History

Oil, Philanthropy, The Astral and Art: The Mixed Local Legacy of Charles Pratt

Pratt Institute

Perhaps there is no person in the long history of Greenpoint who had a bigger effect on our area than Charles Pratt. Pratt’s legacy, though is a mixed one: a philanthropist, Pratt felt a duty to use his wealth to give back to the community, but he is also heavily responsible for the massive local pollution that is a result of his business in oil refining. One thing though is sure, more than a hundred and twenty years after his death; Pratt’s long shadow still hangs over Greenpoint. Continue reading

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The Fascinating and Tragic History of The Wythe Hotel

The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation
The Weidmann Cooperage before its renovation

The Wythe Hotel at North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue is a symbol of cool in trendy Williamsburg. The building is a combination of old and new, with a three story sleek glass tower rising out of the remnants of a 1901 industrial building. The hotel’s L-shaped rooftop bar The Ides has stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, attracting people from around the world to the 72-room boutique hotel. People use words like chic, trendy and ultra-modern in describing the building, but it has a fascinating and tragic past that stretches back to the 1890’s—and that past is still evident in today’s hotel building.

The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects
The Wythe Hotel today, image via Morris Adjmi Architects

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The Story Behind Brooklyn’s Iconic Water Tanks

Courtesy of Ted McGrath on Flickr.
Via Ted McGrath on Flickr.

PARIS has its world famous Eiffel Tower. Pisa, of course has its leaning tower and London has its ancient tower. What about New York? We have towers, too, but here, they hold water.
Although the skyline of New York city has changed dramatically over the years, one element has remained constant; the city’s romantic wooden water towers, which are every bit as iconic as the Empire State building or the Chrysler Building. There are more than 10,000 water towers around the city, which feature prominently in the works of famous New York artists Like Edward Hopper and the Ash Can School.

In the 1880s, steel was transforming the New York skyline, allowing buildings to reach above five stories, but also creating a design problem. As the buildings soared upwards, water pressure could only reach the fifth floor. Taller buildings needed water for the upper floors and that’s why the water towers were built. Water towers use gravity to help create pressure in pipes on the upper floors. These wooden towers are still the water source for many of the city’s buildings, and they also contain enough water to feed the sprinklers if there’s a fire.
With demand spiking for water towers in late nineteenth century New York, Brooklyn’s large barrel making industry was perfectly positioned to build the city’s water towers. One of the firms that achieved market dominance was the Rosenwach Water Tower Company, which for decades was located in the Northside.
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The Greenpointer Who Led a Prison Break from Sing-Sing

Charles Bergstrom

For years his wanted poster had hung in the Meserole Avenue Police station, but there was not a trace of Charles Bergstrom to be found. Bergstrom was wanted for being an accomplice in the worst prison break in Sing Sing history. He had become a wanted man for helping three of his buddies to break out of the maximum-security prison, and four people had lost their lives as a result of the breakout.
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The Amazing Philanthropist Who Founded Williamsburg’s First Public Schools

Grahams Polley

So many of the wealthy in today’s world are both so selfish and self-interested that it’s easy to believe that rich people do not think of those who have nothing. The story of Grahams Polley, the great Williamsburg philanthropist, however, shows that wealth and concern for the poor and for public education are not mutually exclusive. Polley only lived to be thirty-four years of age, dying in a riding accident in 1860 and leaving behind a wife and ten children. His charity was legendary and left a legacy still felt today.

Polley was born in Manhattan to a poor family. He never had the chance to go to school for himself and he never learned to read or write, but he died as a bank president with a fortune of $40,000. He was determined to use his wealth for the public good and his chief interest was ensuring that all of Williamsburg’s children got educated. Continue reading

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January 9th: The Anniversary of the Great Fire that Destroyed the Domino Refinery in 1882

January 9th marks the one hundred thirty-sixth anniversary of one of the most destructive fires in North Brooklyn. On a frigid January night, the Havemeyer and Elder Refinery, which would forty years later be renamed as Domino, went up in one of the most spectacular fires the area had ever witnessed.

