History

The History of Meserole Avenue

In the heart of where the old orchard once stood is P.S. 31, an elegant old school with a gorgeous façade that is being refurbished. Previously, P.S. 31 was on Dupont Street and the present school was once a middle school.

This post marks the first in a series of posts that will recount the history of different streets in Greenpoint. Meserole Avenue is named for the Meserole family who once had a gorgeous orchard that long ago disappeared. The orchard at one time was so beautiful that it was considered one of the “garden spots” of Brooklyn. Long after the orchard was just a memory, the name garden spot survived and was used ironically by Peter McGuinness and others to describe the highly industrial neighborhood. Continue reading

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Julia Wertz’s Triumphant Illustrated History of New York City

Full disclosure—I have been a fan of Julia Wertz‘s amazing graphic work long before the publication of her recent smash hit entitled Tenements, Towers and Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City, so let’s forget objectivity. I discovered Julia’s prodigious talent through her work in the New Yorker. Although I have never met Julia we have exchanged emails and we are kindred spirits, bonded by our mutual love for New York City and its rich past.

Perhaps the biggest gulf separating us as writers is Julia’s prodigious talent as an illustrator, which makes her book such a joy to read from beginning to end. (My drawings make my students either laugh in ridicule or cringe.) It is not just how she sketches, but what she draws that makes her book so close to my heart. She has done excellent renderings of many of the quirky places in New York that I love and teaches me things about those places I never knew. Continue reading

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Horrific History Lesson: Working Conditions at The Domino Sugar Refinery

Although the former Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue does not lie in Greenpoint, the building and the firm that ran it, Havemeyer and Elder, cast a long shadow over local history. Having spent the summer researching the plant for my upcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, it is hard to express how much suffering is associated with the refinery.

The plant, which was opened in 1858, employed thousands of Greenpointers over its almost a century-and-a-half of existence. Much of the reason that we have a Polish population today is because the refinery had a policy of hiring Slavic men, principally Polish, who could not recount to outsiders the misery that working in the plant entailed. They worked in horrendous conditions that we can scarcely imagine today. Continue reading

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A Greenpoint Landmark Now Seems Doomed

Thomas Rowland Local Millionaire
Thomas Rowland, local millionaire and builder of the USS Monitor

In a previous post I reported that there was an application to demolish 85 Calyer Street, the historic home of the builder of the first ironclad battleship in the United States Navy, the USS Monitor. The situation looks bleak and the historic house seems doomed. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov, has received an approval to have the historic building demolished. Although the building is rich with local history, the building is not protected by landmark status, so little can be done to save the historic structure.

Sadly, the previous owner of 85 Calyer Street, a man named Tommy, not only knew the history of the house, but even expressed pride in owning this piece of local history. Once, when I was giving a historic walking tour he approached the group and showed us some of his historic photos of the house when Rowland owned it. The house once had a grand entrance for carriages and an elegant facade that has since been covered over with drab vinyl. The owner also told me of a kind of bunker in the back garden that might have been used to help smuggle booze into the area from the nearby Noble Street pier during the prohibition era. Continue reading

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The Forgotten History of Sugar in North Brooklyn

The old Domino Sugar refinery, with North Brooklyn Farms in the foreground.

To understand the history of Greenpoint and Williamsburg you have to grasp the massive role that refining played in this heavily industrial corner of North Brooklyn. Our area became the world’s largest refiner of oil and sugar and the owners of these refineries became unbelievably wealthy. A lot of writers have told the story of local oil refining, but until now there has been a dearth of information about the massive local sugar industry here, so I wrote The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King to trace the powerful effect sugar refining had on North Brooklyn.
Continue reading

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Toast Revolutionary Hero Tadeusz Kosciuszko with a Concert and Cocktails at Fraunces Tavern on Thursday!

Tadeusz Kosciuszko, via Fraunces Tavern
Tadeusz Kosciuszko, via Fraunces Tavern

It is one thing to be a Revolutionary hero, another to be an architect, or an abolitionist or an accomplished musician. Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who lends his name to the bridge, was all those things and more. According to The Kosciuszko Foundation, the Polish-born American Revolutionary Hero participated in revolutions in Poland, France and the United States. As a Brigadier General in the Continental Army, he created the blueprints for West Point, planned the battle of Saratoga – a major turning point in the war – and fought for the rights of Native Americans and African Americans, even attempting to free Thomas Jefferson’s slaves. He was made an Honorary Citizen of France during the French Revolution, and in Poland, he led an unsuccessful revolution to end feudalism and liberate Poland from foreign control.

New York’s Polish community honored Kosciuszko during this year’s Pulaski Day Parade, and Fraunces Tavern will be celebrating his extraordinary life and legacy on Thursday, 10/26 during their special event, “Kosciuszko: Bridge to Liberty for All.” The event includes after-hours access to the museum’s galleries, a reception, and the program itself, where you can learn about Kosciuszko from Alex Storozynski, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, filmmaker, author, and President Emeritus & Chairman of the Board of The Kosciuszko Foundation. Expect not only some stunning history but also some exceptional tunes, since the evening also features  a piano concert by pianist and harpsichordist Magdalena Baczewska, who will be playing original compositions by Kosciuszko himself! Top it all off with an original cocktail, “’The Kosciuszko Bridge,’ which joins the “spirits” of two nations: Polish Bison Grass Vodka and American gin.” Get tickets here!

