greenpoint history

Charles Evans Hughes: Greenpoint’s Forgotten Statesman

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes.

He did not look like a Greenpointer, he did not act like one either and with his eloquent vocabulary and upper-class speech he sure did not sound like one, nevertheless, Supreme Court Chief Justice and former Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes came of age in a home on Milton Street. The Ivy League-educated patrician Robert Moses who built and destroyed so much in New York was certain that Hughes had never lived in Greenpoint and bet Pete McGuinness that the Supreme Court Justice had never lived locally. A letter from Hughes to McGuinness published by New York newspapers confirming that he had in fact actually lived locally won the bet for McGuinness. Hughes is a forgotten figure, even locally, but Hughes’ legacy in Albany and more importantly in Washington is so huge that it should not be forgotten.

Brooklyn Eagle archives from 08/26/43

Charles Evans Hughes was born in Watkins Glen, New York in 1862 during the Civil War. In 1874, at age 12, he arrived locally when his father, Rev. David Hughes, was ordained minister to the Union Avenue Baptist Church that once stood on Manhattan Avenue, which was then called Union Avenue. Hughes was definitely a minister’s son and he inherited both the positive and negative legacies of having a stern moralistic father. His father was intensely religious; one might even say fanatically religious. He would knock the pipes and cigarettes out of people’s hands on the Greenpoint Ferry because he believed smoking immoral. Charles was raised in an overly strict, gloomy puritanical home, where whatever he did, was never quite good enough. The Puritanism of his upbringing made him a melancholy child who acted more like a young minister than a teenager. Hughes was scrupulously honest, but even as a boy he was self-righteous and gloomy. An only child, he had few friends and was prevented from spending much time with other boys due to his many duties in the church.

If he lacked charisma, then Hughes made up for it with brains. He had a photographic memory and began reading Shakespeare at eight. He took the ferry across to Manhattan where he studied under the famous educator Thomas Hunter at P. S. # 35 where he was so superior to the other smart boys in his class that he graduated at fourteen and went onto college. His parents expected him to study for a ministry, but he chose law instead. He proved to be a brilliant law student who excelled at creating coherent legal arguments and became a partner in a prestigious firm handling corporate law. He married and had children and seemed like he would have a quiet life out of the scrutiny of the public gaze.

In 1903, Albany was investigating corruption by the gas and electric monopolies. Senator Stevens asked Hughes if he would investigate the two firms who dominated gas and electricity. Hughes reluctantly agreed and conducted a brilliant investigation into the two monopolies, showing his genius by demonstrating in very simple terms the complex tricks the two monopolies used to defraud customers and investors. He also exposed massive corruption in the insurance industry in another state investigation. In a state desperately in need of reform, Hughes seemed like a godsend and the perfect choice for governor. With New York State Governor Theodore Roosevelt on his way to Washington to be Vice President, Teddy needed a reformer to replace him and protect his legacy and endorsed Hughes for governor. Hughes won the Republican nomination and then narrowly defeated his opponent for the governorship.

Hughes was elected governor in 1907 and reformers were joyous. Hughes was such a moralist that he could not cut deals to advance the good of the general public. His own party even turned against him and he made little headway. Republicans in Albany taunted him as “ Charles the Baptist” and blocked many of his worthy reforms. Hughes was frustrated in Albany at his inability to carry out reform.

Charles Evans Hughes and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (courtesy of PICRYL)

Hughes was offered a position on the Supreme Court in 1910, which he jumped at and resigned as governor. Confirmed by the Senate, Hughes proved to be a brilliant Supreme Court Justice who had an amazing ability to marshal facts into cogent compelling legal briefs. He wrote a number of decisions for regulation of big business that reformers cheered.

In 1916, Hughes resigned from the Supreme Court to run for president against Woodrow Wilson whose campaign slogan related to the Great War, which was raging across Europe. It read,” he kept us out of war.” Hughes was an interventionist who believed America should be in the war and he said so, losing Hughes millions of votes. He was also a boring speaker who could not connect with the common man. Hughes lost a close election and believed falsely that his days of service to America were done.

Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover (1924). (via Flickr – U.S. Department of State )

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Glass Blowing and Greenpoint, a Continued Tradition

Glass pendants from Echo Glass

Echo Glass Works at 253 Greenpoint Ave. offers a dazzling variety of one-of-a-kind custom glass jewelry, kiln cast glass, along with blown glass vessels that simply stun. However, this is not the first time that beautiful glass has been created in Greenpoint, which has a history of glass blowing dating back to the Civil War. One of the best-known glass factories in America in the 19th century was the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works located on Commercial Street.

The site of Greenpoint Flint Glass Works pictured in 1907, which later became Gleason-Tiebout Co. (via Brooklyn Eagle Archives)

The founder of the Greenpoint Flint Glass Works was an immigrant from Alsace, France Christian Dorflinger who set up his first glass blowing plants in downtown Brooklyn in 1852. Benefiting from growing demand for glass between 1856 and 1860, Dorflinger, looking to expand, constructed a new factory on the then undeveloped Newtown Creek at Commercial Street in Greenpoint. This factory was larger than his other two and also enjoyed a waterfront location with docking facilities. Because this area of Greenpoint was sparsely developed, Dorflinger also built housing near the factory for his workers, many of whom were also French immigrants.

