brooklyn history

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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The History Behind Grand Republic: A Modern Bar With a Storied Name

Inside Grand Republic bar at 19 Greenpoint Ave.

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 General Slocum steamboat

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.

The Brooklyn Eagle Archives

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.

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The Legend of Brooklyn’s Long Defunct Thanksgiving Day Parade

Thomas H. Cullen

The Thanksgiving tale involving Thomas H. Cullen has been repeated in Brooklyn for generations and amazingly, it’s a true story from the 1890s that was retold at numerous political functions for generations. 130 years ago Brooklyn celebrated Thanksgiving far differently. The highlight of the public celebration was a parade that went through much of the City of Brooklyn, heading along Bedford Avenue through Bedford Stuyvesant and Williamsburg. Thousands of spectators turned out for the event and it was a natural draw for aspiring politicians.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives: Feb. 17, 1933

The surest way to present oneself to the voters as a candidate for elected was by riding in the Thanksgiving Parade mounted on a noble horse. Tom Cullen was a young Irish-American longshoreman who dreamt of leaving the sweaty docks of Red Hook by entering local politics, but as a humble dockworker living in an overcrowded tenement, he was too poor to own his own horse. Cullen longed for a horse, but his ambition was not just to ride any horse. Cullen dreamt of riding in the parade atop a noble white steed and nothing would stop Cullen from procuring the white horse of his dreams. The inconvenient truth that Cullen had never actually ridden a horse before in his life seemed unimportant, such was the ambition of this naive aspiring politician. Continue reading

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Following the Flush: What we Learned on the Newtown Creek Digester Egg Tour

Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant march towards the digester eggs. Photo: Megan Penmann
Participants on a night tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant wear safety vests and march towards the digester eggs. All photos by Megan Penmann

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection is in Love! The municipal organization hosted a Valentines Day tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant on Saturday, and the complex’s iconic Digester Eggs (more or less affectionately known as Shit Tits) were all decked out in red for the occasion. Donning hard hats and reflective vests, we got a rare look at the inner workings of New York City’s largest wastewater treatment plant. From fascinating facts (did you know the DEP has its own Fleet!?) to  stunning views from the glass-enclosed pedestrian walkways that connect each egg, we picked up some exciting intel as well as some dope swag: I proudly display my NYC Sewer Manhole Cover pin.

Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, inside the digester eggs. Photo: Megan Penmann
Participants on a tour of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, inside the digester eggs.

That pride and passion are evident at Newtown Creek! DEP personnel at the Treatment Plant brought a contagious enthusiasm to highlighting the Plant’s elegant engineering and environmental equity that made the tour’s amorous theme appropriate: for Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment Pam Elardo, this is a labor of love.

Elardo told us that her lifelong goal is to make sure people know what happens when they flush the toilet. Read on to find out for yourself!  Continue reading

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The Williamsburg Bridge Celebrates its Hundred and Fourteenth Birthday Today! (Dec 19th)

Via Brooklyn Daily Eagle archives

Today (Tuesday, December 19th) marks the anniversary of the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. The Bridge was opened on a Saturday and was one of the greatest celebrations the Newly formed city had ever witnessed. The air all around Williamsburg that brisk winter morning was electric and buzzing with excitement. After six long years of watching the construction of the bridge, the span would finally open. There was jubilation in the area, especially amongst property owners who knew that the bridge would dramatically increase the value of their properties. Continue reading

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A History of Greenpoint in Twenty-Five Buildings: The Old Meserole Mansion

Screen shot 2016-03-23 at 9.40.12 PM

Until the 1960s, New York had very little sense of the importance of historic preservation. It allowed the majestic Pennsylvania Station to be demolished in a tragic act of architectural homicide. The same was true in Greenpoint. In 1919, a similar local crime against posterity was committed with the demolition of the sprawling colonial Meserole family mansion.

The old wood-frame house covered a few lots at 1000 Lorimer Street between Norman and Meserole, but the structure actually pre-dated any streets in Greenpoint. It was an imposing edifice, set back off the street and surrounded in later years by wide lawns. The first part of the house was built in 1790, but as the family amassed considerable wealth over generations, the house grew to 13 rooms.

The original building was three stories high with a piazza. Later, a two-story extension was built on the west side of the house, and a single-floor extension was added to that western wing. A sitting room at the center of the house had all the original colonial hand-hewn boards, but other parts of the house were remodeled far more comfortably and elegantly.

Screen shot 2016-03-23 at 9.33.25 PMThe house was constructed at a time when Greenpoint was an isolated farming hamlet. Peter Meserole not only built the structure himself, but he even had to manufacture his own wooden “nails” to join the sections of wood together.

If the house was impressive, then the grounds were even more so. Once the house was surrounded by the famed Meserole orchard, which in its heyday produced hundreds of boxes of apples and cherries that were exported to Europe. The orchard was also famed for the many songbirds, which rid it of insects that ate the valuable fruit. The orchard extended east to Leonard Street, west to the river, south to Norman Avenue, and north to Calyer Street. Manhattan Avenue was once even called Orchard Avenue, so famous were the Meserole groves. There was a kind of clearing in the orchard with a fine view of 23rd Street in Manhattan in the far distance.

Adrian Meserole, Peter’s son, born in 1822, was the last occupant of the house. He was lonely as a young boy, because there were only five families in all of Greenpoint and only one boy his age. There was no local church or school, so he had to walk to Bushwick, unlocking the gates of the farms he passed on his way to school.

Adrian and his nine siblings were raised tending the orchard and harvesting its abundant fruit. The orchard was such a beautiful spot that it was compared to the Garden of Eden, which is perhaps the reason why the area came to be known as “ The Garden Spot” of Brooklyn. Meserole was old enough to recall his parents’ stories of slaves who cleared lumber in Greenpoint before the revolution.

Adrian loved the orchard, but he loved money even more, and he began to sell parts of the orchard off for real estate development. To facilitate his property’s development, he cut a lane through his groves later called “Meserole Avenue.” It became Greenpoint’s first street. Selling off the land made him a rich man, and he died a millionaire. He died 91 years after his birth—only a few feet away from the very spot in the house where he was born.

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Who was Patrick McCarren?

PatrickMcCarren

Recently there was controversy about the naming rights to the McCarren Park Pool. A company offered money for the naming rights and many locals became angry about the proposed name change. Truth is, few people know anything about Patrick McCarren.

I have been researching McCarren for a book I am writing about Williamsburg . He was a fascinating, amazingly corrupt figure. In his day he was not just a powerful local boss, but was also powerful on the national level. Born in 1849 in Massachusetts, he grew up locally. Too poor to afford higher education, McCarren started life in the local sugar mills, but was ambitious. Politics in the eighteen seventies was almost the only way a humble man could acquire wealth and power. Continue reading

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