greenpoint history

Great “Open Studios” from Greenpoint’s Past

Union Porcelain Works ad from 1916 (via Brooklyn Eagle Archives)

Greenpoint Open Studios is the weekend of June 8th and 9th and is a special time in the area as about 400 artists open their studios to thousands of art lovers who get to see the amazing creativity that is Greenpoint’s beating heart.

However, this creativity is nothing new locally. Throughout its long history our area has been a home to highly creative artists and artisans. So let’s travel back in time and visit some of the great studios and workshops of Greenpoint’s past.

Many clay and porcelain artists work locally today, but these present-day potters are merely following in a long tradition. Walt Whitman in his 1857 visit to the area wrote an article about the American Porcelain Works, which once turned out beautiful pieces of porcelain at Franklin and Freeman Streets, but this workshop was only one of many local potteries. Continue reading

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Hollywood Legend Mickey Rooney’s Greenpoint Roots

 

Mikey Rooney by Flybynight from Pixabay

Few people today might recognize him by his real name, Joe Yule Jr., but the boy born in 1920 at 696 Leonard Street would become an Academy Award winner and Hollywood legend using the stage name Mickey Rooney. Rooney’s career in Hollywood spanned an astonishing nine decades.

The house at 696 Leonard Street where Rooney was born (Google Maps)

Rooney’s career, like that of Greenpoint’s other Hollywood legend Mae West, began in Vaudeville as a child. Rooney’s parents were vaudeville actors, but they could never have dreamed how much their son would achieve on stage, screen, and television. Joe Yule Jr. became the star of his parents’ act by the age of two. In an autobiography, Rooney explained how he first entered the theater world. As a toddler, Rooney was hiding under the scenery when he sneezed. Dragged out by an actor, the toddler was ordered to play his harmonica. He did, and the crowd erupted. The rest, as they say, was history.

An excerpt from The Brooklyn Eagle archives – 7/27/1937

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Domino Sugar’s Enduring Lesson of Local History

The Domino refinery in 2008 (courtesy of Doug Letterman/Flickr)

The philosopher George Santayana once famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I do not know if Santayana ever visited our area, but Santayana’s words relate to North Brooklyn’s struggle to recall its unique history and preserve the landmarks that help us remember our area’s fascinating past.


Last Saturday, I led about 75 hard souls who braved the rain on a walking tour of the Domino Refinery, which was once the largest sugar refinery in the world, processing at its height one-eighth of all the sugar refined on the planet! Today, the great refinery is being transformed into a mixed-use development.

Although the façade of the Domino building is landmarked and must be preserved, the building’s interior is being removed and it will become luxury condominiums and offices. Already huge metal stanchions have been attached to the exterior wall to facilitate gutting the historic refinery. Our history is being destroyed before our very eyes. Continue reading

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A History of Gardens in Brooklyn’s “Garden Spot”

Victory Garden in McCarren Park during World War I ( Image from the scrapbook of local resident)

Greenpoint has a nickname, “The Garden Spot,” which was given at a time when our area was truly a bucolic haven. Although it later became one of the most industrial areas on planet earth, today our community is trying to live up to the verdant image of its nickname and Greenpoint is rapidly becoming a “green point” again, but let us take a look at the history of gardens in our area.

Greenpoint was once a farming community and every family had its own garden. There was a huge hill running around the area of Franklin and Green Streets called Pottery Hill where wildflowers grew. The flowers there were so pretty that courting couples sailed over from Manhattan to enjoy its beauty. However, the name Garden Spot derives from the Meserole Orchard, which once occupied a huge swath of land around Meserole Avenue. The garden was famous for its apples and the beautiful apple blossoms each spring, but in what has become a familiar local story: the real estate was too valuable and the orchard disappeared as lots were sold off for housing.

Greenpoint became an area of factories and heavy industry, but it was also still an area of homes, many of which boasted gardens. One of the most beautiful Gardens was the rose garden of Thomas Smith, the porcelain baron who lived on Milton Street, but many local kids who grew up in tenements never saw a garden and the name “ The Garden Spot” became something of a cruel joke in the heavily polluted area. The area suffered from a severe lack of green spaces, however, Pete McGuinness not only ironically referred to the area of smokestacks and pollution as “ The Garden Spot of Brooklyn,” but he even called it “The Garden Spot of the Universe.” Continue reading

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How McGuinness Boulevard Was Created

 

(via Forgotten NY)

Maybe it is just me, but I find McGuinness Boulevard ugly. Huge trucks and streams of traffic wiz by the four-laned, soulless traffic artery. The newer apartment buildings lack the quaint charm of many of Greenpoint’s other streets, but this was not always so.

