Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Pfizer Founded in Brooklyn

As the pharmaceutical company Pfizer has been in the news lately for its $68 billion acquisition of the company Wyeth, I thought it a good time to remind people that this multi-national giant got its start in Brooklyn.

Long before it lifted the nation's spirits, among other things, with the development of Viagra, Pfizer got its start in a modest brick building in Williamsburg in 1849. It was founded by German immigrant and chemist Charles Pfizer, who borrowed $2,500 from his dad and partnered with his cousin, Charles Erhart, a confectioner. Their first success was an antiseptic used to treat intestinal worms that they flavored with toffee. Yum.

Charles Pfizer lived with his family in one of the fancy mansions that can still be found along Washington Avenue in Clinton Hill, though they are mostly broken up into apartments now. He passed away in 1906 and his son Emile took over as president of the company until 1941. In 1942, the company went public and no Pfizer family member was ever directly involved with running it again.

Though Pfizer moved its headquarters to Manhattan as early as the 1860s, it kept a plant open in Brooklyn, which it only just closed in 2007. It was a small packaging operation that employed 600 people. Pfizer now employs close to 100,000 people worldwide.

Aside from addressing erectile dysfunction, we can thank Pfizer for the mass production of penicillin, which sure came in handy during World War II.
The photo above shows Charles Pfizer with his family in 1870. It is from the book Historic Photos of Brookyn by John Manbeck


Guide to Cobble Hill [Lost City]

Ambling Across a Frozen East River [Brooklynology]

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tour the Brooklyn Historical Society!

The Brooklyn Historical Society will be offering tours of its beautiful building on Pierrepont St. on three Saturdays in the coming month (Jan. 31, Feb. 21, and Feb. 28). They promise a "'more than meets the eye' history of one of Brooklyn’s premier cultural institutions." The tours begin at 2 p.m.

Aside from all the treasures stored within, the Historical Society's building itself is a gem. Its reddish, terra-cotta exterior is pretty striking, especially when you look up and notice the sculptures of historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Shakespeare, and Gutenberg that crown the top. It was designed by George Post in 1878, the same fellow who did the domed Williamsburg Savings Bank on Broadway in W'burg.

The inside is no less beautiful than the outside, especially the Othmer Library, which is on the second floor. It's got more dark wood than you can shake a reference book at, with two levels of floor to ceiling book shelves. It looks like something that would be in some enormous British manor, and anytime I try to do work there, I'm distracted by how lovely it is. The reading room at the main branch of the New York Public Library has the same effect on me.

I think a BHS employee once told me Othmer Library was one of only two or three landmarked interior spaces in all of Brooklyn - the lobby of the Williamsburg Savings Bank being another.

Anyhow, if you haven't been, I suggest you hop on to one of these tours and get the skinny on the whole building.

As a primer, here's a link to an article from the now-defunct New York Sun that architectural historian Francis Morrone wrote about BHS: Mother-Lode Brooklyn

Exterior photo is courtesy of and the photo of Othmer Library is courtesy of


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Coney Coaster Was a First

We all know that Coney Island is home to the famous Cyclone rollercoaster, thrilling passengers since 1927. But Coney is also home to a more substantial rollercoaster history - it was where the very first one was built, according to an Eagle article.

The thrill ride was patented by LaMarcus Adna (L.A.) Thompson in 1885. Thompson’s ride was patterned after the 1878 patent of another Brooklynite, Richard Knudsen, who fashioned an “inclined-plane railway.”

Thompson made a pretty penny off of his "switchback railway" on the Coney shore and went on to build many similar rides in Europe and the U.S., and to patent 30 different improvements to the ride, such as a connected train of cars on which to ride the track.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

BAM: The Theater That Just Won't Quit

The New York Times reported Tuesday that BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) is bravely beginning a new expansion in this hostile economic climate, with new theater space, cinemas and an art gallery in the works. BAM, one of the oldest continuously running performing arts spaces in the country, will formally announce this "Next Stage" campaign on Wednesday evening. (Look to the Eagle's INBrooklyn arts supplement later this week for an interview with BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo).

