Wednesday, December 31, 2008

'The Future' in 1900

On New Year's Eve in the year 1900, the Brooklyn Eagle editorial staff took it upon themselves to predict what the new century might bring. They came up with some surprisingly prescient answers, and a couple of real clunkers, albeit amusing clunkers.

They guessed that advertising "would be the breath of life in commerce," that "cheap and speedy transportation" would decentralize populations and suburban life would expand due to the growth of "rapid transit," and that the telephone and telegraph would become commonplace.

Perhaps their most impressive prediction was that "the journal of the 20th century will not be the newspaper," but instead information would be passed along "applied electricity." Not bad, sounds like they had a whiff of the internet.

But....they also thought "liquid air would banish poverty from the earth." And they were a bit off when they predicted mail would be delivered to homes in pneumatic tubes, science would find the means to bring the dead back to life, and houseflies would disappear. Dare to dream...

Photo above from Paleo-Future

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Multiple Teddy Roosevelts Descend on Downtown Brooklyn

A plethora of TRs were on hand Tuesday for the renaming of the Brooklyn Federal Courthouse in honor of the famous, bespectacled, bearcub-loving, "walk softly and carry a big stick"-saying 26th president of the United States.

Pictured above are Theodore Roosevelt IV and V (great and great great grandsons), who both live in Brooklyn Heights, along with Sen. Chuck Schumer, who must be a big TR fan because he proposed the legislation to have the courthouse renamed. TR portrayer Jim Foote is giving a speech Roosevelt once delivered at the dedication of another courthouse on Long Island.

Teddy Roosevelt has a sad connection to Brooklyn - his first wife and his mother and father are all buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, and his wife and mother actually died on the same day, Valentine's Day of 1884. I don't think this is why the courthouse is named for him, however. Schumer said something about him being a "man of the law." TR did actually serve as police commisioner for New York City for a while (The Alienist, anyone?).

On a slightly more cheery occasion to visit Brooklyn, Roosevelt is pictured below in 1915 inspecting some kind of textile workshop.

Top Photo by Ryan Thompson; bottom photo from Library of Congress via Historic Photos of Brooklyn by John Manbeck

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Spy In Our Midst

Did you know that our beloved, pastoral Prospect Park was once a "drop" spot for Soviet spies, where they would leave encoded messages for one another?

In 1956, federal agents arrested Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy living right here in Brooklyn. The account of Abel and other undercover shenanigans are recalled in a feature by Joel Feingold in the Eagle this week.

The story of Abel's capture begins with an Eagle newspaper deliveryboy named Jimmy Bozart who was doing his rounds in the Brownsville section of the borough when he was paid with a strange nickel that he soon realized was hollow. Inside was a sheet of paper with some sort of code written on it. The nickel made it's way to the feds pretty quickly, and they took to interviewing everyone except my pet parakeet to find out what the thing was about.

It wasn't until KGB Colonel Reino Hayhanen, a spy who had also been stationed in New York, decided to defect that they started to get some answers.

Abel had been one of Hayhanen's contacts here, and the hollow nickel was one of many clandestine forms of communication they used.

With Hayhanen's help, Abel was convicted on espionage charges, but he was sent back to Russia in 1962 in exchange for U.S. pilot Gary Powers. I'm not really sure what type of information Abel purloined during his tenure in Brooklyn, but he was supposedly into photography and kept a studio/storage space on Fulton Street. He died in 1971.

Click here to read more about The Hollow Nickel Case

Other Good Reads:

Monday, December 22, 2008

Pratt Institute, A Landmark

Pratt Institute in Clinton Hill was declared a New York City landmark on Dec. 22, 1981, or more precisely, the main building and library of the campus were designated landmarks. Now a well-regarded bastion of study for engineering, design and the arts, Pratt was founded in 1887 by Charles Pratt, a pioneer in the petroleum industry and founder of Astral Oil Works in Greenpoint, which later became part of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil.

From the beginning, Pratt was pretty progressive as a co-educational trade school geared to serve all classes and races of workers, artisans and homemakers. Courses cost $2.50 a pop. Oh, the good old days...

On the 10-year anniversary of the school, an Eagle article described it as a "successful school of the people." Had it not been succcesful, Pratt had his bases covered. It was built so it could easily be converted into a shoe factory.

It had 12 students in its first year, but only 10 years later there were 2,561 enrolled, and 25,528 students had already passed through. Pratt became a 4-year, degree granting college in the 1930s.

Pictured below is the Institute's Free Library (landmarked), which had a Children's Reading Room. I'm not sure when this photo was taken. It's from the Library of Congress and was published in John Manbeck's book Historic Photos of Brooklyn. Manbeck writes that it was Brooklyn's first library when it was established in 1896, which seems awfully late for a first library in what was already a sizable city. Will have to investigate further...UPDATE: Manbeck has since clarified that the library was in fact founded in 1888, not 1896, and that it was the first public library in Brooklyn. The Mercantile Library was older, but it was private and charged fees.

Another notable fact: Pratt also has the "oldest continiously operating, privately-owned, steam powered electrical generating plant in the country," according to its web site.

Landmark Status for Pratt [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]


Friday, December 19, 2008

Montague Street, Then and Now

The 1915 photo above shows the lovely and rather large brick house that used to sit at 129 Montague St. at the corner of Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights. For a few decades in the late 19th century it was the home of Dr. John D. Rushmore, according to reports in the Brooklyn Eagle archives.

The current building on this site, pictured below, was erected in 1926 and is now the home of a Washington Mutual Bank and a Brown Harris Stevens real estate office. For many years it was a Walden’s Book Store, and before that served in civil and administrative capacities, as the office of the Brooklyn Juvenile Guidance Center and the local draft board during World War II.
Check out these images as well:
Cool 'Fort Green' Fish Market [Ephemeral New York]

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Betty Boop and Popeye Have Roots in Brooklyn

We have animated cartoons because of Max Fleischer, a sketch artist with a knack for invention who got his start as an errand boy at the old Brooklyn Eagle. Joel Feingold wrote a feature on Fleisher for the Eagle this week, including early sketches by the artist from his days at the paper between 1901 and 1905.

Born in Poland, Fleischer moved to Brownsville, Brooklyn with his family at a young age and came to idolize the cartoonists at the Eagle. At 17, he went to the newspaper's office and offered to pay them to work there so he could improve his craft, but they gave him a job as an errand boy, a position he quickly exceeded when they began publishing his drawings.

Fleischer went on to invent the rotoscope, which he patented in 1917. Feingold describes it as such: "The machine projected a single frame live action film onto a plate of frosted glass, allowing the cartoonist on the other side to draw animation frames based on stills of actual objects in motion. One merely needed to repeat this tracing process thousands of times, one frame at a time, in order to animate smooth and vivid motion."

Among the cartoons Fleischer created were Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor.

Read more here:
Other Stories of Interest:
For the Love of Rope [Brooklynology]

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Day a Plane Fell on Park Slope

On this day (Dec. 16) in 1960, Park Slope was the site of a tragic and unusual accident. Two planes collided over Staten Island and one of them crashed right down on Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope. The other plane crashed on the less populated Miller Army Field on Staten Island. All 128 people aboard the two planes died, as well as 8 pedsetrians in the Slope.

Plane Crash in Park Slope [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

Oddly enough, this horrific story was told in the comments on a Brownstoner story today as well. The blog reported that some Park Slopers seriously bothered by low-flying planes have started a group called Brooklyn Against Aircraft Noise. Perhaps the area is still traumatized by the event.
Keeping Quiet in Park Slope [Brownstoner]

Fabulous Brooklyn Ladies

December 15th was the birthdate of Betty Smith, author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I confess I never read the novel, but I know enough to say the book did much to shape people's perceptions of the borough. And I do know this: Publications so frequently play on the book's title for the sake of a headline ("A Podiatrist's Office Grows in Brooklyn") that I'm considering passing a petition around, or calling for a moratorium, something ... It has to be stopped.
That small gripe aside, it seems like she was a real cool lady. You can read more about her in these Eagle stories:

I was also happy to learn a bit about another Brooklyn native this week. The actress Mae West of "Why don't you come up and see me sometime?" fame was born in Bushwick to a prizefighter-turned-detective and ex-fashion model. With that lineage, what choice did she have really but to become the saucy, irreverent, walking sexual innuendo the world was waiting for? The Brooklyn Eagle ran an amusing story this week about Mae being banned from NBC radio after a salacious interview with the wooden puppet Charlie McCarthy. Mae Gets Into Hot Water Again


Cruising for Ghosts

Photographer Mario Belluomo sent this photo into the Eagle this week, writing, "Brooklyn in the 1950s was a borough of beautiful heavy chromed cars, but those days are long gone. But if you cruise the Brooklyn streets really late at night, you just might catch a glimpse of a ghost. This car was at the corner of 15th Ave. and 63rd Street in Dyker Heights. When I went around the block, it was gone..."

Monday, December 15, 2008

BHS Gettin' Kinda Artsy, But We Like It

The Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) will open a new exhibit, "Brooklyn Redrawn," on January 7, 2009.

The exhibit will present drawings by three Brooklyn-based artists, Sarah Bostwick, Rebecca Layton and Karla Wozniak.

BHS writes in their press release:

"Each artist draws upon Brooklyn’s past and present urban structures to convey the visual complexity of competing commercial, architectural and real estate interests in the borough in which they work and live.

The exhibit features a 6 x 13 foot drawing of the Fulton Street Mall by Karla Wozniak, on public view for the first time. Karla Wozniak’s work often depicts architecture and commercial development in the borough. Recorded with minute hand-drawn specificity, architectural details are rendered and juxtaposed with more abstract painterly elements. The pictures teeter on the edge of resolution…like the Brooklyn landscape, they are constantly in process, revealing the history of their construction. Wozniak received her MFA from Yale University.

In her meticulously crafted hand-carved drawings, Sarah Bostwick celebrates the quiet poetry of the exposed light wells, elaborate ceiling moldings and years of black paint on the brownstone staircases of Bed-Stuy. By inlaying drawings carved in plaster into minimalist surfaces varying from whole museum walls to blocks of Hydrocal resembling sheets of paper, Bostwick references existing local urban structures while creating her own, enabling spectators to meditate on strangely beautiful landscapes of in-between spaces and forgotten zones. Bostwick has a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and her work is in collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Microsoft Art Collection.

Rebecca Layton’s graphite drawings are based on the changing Brooklyn skyline and new half-built condominiums around her studio, an old pencil factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Her process involves building up fields of layered graphite lines to form stark architectural silhouettes. There is a tension between the looming mass of negative white space and the distinctly hand-drawn texture, conjuring a landscape that feels like a steely ghost town afloat in the grainy exteriors of film noir. Layton has an MFA from Hunter College, New York."

BHS currently has a great exhibit of photos by Karla and James Murry, which you can read about here.

Brooklyn's New Deal

There have been a lot of comparisons made between the current economic crisis and the Great Depression, which probably inspired the bright kids over at Columbia University to write a piece on the New Deal in Brooklyn on their site The Brooklyn Ink. The article details such public works as the McCarren Park Pool and the Williamsburg Houses. Revisiting the New Deal in Brooklyn [The Brooklyn Ink]

The story also reminded me of a piece of Brooklyn New Deal history that we no longer have. The New York Times ran an article a few years ago about a controverial WPA mural that was at Borough Hall until being unceremoniously removed in 1946. The Other Battle of Brooklyn [New York Times]

Friday, December 12, 2008

Recent Shifts in Bond Street History

This photo posted on the Gowanus Lounge shows Bond Street in Gowanus in 2003. The block now looks completely different, with a new apartment building named Satori dominating the block. Industrial Gowanus is slipping away, which is perhaps not terrible since we have it to blame for the burping cesspool of the Gowanus Canal. But these little bricks gems will be missed. Check out the Gowanus Lounge to see what the block looks like now.
This New York Magazine article in November reported on some of the other doings in the Gowanus area, which it deemed an "alt-culture district."
If your knowledge of the Gowanus Canal is murky, you can get a refresher course by reading this little history I wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle.

Are We Sure This Guy's From Brooklyn?

Apparently the founder of Bird's Eye frozen food, Clarence Birdseye, was from Brooklyn. But this fella seems awfully outdoorsy to be from Cobble Hill, where he was born in 1886. He took up taxidermy by age five, and showing remarkable (creepy) resourcefulness, presented his mother with a mouse skin he had dressed himself.

He had a knack for capturing rats and frogs, which he sold to help pay for college, which he never quite finished - too busy fur trading on the Labrador Coast and engaging in his hobby of harpooning whales.

Anyhow, it was one of his arctic adventures that sparked this whole frozen food idea. He ended up with 168 patents on the frozen food process, which made him a millionaire. So next time you're smashing a brick of frozen corn on the countertop, think of Brooklynite Clarence Birdseye and all the tundra-swept adventures that led to your nutritious dinner.

Adventurer Invents Frozen Food [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

In other food history, The Jewish Daily Forward reports on the rise and fall of a Brooklyn Agriprocessor, here.


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Architectural Historian Morrone to Discuss Park Slope

Francis Morrone, author of the An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn, will be discussing the Neighborhood History Guide on Park Slope he wrote in conjuction with the Brooklyn Historical Society at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11. The discussion will be at the Old Stone House on Fifth Avenue and Third Street. It is free and open to the public.

We Still Have One "Winter Scene in Brooklyn"

As numerous media outlets have reported, The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas has acquired a painting near and dear to Brooklyn's heart: "Winter Scene in Brooklyn" painted by Franicis Guy around 1818-19.

But, before we get too up in arms, we should recall that Guy painted more than one "Winter Scene in Brooklyn" with some slight variations in how he depicted the weather and people, and that one of them is still owned by the Brooklyn Museum and is always on display for us to admire. And the Brooklyn Historical Society owns Guy's "Summer View of Brooklyn." (The Brooklyn Museum also owns Guy's "View of Baltimore from Chapel Hill.") Anyone know if there is a Fall and Spring?

Guy painted what he saw outside his window on 11 Front St., and thus gives us a rare glimpse at the tiny village of Brooklyn that developed around the Fulton Ferry before it grew into a big city that swallowed the rest of Kings County, and ultimately, of course, became a bustling borough of our fare metropolis, New York City.

Many of the people depicted in Guy's painting are based on actual people that lived there in the Fulton Ferry Landing area. One of them is Jacob Patchen - the biggest cranky-pants ever to tread the cobblestoned streets of Kings County. I first stumbled upon the Guy paintings while researching Patchen for an article in the The Brooklyn Eagle. [Jacob Patchen’s Fight Against Brooklyn Development].
Speaking of Brooklyn-oriented artwork, the New York Times this week reported that Green-Wood Cemetery is acquiring quite a collection. They are buying up pieces by some of the artists laid to rest there. [Green-Wood Cemetery Builds a Collection].


Friday, December 5, 2008

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire Disaster

It was 132 years ago today, that 295 people burned to death in a fire at Conway's Brooklyn Theatre on Washington Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

During a packed performance of "The Two Orphans" starring Kate Claxton, the curtains caught fire from a nearby kerosene lamp. A story today in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle gives a detailed and terrifying account of what followed. Click Here.

The sketch above depicts the theater in the aftermath of the disaster, with bodies being carried away from the scene. The building had no fire escapes and only five narrow exits, and according to the Eagle, modern fire prevention in public places resulted in part from this tragedy.

Many of the bodies were never identified and were buried in a mass grave at Green-Wood Cemetery.

Sixteen years after the theater burned down, the Brooklyn Eagle building was constructed on the same site on the corner of Washington and Johnson streets. That building no longer exists either, nor does Washington Street for that matter. Most of it was razed during an urban renewal project of the 1940s and 50s when Cadman Plaza was built and the elevated train along Fulton Street was torn down. What was Washington Street is now known as Cadman Plaza West. You can read more about Downtown Brooklyn's Transformation here.
UPDATE: Brooklynology just added a really interesting post on the theater disaster, including two images that were published in a German newspaper about the tragedy. Click Here.

More Fascinating History News...
Cool old Pics Here and Here courtesy of Gowanus Lounge

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

There's Another Big Old Brooklyn Cemetery. Who Knew?

Turns out Green-Wood Cemetery has been hogging the spotlight in Brooklyn. There is another historic, rural resting place for the dead in the borough of Kings - The Evergreens Cemetery in Bushwick. More than half a million people are buried there. Perhaps because the cemetery spills over into Queens, it doesn't get the same Brooklyn love as Green-Wood, but it has every bit as interesting a history.

The Brooklyn Eagle published a story today about a new book on this little- known green space, Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery, 1849-2008. Whereas Green-Wood is known for the pedigree of those interred there (if we can say people like Boss Tweed had pedigree), Evergreens was known for burying people who "had trouble finding decent graves elsewhere because of their races or trades....The Evergreens was still young when it began opening its grounds to people who most Americans regarded as pariahs - Chinese, African Americans, suicides, executed criminals, merchant seaman, and actors."