(courtesy of Friends of The Lincoln Collection)

Quickly, Dorflinger’s annual output reached $300,000, a huge sum for that era, and the quality of his glass was so highly regarded that Mary Todd Lincoln commissioned the Greenpoint firm to produce table settings for the White House. It helped to establish his company’s reputation for fine cut and engraved lead crystal. Many pieces of the Lincoln pattern glassware still remain in the White House collection today. Continue reading

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The Lasting Gifts to Greenpoint From the Man Cheated out of the U.S. Presidency

Samuel Tilden

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.

National Democratic chart in 1876 with candidates Samuel J. Tilden, and Thomas A. Hendricks (via PICRYL)

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.

Union Baptist Church (via Google Maps)

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.

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Greenpoint’s Vaudeville Era Theaters: Still Hiding in Plain Sight

Drawing of RKO Greenpoint Theater (Courtesy of Julia Wertz)

It is almost inconceivable today, but in the 1920s Greenpoint had as many as eight Vaudeville theaters. Some of the buildings still survive, but with other uses.

In the days before most homes had a radio, Vaudeville theaters provided cheap non-stop entertainment with shows lasting for up to 15-hour stretches. In those days families were often larger in size with people crammed into their tiny dwellings like sardines. Vaudeville theaters provided an escape from these overcrowded apartments.

By 1911, records show a theatre at 153 Green St. It shows up in later records as a 400-seat theater either called the Arcade Theater or The Greenpoint Arcade Theater, but it did not last.

RKO Greenpoint’s interior (via cinematreasures.org)

Starting in 1927 with the arrival of the first talkie moving pictures, many of the Vaudeville theaters also served as movie houses. The largest theater was the RKO Greenpoint Theater on the corner of Calyer and Manhattan Avenue, which seated more than 1600 people and resembled an opera house with boxes, arches murals and terracotta designs on the ceilings. There were three levels of boxed seats on either side of the stage, and two balconies. The RKO hosted first-run double features after becoming a movie house.

RKO Greenpoint (Via cinematreasures.org)

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Former Greenpoint Hospital Set for Redevelopment

Greenpoint Hospital main building (via Brooklyn Relics)

In a city critically short of both affordable housing and homeless shelters, the long-abandoned former Greenpoint hospital can help alleviate both severe shortages in North Brooklyn. Over a year ago, plans were finalized for the conversion of the site and soon the former hospital will serve the public in these critical areas. The Greenpoint Hospital served the community for 70 years and many locals were born in the hospital. Constructed of brick and limestone, the attractive main building includes elements of Romanesque Revival, Italianate and Neo-Classical architectural styles. After opening in 1914, the hospital closed in 1982 amidst much local anger.

In a plan that includes a new homeless shelter and affordable apartments for low-income residents, the Hudson Companies, St. Nicks Alliance, and Project Renewal were chosen by the city’s Dept. of Housing Preservation and Development to redevelop the former Greenpoint Hospital site at 288 Jackson Street.

Rendering of redeveloped Greenpoint Hospital (Magnusson Architecture and Planning)

Magnusson Architecture and Planning and the firm Architecture Outfit will jointly develop 512 new units of affordable housing that will be housed in four separate buildings. The development will include an attractive campus with 21,500 square feet of communal space with a resident lounge, dining facilities, and a workforce development center. Completion of the project will involve two phases. In the first phase, the existing 200-bed shelter at the site will be moved to the southern portion of the development site in a rehabbed building. The first phase will also include construction of a new building with 267 apartments.

The Greenpoint Hospital (Magnusson Architecture and Planning)

Phase two will redevelop the main hospital building, that will be converted to a senior home with 109 apartments. The building that houses the boiler will be demolished and a 136-unit apartment building is slated to replace it. 30 percent of the total apartments are reserved for the formerly homeless. Continue reading

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Woordworking Is Greenpoint’s Oldest Craft

Saftuik furniture

The first Greenpointer was a woodworker: Norwegian immigrant, ship’s carpenter and master carpenter of the City of New Amsterdam, Dirck Volckertszen, built the first house here Near Franklin and Calyer Streets in 1645. Before settling locally, Volckertszen had often crossed the East River from Manhattan to cut local stands of timber used to build some of the first houses in New Amsterdam. Saftuik is a local woodworking shop that follows an old tradition in Greenpoint, but pioneers something new and socially responsible as well.

There is another connection between Volckertszen and Saftiuk- getting into trouble with the law. Volckertszen was often arrested and had multiple appearances in court; once for stabbing a man in the stomach in a bar brawl. He was also a reputed smuggler and might well have been a fugitive from European justice.

Saftuik furniture

Saftuik would warm the cockles of old Dirck’s heart because it trains formerly incarcerated people to create one-of-a kind- home furnishings from discarded wood and other reclaimed materials. Saftiuk is the brainchild of Sebastian Saftuik Paulson, who grew up in the very woodsy North of Michigan where he developed his talent for carpentry and a social conscience.

So how did Greenpoint get to be the woodworking capital of New York City anyway? It all goes back to wooden shipbuilding. In the 1850s, there were 12 shipyards that lined the East River waterfront, building clipper ships and schooners, as well as requiring tons of wood. Mountains of wood were floated into Greenpoint and the waterfront resounded all day long with the sounds of wood saws and hammers. Naturally, lumberyards became important businesses. Continue reading

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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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Aaron Burr’s Scandalous Trysts in Greenpoint

The bust of Aaron Burr

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.

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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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