BAM has a long history of staying ahead of the curve, despite whatever hardships may try to stifle it. It had its opening performance on Jan. 16, 1861, and was originally located on Montague Street, near the then City of Brooklyn’s civic center. None other than the first lady, Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, was in attendance at a performance during the academy’s opening week.

For many Brooklynites, BAM signified that their growing city had staked a claim on the sophistication and culture then reserved for Manhattan. Brooklyn was no longer “an overgrown village,” the Brooklyn Eagle wrote in the wake of BAM's opening.

Two auxiliary buildings were erected on Montague St. One known as Knickerbocker Hall, a two-story, 70-foot-long building, was just west of the academy. It housed a gigantic restaurant where delicacies were served by waitresses dressed in red, white and blue uniforms. The other structure was across the street from the academy and housed the Hall of Manufactures, displaying various industrial products.

During the 19th century BAM hosted such luminaries as Edwin Booth, Isadora Duncan, Enrico Caruso, Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain. But on the morning of Nov. 30, 1903 the original BAM theatre on Montague Street burned to the ground. The real estate had been worth so much, however, that the academy's stock went up the day after the fire. They rebuilt in Fort Greene on Lafayette Avenue—the eclectic Beaux Arts-style brick building was designed by noted theater architects Henry Beaumont Herts and Hugh Tallant.

The new theater held its opening night performance on Nov. 8, 1908 with Enrico Caruso starring in Faust. As the 20th century progressed, audiences came to BAM to see Martha Graham's Dance Group illustrate John Martin's lecture "How to Look at Dancing," or hear Thomas Mann speak on democracy, or look on in awe as Sergei Rachmaninoff gave virtuoso piano recitals.

In 1967, the modern BAM was born when a young Harvey Lichtenstein took the reins and opened the institution to modern choreographers like Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, and Alvin Ailey-who would reshape the art form of dance.
For the past 10 years, BAM has been in the able hands of President Karen Brooks Hopkins and Executive Producer Joseph Melillo, who have seen attendance double during their tenure.

Read more on early BAM history here: BAM Opens on Montague Street [Eagle]
The photo above is a sketch of the interior of BAM's original theater on Montague Street.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Guess the Dead Do Know Brooklyn

In some sort of fit of macabre curiosity last week, I suddenly became interested in Brooklyn's cemeteries. I became further creeped out and intrigued when I realized there must be more dead than alive in Brooklyn.

We've really got it all when it comes to graveyards - one of the most famous (Green-Wood), some big old rural ones (Evergreens and Cypress Hills), and some really old Dutch ones that date back to well before the Revolutionary War (Gravesend, Flatbush, New Utrecht).

If you're up for it, you can read a story about them I wrote for the Eagle last week, Where Brooklyn is Laid to Rest

Cemeteries must have been on the brain over at Brooklynology as well, because they posted this item, Two Cemeteries, as well as a great post on minstrel shows in Brooklyn [Minstrel History in History]. (If you're interested in minstrel history in NYC, David Roedigger's book The Wages of Whiteness, has a whole interesting chapter about it.)

The photo above is of the graveyard next to the Flatbush Reformed Church on Church St., not far from Prospect Park in Flatbush. It dates back to the 1600s.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Beloved Winston and His Brooklyn Breeding

Winston Churchill was awesome for the following reasons:

1. He was full of curmudgeonly quips (i.e. "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea." "Lady Astor, If you were my wife, I'd drink it.")

2. He knew that Hitler guy was gonna be a big problem before anyone else did, at least according to his own history on the war.

2a. Once it became apparent he was right, he became Prime Minister and held down the fort until the U.S. got in on the action in 1941, all the while delivering inspiring speeches ("We shall never surrender!"), and always making time for a nap.