McGuinness Boulevard (via Google Maps)

Once McGuinness Boulevard was not a boulevard at all, it was named Oakland Street; a narrow charming cobblestoned lane lined by wood frame 19th-century homes typical of our area.

Oakland Street would become a victim to a vision of New York City as a city of cars and trucks. The destruction of Oakland Street was only a small piece in the grand scheme of Robert Moses who built the BQE, the Tri-borough Bridge, and the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Thousands of homes across the city fell victim to Moses’ vision.

(NY Public Library archives – Greenpoint map 1880s)

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Take a Historic Stroll at Jane’s Walk This Weekend

Domino Sugar factory in 2013 (courtesy of Christopher Camp)

The Municipal Art Society of New York is bringing back Jane’s Walk NYC, which is part of “a global festival of free, volunteer-led walking conversations inspired by urban activist Jane Jacobs,” with tours happening in all five boroughs this weekend. See the tours happening in Greenpoint and Williamsburg:

Saturday at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.:

Domino Refinery Walk:

Join author of ” The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King” Geoffrey Cobb as he explains the history of the Domino plant, which was the largest sugar refinery in the world and the linchpin in the “Sugar Trust.” The tour focuses on the brutal conditions for the thousands of workers who toiled and died working in the landmarked building now undergoing a controversial luxury renovation.

Saturday at 11 a.m.:

Rezoning Brooklyn: “Where’s Our Park?!”:

Written into the rezoning of the Williamsburg-Greenpoint’s waterfront was a promise of a park. Ever since area residents have steadily chanted; “Where’s Our Park?!”

Join Lynn del Sol, a native New Yorker and twenty year resident of the area, in a discussion about the rezoning North Brooklyn’s waterfront and what happens when city government, private interest, and community residents duel over two miles of land.

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Williamsburg Roots of David Smith, Who Made First Welded Sculptures

David Smith in 1942 (via Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)

For a working-class industrial area, North Brooklyn has played an outsized influence on American sculpture. The great Western artist Fredrick Remington cast many of his iconic western sculptures at the Roman Bronze works on Green Street in Greenpoint.

The famous Wall Street Bull and the Iwo Jima Memorial were also cast on India Street at the Bedi-Makki Art Foundry. As if those two accomplishments were not enough, there is still more. One of the giants of abstract metal sculpture, and one of the greatest American sculptors ever, David Smith, lived in Williamsburg and mastered his technique on a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

He was born in Indiana in 1906. Perhaps, metal was in his blood. He was, ironically, the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and the artist even as a child had a fascination for heavy industry saying, “we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks.”

Smith attended college for a year, but dropped out in 1925, to work at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would later use to create his sculptures.

Smith came to New York City in 1926 and he soon met his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. Smith enrolled in The Art Students League, where he studied painting and drawing over the next five years. Smith and Dehner settled in North Brooklyn because as artists they could not afford to live in Manhattan.

Though Smith never received formal sculptural training, one of the instructors at the Art Students League, Jan Matulka, encouraged him to start adding three-dimensional elements to his paintings. Matulka also introduced Smith to the abstract art of innovators such as Picasso and Kandinsky.

Smith was on the verge of an artistic revolution at the start of the 1930s. Wanting to master metal work, he set up his workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Pier in New York in 1933, sharing the space not with artists, but with professional welders and others who worked with metals.

At that time, most sculptors worked in a bronze foundry, a marble quarry or a conventional studio. At the Navy pier, Smith mastered the technical aspects of cutting and welding different kinds of metal. In the unlikeliest of places, Smith became the first American artist to make welded metal sculpture. Continue reading

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Groundbreaking Williamsburg Female Physician: Mary Crawford

Mary Crawford (Image via Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Today female physicians are the norm, but in 1908 when Mary Crawford became Brooklyn’s first female ambulance surgeon at Williamsburg Hospital people were shocked and her male colleagues were outraged. What’s more, Crawford never would have gotten the job had it not been for a mistake, but lets backtrack and tell the story of this remarkable local doctor.

1908 Brooklyn Daily Eagle Article

 

When Mary “Mollie” Crawford was born in 1884 in Manhattan women were not expected to have careers, let alone become medical doctors, but thanks to pioneering females like Dr. Crawford that changed. She grew up in a large wealthy family in Nyack, New York and then Mollie went off to Cornell. At Cornell Mollie excelled at basketball and crew, but also in the classroom. She was accepted into Cornell Medical School and graduated in 1907. Crawford wanted to work in a hospital, but very few hospitals seriously entertained the idea of hiring a female physician.

Most hospitals looking for interns stipulated that only men could apply, but somehow, serendipitously, Williamsburg Hospital screwed up and they forgot to say that only men could apply. Crawford applied, the only female of thirty-five applicants, but Crawford bested all the male applicants on the admissions test and the hospital reluctantly had to hire her to work as an ambulance doctor. Her male colleagues were horrified and the hospital was reportedly scared to death. She would become the first female ambulance surgeon in Brooklyn.

1904 graduation picture via Wikipedia

In those days horses pulled ambulances and doctors treated their patients at the scene. Her first case was on Manhattan Avenue where she treated a man for severe lacerations who had fallen from a window. Being the first female doctor, there was no female uniform, but Dr. Crawford designed her own. She proved to be a highly skilled and unflappable physician who treated many patients in the sugarhouses that once were the major employer here. She defied deranged patients, drunks and even bites while treating her patients. In 1910 she started her own medical practice in Brooklyn alongside her work at the hospital. Continue reading

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A Short History of the Greenpoint Park With Two Names

McGolrick Park (courtesy of Ryan Kuonen)

Some call it McGolrick Park, while many born and bred locals call it Winthrop Park. So what are you supposed to call it and why does the park have two names anyway? To answer these questions we need to explore the history of the pretty little nine-acre park.

An undated image of Winthrop Park

The park was once swampy land on the Kingsland farm. You might have heard of Kingsland Avenue in South Greenpoint, but not know who Ambrose Kingsland was. Well, he was a rich Manhattan sperm whale oil merchant who served as mayor of New York in 1851. What saves him from the so what dustbin of irrelevant figures in history? Well in his two-year term as mayor he started the process of creating Central Park, but back to Greenpoint.

Winthrop Park (via Columbia University archives)

Kingsland had his farmland surveyed and he made a killing selling off parcels of it, but the land where the park sits was a swamp and draining it was too costly so it sat there undeveloped until the year 1889 when State Assemblyman Winthrop Jones spearheaded obtaining a $132,825 appropriation for its purchase. Locals howled about the outrageous price of the swampy land and they groused further because the City of Brooklyn (we were still an independent city then) paid even more for improvements to the park. The site was graded and fitted with a drainage system, and a new lawn was planted. Winthrop Jones died in 1891 and naming the park after the Calyer Street resident seemed like a fitting memorial.

An undated picture of Winthrop Park

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The Local Purple Heart Recipient Memorialized With a Park

Sergeant William Dougherty Park (courtesy of DOT)

Recently there was a $ 12,000,000 renovation of Sergeant William Dougherty Park, which lies right by the Brooklyn Queens Expressway at the corner of Vandervoort Avenue and Anthony Street. Sergeant Dougherty died in one of the most horrific battles of World War II. He was one of almost 3,000 young Americans who died in the bloody battle. Tragically, the 22-year-old Sergeant Dougherty survived the worst fighting of the battle and died on July 10, 1944, the day after United States Navy Admiral Turner announced that Saipan was officially secured. Dougherty was posthumously awarded two of the highest honors a soldier can receive: The Bronze Star and The Purple Heart.

The Greenpoint park was named in his honor in 1948. Dougherty was born near the park on Hausman Street on November 9, 1921, and as a child, he played in the park. He graduated from high school and was a messenger boy for employment. He was 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 126 pounds when he enlisted in the “ Fighting 69th” New York Irish Regiment that had won fame for its valor in the Civil War and in World War I, and was even the subject of a film made about the famous regiment’s exploits in the Great War. Dougherty enlisted in the National Guard Regiment before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Continue reading

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