The refinery, the largest building in Williamsburg at the time, was nine stories high, covering an entire block on Wythe Avenue between South Third and South Fourth streets and stretching some two hundred feet in from the street to the East river shore. Having been in the sugar business for more than eighty years, the Havemeyer family knew the danger that fires often broke out in sugar refineries. The presence of steam, thousands of moving parts that could cause sparks in the refinery and the highly flammable sugar all made fire a grave risk. For a quarter century they had refined huge amounts of sugar without incident, but their luck would run out that January day.
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Amazing Photos of the Domino Sugar Refinery on Display Until January 14th

Inside the Domino Sugar Factory, from the "Sweet Ruin" exhibit, photo by Paul Raphaelson
Inside the Domino Sugar Factory, from the “Sweet Ruin” exhibit, photo by Paul Raphaelson

There’s been a lot of activity and news lately about the iconic Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront. Our own historical writer Geoff Cobb recently published a new book about Domino titled The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, and he’s been sharing some of those stories here on our site. Additionally, the redesign proposal for the Domino site was recently approved, and the architects shared the final plans for the waterfront park. And just a few weeks ago we were able to tour the first new building in the Domino Sugar complex at 325 Kent Street, with the major selling point seeming to be the stunning views of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge.

From now until January 14th, photos taken inside the Domino Sugar complex are on view at former Williamsburg gallery Front Room (48 Hester Street) in Manhattan. According to the gallery, “In 2013, Paul Raphaelson received permission from the developers of the Domino site to explore every square foot of the refinery just weeks before its gutting and demolition. Raphaelson is the last photographer given access to the factory.” The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-6pm. Smithsonian has a detailed article about the photos, and the site’s history.

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A Short History of Noble Street

House on Noble Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe
A charming green house on Noble Street in Greenpoint. Photo by Ian Hartsoe

Noble Street is one of the shorter streets in Greenpoint, but though just two blocks long it still is one of the prettiest streets in our area. The folks on Noble Street have to my knowledge (please correct me if I am wrong) the only block association in the area and the association is fighting to keep Noble Street just as pretty as it has always been.

The people on the block have come together to win some important victories in the battle to keep the street the perfect block to raise a family. Noble Street dates back to 1852 when it was opened off Franklin. It was named for James Noble, an early land owner in Williamsburg who owned an important coal yard. Continue reading

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How a Local Bartender Stunned the Political World and Defeated The Corrupt “Sugar Senator”

State Senator Patrick McCarren
State Senator Patrick McCarren

In 1893, one of the greatest upsets in New York State electoral history occurred locally when a bartender defeated one of the most powerful men in Albany. I have written previously about the infamous local politician Patrick McCarren who obtained for North Brooklyn the park that bears his name, and the Williamsburg Bridge.

Now a forgotten character, State Senator McCarren, though effective in bringing home pork to North Brooklyn, was in his day one of the most breathtakingly corrupt politicians in the long history of corrupt New York politicians. One of the first corporate lobbyists in American history, McCarren was reviled for his shamelessness in helping Standard Oil and the Sugar Trust at the expense of the public good. The New York Press in 1904 summed up what many reformers thought of the senator: “We shrink from even the thought of what would happen to our national institutions and ideals if its Pat McCarren’s should succeed in cornering the nation at the ballot box.” Sadly, looking at politics today, McCarren seems a very contemporary figure; however McCarren, was defeated by a non-politician in an electoral shocker. Continue reading

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Love in Greenpoint in Wartime: How an Italian Prisoner-of-War Won a Brooklyn Girl’s Heart

Carmella and Giuseppe on their wedding day in 1947

About a year ago, I wrote a story for Greenpointers about a Brooklyn Italian-American girl who fell in love with a captured Italian soldier during World War II while he was incarcerated at a prisoner of war camp at Dupont and Franklin Streets. I did not have many of the details to this unique love story and thought that I would never learn the complete story of the romance. Amazingly, however, that woman, ninety-one-year old Carmela DiLieto, is still alive in Los Angeles, California and she told me by telephone the story of her romance with, and marriage to, Giuseppe DiLieto from Torre Del Greco near Mount Vesuvius, not far from Naples. Sadly, this love story with a romantic start did not finish with a happy ending. Continue reading

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