3. His mom was from Brooklyn!

That's right, Winston's mum, Jenny Jerome, was an American, born and bred in Brooklyn. Cobble Hill to be precise.

In 1953, it made front page news in the Eagle when Winston came to Brooklyn to visit the house at 426 Henry St. where she was born. He reportedly called it "a very moving occasion," and the then-owners of the house presented him with a foot-long cigar.

There is some debate as to whether or not 426 Henry is the correct house, though. You can read all about that in my other post: Winston Churchill's Mother Jennie Jerome Was Born in Cobble Hill, But in Which House?

Jenny Jerome was the daughter of millionaire Leonard Jerome and met Lord Randolph Churchill when she moved to Europe with her mother and sisters. Randolph died in 1895, and Jenny remarried twice, but not before she gave birth to little Winston on Nov. 30, 1874, thus changing the world forever!! And it all started in Brooklyn, well, at least some of it did.

More here: Winnie's Day in Brooklyn [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]


Monday, January 5, 2009

Brooklyn History as Seen Through Lain's City Directory

A new post on Brooklynology reminded me of a fine piece of history written by my colleague Dennis Holt. Dennis had the good fortune to stumble upon an 1885 edition of Lain's City Directory. It was sitting atop a pile of someone's garbage heap, and I can guarantee you he clicked his heels on the way home after finding it. It's true what they say about one man's trash...

Before phone books, city directories were published and included information such as address, occupation and race (see Brooklynology for more on race) for pretty much everyone in the city.

Dennis aggregated all the household information for a particular area, in this case Atlantic Avenue from the harbor to Fourth Avenue, and came up with a fascinating portrait of the thoroughfare as it was in 1885.
For example, he knew that there were 549 storefronts, among them 34 grocery stores, 28 tailors, 21 hair dressers, 21 butchers, 14 candy stores, 14 saloons, 10 laundries and 8 undertakers, along with a variety of other establishments.

His history of the street was first published to coincide with the Atlantic Antic in 1989, and it was written for The Phoenix, an old community paper that focused on Brooklyn's rising from the ashes (Don't forget, the Bronx wasn't the only place that was burning.) It's lengthy, but it's a good read. Check it out here: Atlantic Avenue: Portrait of a Brooklyn Street in 1885

And for your personal enjoyment, you can read some city directories at the Brooklyn Public Library or at the Brooklyn Historical Society, unless you're fortunate enough to find one in someone's trash.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Brooklyn's House of Steel

After meeting a petite Greek gentleman at the Society of Old Brooklynites Christmas party, I received a package with some news articles about his life, and his extraordinary home in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, which is made entirely of steel.

He bought the house, known in the neighborhood as "the sugar cube," with his wife Niki in 1967, and believes it was designed by William Van Alen, who is also responsible for the Empire State Building.
According to New York Times columnist Chistopher Gray, who wrote about the house in 2000, Van Alen devised an all-steel, pre-fabricated house in 1935, at a time when architects were charged with creating cheaper housing options.

Van Alen built a model house on Park Avenue in 1936, which drew 1,500 viewers on its first day. Four days later, the property lot in Sea Gate, 5100 Ocean View Avenue, was purchased by Dean Gilmore and a steel house was built there. The house passed through a few owners before it came to Spanakos, who owns drawings by Van Alen with details and descriptions that match his abode. So, though there is no smoking gun (a building permit), it seems likely the house was of Van Alen's design.

The house is painted white and sits right on the ocean. It's unlikely you would notice anything peculiar about the house if you were just passing by (in fact, it's unlikely you'd be just passing by since Sea Gate is a gated community), but if you went in, you may notice they hang their house plants from the ceiling using magnets.

Mr. Spanakos (pictured at right) holds another claim to fame. He and his twin brother Nick, who grew up in Red Hook - the Red Hook that can only shake its head in disbelief at the Swedish mega-stores and reality television shows that now grace it - are the only identical twins ever to win boxing championships on the same night in New York City, on Feb. 22, 1955. Beat that.
Also of Interest: