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.
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
With all of the praise surrounding Lin-Manuel Miranda’s extraordinary musical, “Hamilton,” it is not surprising that the man who killed him, the villain Aaron Burr, has also enjoyed something of a revival. If you even half paid attention in American history, then you probably know that Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, his shot ending Hamilton’s brilliant career. Burr and Hamilton rowed across the Hudson River to Weehawken, New Jersey, where on July 11, 1804 the fatal encounter took place.
Burr, however, later in his life would also ferry across the East River, not to satisfy his aggrieved sense of honor, but to court a comely young Greenpoint woman, even though Burr was old enough to be her grandfather. In 1837, Burr, in his mid-70s, but still devilishly handsome, had a well-earned reputation in New York as a thorough rogue. He had been charged, but not convicted, with treason against America. He had also skipped out of the country, failing to repay huge debts he owed and only later quietly slipped back into the country. Nevertheless, Burr was still a dashing figure, much admired by women. Burr had lynx-like eyes that women found hard to resist and suave, aristocratic manners ladies adored.
Burr had heard tales about the great beauty of a young woman who lived on Pottery Hill, which once stood around what today is Franklin and Green Street. Although almost 50 years older than the young woman, Burr began to make regular nocturnal Greenpoint trips to court her. Unbeknownst to the local beauty, Burr had a well-deserved reputation as a womanizer and frequent patron of prostitutes. He left broken hearts (and numerous offspring) scattered over two continents.
Burr most certainly did not mention his biggest secret- he was engaged to another woman who vied with Burr for having a notorious reputation, but she was not just any woman: she was America’s richest woman, Madame Jumel, a perfect match for Burr with her own history equally rich in scandal. This story was recalled by Greenpointers in 1890 and published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Born in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775, as Betsy Bowen, Jumel was the daughter of a prostitute and followed in her mother’s footsteps. Eventually, she married one of New York’s richest merchants and inherited a fortune when he died. Rumors quickly reached her ears of the nocturnal visits of her fiancé to Pottery Hill in Greenpoint. Madame Jumel smelled a rat and decided she would discover Aaron’s cunning exploits for herself.
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:
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.
One of the most atmospheric bars in Greenpoint is the quaint cocktail club Grand Republic (19 Greenpoint Ave.), and it’s a great place to enjoy a cocktail amongst nautically themed décor. Owner Johnny Swet must know a thing or two about local history because he named his bar after a famous ship, built only a few feet away from the bar in the John Englis Shipyard, which once stood on the ground that is now occupied by Transmitter Park. A striking painting of the once-famous ship occupies a prominent position behind the center of the bar, but few patrons probably know the strange history of the once celebrated paddle wheeler.
One of the great achievements in the history of local shipbuilding was the construction of the huge side-wheeler boat in 1878. Shipbuilding was the first major local industry and once shipyards lined West Street, employing hundreds of locals. The Grand Republic, one of the largest boats ever to be built locally, weighed an amazing 1,760 tons. The steamboat made almost completely of wood, required a veritable forest of trees had to be cut and sent down the East River to construct her. The ship was 281 feet long and 41 feet wide, but its defining feature was a huge paddle wheel that was 36 feet in diameter. The elegant ship was called “ The queen of the harbor” until her sister ship, the infamous General Slocum, was launched in 1891.
The Grand Republic was for many years the pride of Brooklyn and it served as an elegant excursion boat, taking hundreds of passengers on day trips to the Rockaways and other locations, but its reputation was blackened when an infamous accident befell its sister ship.
On June 15, 1904, the Slocum left the Lower East Side on a journey up the East River with an estimated 1,342 people on board. Most of the passengers were German-American women and children, very few of whom knew how to swim. The life preservers on the Slocum had been exposed to the elements outside on the deck for 13 years and most of them were falling apart, but still, the ship passed inspection. A fire started on the ship and spread rapidly. Terror engulfed the passengers when they learned of the rotted state of the life preservers. 1,0021 people died, many of them drowning in sight of the banks of the East River. Two of the victims were German-Americans from Guernsey Street.
Sailors are a superstitious group and the Grand Republic was forever tainted for being the Slocum’s sister ship. The Grand Republic was inspected and the state of its life preservers was found to be equally as bad as the Slocum’s. Its passenger capacity was reduced, but it was allowed to sail. In 1910, a fire also broke out on the Grand Republic, but thankfully a tragedy was avoided. The steamer was also involved in a collision and other accidents, giving credence to the superstitions of sailors. The following year in 1911, the Englis yard closed, bringing to end the era of Greenpoint shipbuilding, but the unlucky shipped still sailed.
Eventually, the Grand Republic was sold and ended up in the Hudson River, running day trips for many years to Bear Mountain. Ironically, the new owners of the Grand Republic were a Greenpoint family, the McAlisters, who had become the tugboat and excursion boat kings of New York harbor. One of the bouncers the McAlisters hired on the Grand Republic was Peter McGuinness who would later dominate local politics for decades and lend his name to Greenpoint’s widest boulevard.
In 1924, Grand Republic burned in a spectacular fire while it was moored at 150th Street in Manhattan. Unlike the fire that consumed the Slocum, the burning of the ship led to no loss of life. Tens of thousands of people watched the blaze as the flames that consumed the giant ship lit up the night sky.
The Duryea House, a 240-year-old Greenpoint landmark, was sadly destroyed in the days before New York awakened to its own history. The original colonial structure stood on the banks of Newtown Creek until 1921, before it was demolished, an unpardonable offense to local history. No building in local history survived for as long as this piece of early colonial history.
The farmhouse at 418 Meeker Ave was built about 1681; the lower part was constructed of stone with defensive features that allowed the residents to shoot at their Native American enemies who were still a feared presence locally at the time of its construction.
Humphrey Clay, for whom some believe our Clay street is named, operated a ferry across Newtown Creek near the building as early as 1670 and Clay probably erected the Duryea house. In later times a primitive bridge crossed the creek and after 1812, the Newtown and Bushwick Road Company, which was incorporated in 1814, built a bridge on piles. In 1836 the Newtown Road Company Bridge and Turnpike Company was incorporated and built a toll upon stone piers and constructed a shell road through Bushwick. This road was once known as the North Road, but now is Meeker Avenue. The charge to cross the bridge was a penny, hence it was dubbed “The Penny Bridge.” Continue reading →
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 →
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 →
Beloved neighborhood worship/art space, the Park Church Co-op (129 Russell St.) has put out a fundraising call to the community. Ace local historian, and Greenpointers contributor, Geoff Cobb has answered that call in a fantastically innovative way! He’ll lead a donation-based historical walking tour of Greenpoint on Saturday, July 7th from 10-11am, and donate all proceeds to the Park Church Co-op.
The tour will meet at the corner of Calyer and Franklin. All are welcome! RSVP here.
What: Walking Tour with Geoff Cobb on Behalf of the Park Church Co-op When: Saturday, July 7, at 10am. Where: Franklin and Calyer Who: Everyone!
Greenpoint is well known for its Polish herritage, but New York’s Basque community also calls Greenpoint home. Since 1973, Euzko-Etxea, the Basque Club of New York, has maintained its headquarters at 307 Eckford Street. The group’s mission is to preserve Basque culture in the lives of immigrants and their descendants, and to share Basque culture and heritage with the community at large. To that end, Euzko-Etxea and offers Basque language classes, traditional Basque dancing, and pintxos (or tapas) on special occasions at the converted two story church on Eckford Street. Continue reading →