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Check out the Mary Fisher Home, Greenpoint’s 19th Century Artists’ Colony

Photo by Lucie Levine
Photo by Lucie Levine

Greenpoint’s industrial past is well known, and its emerging identity as an artist’s hub might seem like a 21st century phenomenon, but back in 1888, Greenpoint was sporting its very own artists’ colony. That year, Mary Fisher, of 71 Java Street, opened her home as the Home Hotel Association, a residence for elderly “Brain Workers.” According to the plaque marking the historic site, Fisher defined “Brain Workers” as men and women “who had labored in literature or art or any other brain profession.” The Home operated on Java Street until 1912, when it moved to two separate locations: one in Mount Vernon, NY, and another in Tenafly, New Jersey.

71 Java Street Today
71 Java Street Today

Mary Fisher was an Englishwoman inspired by the old age pensions which support the elderly in the UK. Social Security wasn’t established in the United States until 1935, so there was no public safety net for older people who had retired, or were out of work. In The Story of the Mary Fisher Home, published 1915, Fisher wrote, “I remembered that in Europe, pensions were often accorded to those who, during their lifetimes, had been of some benefit to the nation, and it seemed to me that in this country the people must do what the government failed to do, and I hoped that in time we might have a national fund for this purpose.”

Fisher appealed to notable New Yorkers for their in kind or financial support, and was well received by Fredrick Barnard, then the President of Columbia University. He introduced her to a variety of prominent and charitable New Yorkers, including Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, but not everybody believed that “brain workers” deserved philanthropic support. In fact, upon hearing the appeal, one woman said, “A home for old authors and artists! My! What a company of cranks! What will you do with them?”  Continue reading

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A Piece of Greenpoint History Faces Demolition

85 Calyer Street
85 Calyer Street

Recently, I did a series of stories for Greenpointers about the twenty-five most historic local buildings. One of the posts I wrote was about 85 Calyer Street, the residence of Thomas Fitch Rowland, whose company, the Continental Iron Works, located around the corner on Quay Street built the famous ship. In 1859, Rowland founded the innovative factory. Two years later, he would help make history when visionary Swedish naval engineer John Ericsson approached him about building a revolutionary ship in Greenpoint, the ironclad Monitor, which would revolutionize warfare and make wooden ships obsolete. Ericsson was a frequent visitor to the house and the many conversations in Rowland’s house led to the realization of Ericsson’s plan for the United States Navy’s first Ironclad battleship, which fought the legendary battle against the Rebel ironclad, the Virginia, in 1862. Thanks to the Monitor’s victory, the North won the Civil War and slavery ended. Rowland produced a number of ironclad ships locally, employing 1,500 workers at his works during the Civil War. Rowland also received the first patent for an underwater oil drilling well, an invention that had dramatic effects on the oil industry. He died a millionaire and the house changed hands a number of times.

Thomas Fitch Rowland
Thomas Fitch Rowland

The house has been sold and is evidently set for demolition. The new owner of the property, Daniel Kaykov of the Renovation Group, a Forest Hills-based construction firm filed demolition paperwork with the city on August 31st and additional paperwork for a demolition has also been filed. The frame house, which has had its facade remodeled, is an important part of local history and allowing its demolition would rob the community of an important landmark. Currently, the house has no landmark status from the city so its destruction could occur quickly. I described the awesome achievement that Ericsson and Rowland accomplished in my book Greenpoint Brooklyn’s Forgotten Past when they built the Monitor in just a hundred and one days, so I would feel great loss seeing the building be demolished. The Continental Iron Works was also demolished, so 85 Calyer Street is the last building that is a direct link to the building of the Monitor. I hope that the community can rally to save this authentic Greenpoint Civil War landmark.

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Greenpoint Doughboy: A Tragic Tale of A Greenpointer in World War I

November 11th will mark the ninety-ninth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Even though America entered the conflict late, declaring war in April of 1917, the “Great War” had a profound impact locally. At least a hundred and twenty-three local men died in the conflict. In his fascinating book Greenpoint Doughboy, author Peter McHale describes the life and death of one of his great-uncle, John McKay, a graduate of St. Cecelia’s Parochial School who lived on Meeker Avenue and joined the famous New York Irish Regiment, “ The Fighting Sixty-Ninth.” McKay tragically became one of the more than 116,000 Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice. Continue reading

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From Rooftop Garden to McGolrick Park — Join Historian Geoff Cobb and Artist Martynka Wawrzyniak for Local Lore, Nature, and Art on a Guided Walking Tour! (Sat, 10/7)

Kingsland Wildflowers rooftop, the starting point for Saturday’s tour.

Local artist Martynka Wawrzyniak‘s site-specific sculpture, Ziemia, will take the form of a ceramic sphere atop a meadow garden in McGolrick Park, and she’s having the local community help create it. Ziemia, which means Earth in Polish, will celebrate our neighborhood’s many cultures, become a locus for community programming, and carry personal significance for the participants who help shape it.

Ziemia site in McGolrick Park, via Ziemia Instagram
Ziemia site in McGolrick Park, via Ziemia on Instagram

To underscore the community celebration represented in Martynka’s work, Greenpoint’s (and Greenpointers’) local historian and author, Geoff Cobb, will lead guests on a walking tour Greenpoint from the Kingsland Wildflowers green roof to the Ziemia site in McGolrick Park on Saturday, October 1st. A $15 donation to RSVP includes a two hour guided tour, with talks on some fun local lore, art, and Greenpoint’s natural habitat, and the proceeds will go toward the production of the art piece.

McGolrick Sculpture Installation & Walking Tour With Greenpoint Historian
When: Saturday, September 30, 3pm – 5pm
Where: Kingsland Wildflowers Green Roof | 520 Kingsland Avenue
Who: Greenpoint artist, Martynka Wawrzyniak & Greenpoint historian, Geoff Cobb
$15 donation (proceeds go to the Ziemia art project), RSVP

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