Green Oasis in Brooklyn:The Evergreens Cemetery [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

Other Historic Revelations This Week:

Wooden Phone Booth Spotted in Borough Park [Lost City]

Court and Montague Circa 1927 [Gowanus Lounge]


Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Washington Park, Back in the Day

The 1908 photo above shows Washington Park between Fourth and Fifth avenues and 3rd and 4th streets in Park Slope – the same park that has been known as J.J. Byrne Park for the past 75 years (since 1933). It was once home to the Brooklyn Superbas baseball team, and in this photo a crowd waits outside for the start of the season.

The photo is from the Library of Congress, and recently ran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. It was also published in Eagle columnist John Manbeck's new book Historic Photos of Brooklyn. He recently spoke at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and said this was one of the photos in the book he was most excited about because it was so rare.

The baseball team was purchased by Charles Ebbets in 1898, became the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1910, and moved to Ebbets Field in 1913.

On Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2008, the park is officially being renamed Washington Park. The park is also home to the Old Stone House, the site of a skirmish during the Battle of Brooklyn in the Revolutionary War, and the park’s new (old) name honors Gen. George Washington, who of course led the troops during that battle.

Along with the renaming, the ceremony will unveil the completion of phase one of improvements to the park, which include a new skate park, two new basketball courts, six handball courts and a new dog run. The park’s playground will be named after J.J. Byrne, who had been borough president and ordered the rebuilding of the Old Stone House after its foundation was uncovered in the early 1930s.

This 1933 photo is from the Brooklyn Historical Society's collection. It shows workers uncovering the Old Stone House. The house has since been renovated and is operated by the Historic House Trust of New York City. The park was home to Charles H. Byrne’s professional baseball team, known alternately as the Atlantics, the Brooklyn Grays, the Bridegrooms, and ultimately, the Dodgers, after they were bought by Charles Ebbets. The Fifth Avenue El, which ran between 1889 and 1940, can be seen in the background.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Upcoming Events

Brooklyn Documentary Series: The Brooklyn Historical Society along with the Brooklyn Film & Arts Festival will present two days of documentaries about the borough on Dec. 4 and 5. The films begin at 6 p.m. both nights at BHS, 128 Pierrepont St., in Brooklyn Heights. Click here for more info.

Bensonhurst v. Canarsie: Brian Merlis and Lee Rosenzwieg have one of the largest collections of Brooklyn photos and ephemera around, and together they have compiled several books on Brooklyn neighborhoods. On Saturday, Dec. 6, they'll be at the Brooklyn Public Library's Brooklyn Collection at Grand Army Plaza at 2 p.m. to compare and contrast the neighborhoods of Bensonhurst and Canarsie. Should get rowdy. Wouldn't miss it.

Celebrate St. Nick at the Wyckoff Farmhouse: The Wyckoff Farmhouse at Clarendon Rd. and Ralph Avenue in Flatbush is the oldest building in all of New York City. From noon to 4 p.m. on Sat., Dec. 6, they will celebrate St. Nicholas Day with the jolly fellow himself, as well as colonial music, traditional treats and crafts for the kids. Call 718-768-3195 for more info.

The House on President Street

Christopher's Gray's Streetscapes column in the New York Times was dedicated last week to the house at 869 President St. in Park Slope, also known as the Woodford House, after its first owner Stewart Lyndon Woodford. The article relies heavily on information gathered from the old Brooklyn Eagle archives, and includes a lot of architectural detail on the "peculiar" house and its architect, Henry Ogden Avery.

Woodford held several political posts such as lieutenant governor, assistant US attorney and ambassador to Spain under President McKinley. The article neglects to mention that he was also a congressman representing Brooklyn , 1872-74, a detail found in the Park Slope Neighborhood History Guide released by the Brooklyn Historical Society this past summer.

That publication also clarifies that the reason the architect Avery left a small body of work was that he died at the young age of 38. His father was the art collector and dealer Samuel Putnam Avery, and after his son died he endowed Columbia University's architectural and fine arts library in his name.
* The picture above is from An Architectural Guide to Brooklyn by Francis Morrone