage was over 300 feet in length—also lead the pair to cut a narrow road through the middle of their development, which they named Fillmore Street (soon renamed Fillmore Place), after the president of the United States at the time Millard Fillmore.

Photo courtesy of New York City Landmarks Preservation Report.

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Heavy Metal: North Brooklyn’s Rich History of Casting Metals

Brooklyn ironworkers (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle 05/20/1911)

There are few regions of New York City that can match North Brooklyn for its history of metal casting. Many of New York’s most iconic pieces of cast iron, steel and bronze were cast locally. Metal casting was one of the five black arts that shaped North Brooklyn’s industrial era. These black arts also included oil refining, porcelain making, paper production and glass blowing. Even today local foundries continue to create different kinds of metal objects locally. Sadly, even local history enthusiasts do not know the major achievements of local metal fabrication. It is a proud history our area should reclaim.

Most people can identify one of Greenpoint’s most famous metal objects: the ironclad battleship, the United States Ship Monitor, which was built in an amazing 101 days at the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street. The ships’ thick iron turret repelled cannon shots and saved the union in the battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. What you might not know is that many other monitor type ships were also built there and during the Civil War 1,500 men worked around the clock building these iron battleships, but there were many other local non-military achievements in metal.

The Brooklyn Bridge also used the work of local foundries. The bridge architects designed huge caissons, massive iron boxes built by a local firm. John Roebling, the bridge’s architect, designed them in 1868, giving the demanding contract to the shipbuilding firm Webb and Bell, located at the foot of Milton Street. Building these massive objects itself was a daunting engineering feat. Nothing like them had ever been built before. There was one for each bridge tower and each weighed an amazing 3,000 tons, larger than any object ever sunk into the ground before. The caissons were 168 feet long and 103 feet wide, an area covering half a city block. Each contained 110, 000 cubic feet of timber and 250 feet of iron with iron walls and a ceiling six feet thick.

Webb and Bell insisted on being paid $100, 000 in advance for the complicated task of building them. To dig inside the caissons workers needed air and the caissons were built with a revolutionary new technology: airlocks made of one-half inch boilerplates, seven feet by six and a half inches in diameter. Due to their enormous size, the massive caissons had to be built in parts and then welded together at the foot of the bridge.

Finally, in May 1870 the caissons were ready to be pulled down the river by two tugboats. They hoped to float them down the river, but launching such heavy objects into the East River was a major engineering problem. Webb and Bell had to build seven launch ways so that these massive objects could reach the river. Thousands of Greenpointers turned out to witness their launch into the river. Huge cheers arose from the throngs assembled along the East River as the caissons hit the water and did not sink. They were then towed the five miles down the East River to the bridge construction site.

The Hecla Iron Works

Some Greenpointers might also be surprised that some of the city’s most beautiful cast iron facades in were also cast locally. The Hecla Architectural Iron Works occupied 35 city lots located between N. 10th Street and N. 12th Street between Wythe Avenue and Berry Street and employed 1,000 workers in its various departments. Founded by two Scandinavian immigrants, Niels Poulson of Denmark and Charles Eger from Norway, the firm has become legendary for its graceful creations

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A Stroll Down Historic Guernsey Street

Guernsey Street in Greenpoint

Perhaps other blocks in Greenpoint have more elegant houses or more imposing churches, but no block has more beautiful trees than Guernsey Street, which runs parallel to the river between McCarren Park, on its southern end, and Oak Street at its northern tip. The block between Meserole and Norman Avenues has the most dramatic tree canopy in our area. The street is towered over by forest-scaled locust trees that create a leafy roof – a delightful respite from the blazing sun on steamy summer days.

The area was once home to the Meserole orchard, where fruit trees thrived in the rich wet soil that has also allowed these atmospheric locusts to create a tunnel of leaves, whose shade makes entering the block feel like stepping indoors from outdoors. The green ceiling of the locusts alters the light and tricks you into believing that you have stepped indoors. The west side of the street in particular, with its high flat brick buildings, creates the perfect backdrop for the magic of the subdued light, which gives the block its surreal, indoor quality.

In March of 2003, a New York Times reporter filed a story on the residents of the street and perfectly captured the block’s unique verdant beauty:

“In a landscape of warehouses and factories, this block of Brooklyn seems to appear out of nowhere like a magical wood in a fairytale. Graceful 19th-century apartment buildings, some with bay windows are guarded by towering honey locust trees that in a few weeks will form a lush green canopy.”

The trees are so atmospheric that it is hard to imagine that they were not always there, but people who grew up in the 1960s on the block and returned decades later are often shocked by the change the locusts have made. Artist Tim Doyle perfectly captured the feel of the green shade trees in the painting below:

(Tim Doyle)

The Times correspondent also called Guernsey Street “the archetypical American block,” but I disagree because there is nothing else locally quite like it and the street also has a unique history. The Southside of the street was a for many years open land, known to locals as “Paddy Floods lots.” The Eckford baseball team practiced there for a time before the Civil War, but the area’s development forced them out. When Grover Cleveland ran for president, his likeness was outlined in fireworks and ignited, much to the delight of local Democrats. A trestle once ran from these lots to the Southside, but it was long ago demolished. Around the 1920s, tawdry clapboard wood-frame four-story apartments were built, their flimsiness standing in marked contrast to the solid brick structures just across the street.

Image from Corcoran.com

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A Stroll Down Historic Calyer Street

The houses at Calyer Street and Clifford Place (Google Maps)

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. Continue reading

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Elections Are Tomorrow (11/6), It’s Time to Vote

(Courtesy of Brett Nielson)

It’s time to study up on your ballot options, find your poll site and vote tomorrow (11/6) in what is regarded as one of the most consequential midterm elections in history. Our traditionally blue state registered 108,801 Democrats and 5,077 Republicans between Nov. 1, 2017 and Nov. 1, 2018; the youth vote is also expected to increase, unlike recent midterm elections.

Here’s a rundown on the federal and state candidates, and the three local ballot initiatives.

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North Brooklyn’s ‘Splendid Legacy’ in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Metropolitan Museum of Art: Splendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection

Few people realize that many of the greatest pieces of art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s amazing collection were purchased with sugar money that was made right here in North Brooklyn. For decades, North Brooklyn was the largest sugar refining region on planet earth and hundreds of millions of dollars were made in its dozen or so refineries that once lined the banks of the East River. Simply put, local sugar production funded the purchase of many of the greatest works of art in the Met, and without Brooklyn sugar money the museum never would have become one of the greatest art collections in the world. Continue reading

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The Surprising Artistic History of Green Street

Appearances can be deceiving, especially on Green Street. It is hard to imagine that this stereotypical Greenpoint street, with its many wood frame houses and former factories ever contributed to American art, but art created on Green Street is on display in some of the major American museums.

Green Street and Manhattan Avenue circa 1929

At the East end of Greenpoint, 275 Green St. was home to the Roman Bronze Works until it was destroyed by fire in the 1920’s. The founder of the works created America’s only art foundry that employed the lost wax technique, and many of America’s most iconic bronze sculptures were cast there.

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Do the Time Warp: When Slow Commutes Made Greenpoint Feel Like a “Municipal Step-Child”

Trolley tracks at the corner of Bedford and Manhattan Avenues, 1928. Via the New York Transit Museum

Welcome to our  final installment of “Do the Time Warp,” when we check in with life in Greenpoint 100 years ago. In our previous two sections, we visited Greenpoint circa 1919, and saw how the ‘nabe was one of the nation’s largest manufacturing centers, with a real estate market booming as fast as its factories.

But, despite the frenetic pace of development in Greenpoint 100 years ago, our slice of North Brooklyn remained isolated from the rest of the city, and was chafing under what it saw as “municipal neglect.”

In 1919, Greenpoint saw itself as a “municipal step-child,” “overlooked entirely in any scheme of transit development,” and at a steep disadvantage to its “sister community,” Long Island City, which boasted “two subways and a bridge, with several lines of railroad.” At the time, Greenpoint had none of those things, and was much aggrieved at “its only connection with the outside world being slow-moving trolley cars.”

The injustice did not end there: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle cried, “The whole district is suffering…under a handicap in that it is not directly connected by an all-rail line with the trunk railroad lines of the continent, and there are not railroad or steamship terminals within its borders.  The raw materials for most of the factories have to be trucked to and from the railroad and steamship terminals in Williamsburg, in Long Island City, or in some cases as far as the Bush Terminal, in South Brooklyn.”  Continue reading

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Do The Time Warp: Greenpoint Real Estate, Circa 1919

Rendering of the Astral; Courtesy of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings
Rendering of the Astral; Courtesy of the Brooklyn Department of Buildings

In 1919, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle devoted some glowing coverage to Greenpoint, calling our slice of North Brooklyn “the first manufacturing center of the Empire State,” where “the smokestack is as sacred as the steeple,” and “public spirit…is not surpassed in any district in the City of New York.”

Our intrepid content manager, Megan, found the article earlier this week, and we thought the paper gave such a detailed view of life in Greenpoint 100 years ago, we’d do a series on life in the ‘nabe back in the day.

So, Welcome to our first installment of Do The Time Warp, when we look back on life in Greenpoint 100 years ago. In today’s post, we’ll check out Greenpoint’s housing market circa 1919, and delve into what life was like for people who lived here.

It seems that some of the same advantages that draw New Yorkers to Greenpoint today, exerted a similar pull 100 years ago. For example, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that “the close proximity of this district to the center of business life in Manhattan has been fully recognized by the far-seeing manufacturers of the metropolis,” and by homeowners alike.

In fact, homeownership was common in Greenpoint. The paper maintains, “Housing conditions have been remarkably good, and despite the fact that Greenpoint is generally known as a manufacturing district, a large percentage of the dwellings are owned by persons who live on the premises and are employed in or near Greenpoint.” Happily, this seems to have kept Greenpoint “particularly free from that class of undesirable citizens known as ‘rent profiteers’.”  Continue reading

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McCarren Pool Opens Tomorrow 6/27 + Here’s What it Looked Like in 2006

McCarren Pool Party, 2006. Photo: Megan Penmann
New condo construction looms in the background at this McCarren Pool Party, 2006. Photo: Megan Penmann

Splish splash, folks: McCarren Pool opens for the season tomorrow, Wednesday June 27th! Check this previous post for the pool rules and things you should know before you go.

If you are old enough and have lived in the ‘nabe long enough you might remember when McCarren Pool was a graffiti-ridden shell of its fully restored and aqueous splendor. From the 1980s through 2012 the pool sat vacant, unused with paint peeling. Those who lived in the neighborhood in the late 90s during the proto-hipster era might remember breaking into the pool to hang out and drink beers, light bottle rockets or do low-budget photo shoots. Then came the McCarren Pool Parties in the mid 2000s, presented by the now defunct party promotions company JellyNYC. The pool parties opened up the empty pool as a summertime venue, a low-budget outdoor hipster playground—complete with a slip n’ slide, ice cream man, dodgeball and a stage for bands to play. Continue reading

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