These Walls Talk: Story of an 1830s Brooklyn House

I AM BACK in Brooklyn for the winter and turning my attention to another of my vintage properties, one that hasn’t had much love in recent years: a four-story brick in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, located conveniently but noisily between two major arteries, Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenue.

Doesn’t look like much, perhaps, with the fire escape and all, but it has history. I found out recently that it was built in 1835 by a mason named Ezekiel C. Frost, who had a Fulton Street address. It was a pretty fancy house at one time; you rarely see a Brooklyn row house with windows on the hallway stair landings, which this one has.

Land conveyance document showing the builder’s sale (of a possibly uncompleted house, as he had just bought the lot four or five months earlier) to John W. Hyatt on February 23, 1836. Hyatt owned it a couple months before flipping it to someone else… and so it went.

There’s no stoop, just a couple of steps up to the front door, surrounded by original carved wood moldings in a plain but obvious Greek Revival style. The parlor floor’s high ceilings were once bedecked with ornamental plasterwork.

When we bought the building vacant in 1979, it was unlivable, an utter wreck, with graffiti on the inside and other relics of NYC’s bad old days (metal gates across windows, steel apartment doors). The pipes had frozen and burst; the boiler was useless. But a few decorative details, including fluted moldings around the tall windows on the parlor floor, had miraculously survived.

The parlor floor as it looks today.

It took us four years to renovate the building, much of it hands-on, into three rental apartments — a ground floor one-bedroom, which replaced a former bodega; a 4-bedroom duplex on the parlor and third floors, above, created by installing an interior stair; and a top floor two-bedroom.

There were even a few shards of plaster detail left forty years ago, but we were so naive about historic preservation, we didn’t save them. I cringe to report that the bits and pieces of plaster we threw away in 1979 suggested our house may have had something akin to the plasterwork in the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, below, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, though not as ornate.

The house had a hectic history, which I delved into one Saturday morning last month at the Brooklyn Historical Society. In a two-hour workshop called “If These Walls Could Talk,” held in the hushed late-Victorian library of the BHS on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, we were introduced to various resources and materials, including maps, land conveyance documents and residential directories. There are also invaluable websites, notably the digitized archives of The Brooklyn Eagle, a daily newspaper that began publishing in the 1850s. (I wasn’t a total newbie at this; I did a similar workshop a few years back, researching our Cobble Hill building.)

That afternoon, I spent a further few hours in the library, coming away with a real sense of lived history, of the specific individuals who worked, ate, socialized on the very same wide-plank floorboards we’ve sanded and re-sanded and patched and filled, because they’re too full of character to replace.

Most moving of all were some 1850s classifieds in the Eagle, advertising ponies for sale, lost earrings, musical instruments (“French tremolo $20, Spanish guitar (a gem, only $35), English concertina $20”). Real people with real lives, who wore top hats and bustles and took meals at a communal table, meals probably prepared in what is now our basement boiler room.

Housing classifieds in the same paper of the same period were even more revealing. Seems the house may never have been used as a single-family home, but was always a multi-unit building. Individual floors and rooms were advertised to let, with or without board.

TO RENT – A beautiful parlor floor in a first class house; gas, water, &c. In good order; inquire of Mrs. Scott from 10 A.M. to-morrow till 3 P.M.

BOARD – Gentlemen and their wives, or five or six single gentlemen, can be accommodated in pleasant front or back rooms, on first or second floors, with good board. Cars pass the door.

Among the other intriguing things I found out:

  • The house’s original address, as the street name was different in the 19th century. That was key to finding out other things, but not all. Land conveyance documents are based not on addresses, but on not-to-scale lot drawings showing measurements from nearby street corners.
  • The house was likely built as a spec project right around the date I had surmised. It is a less grand version of the 1832 Old Merchant’s House, a historic house museum on East 4th Street in Manhattan, similar in proportion, detail and layout.
  • It changed hands, as did most of the other lots on the block and in the neighborhood, many, MANY times over the course of Brooklyn’s 19th century building and real estate booms.
  • There were births and deaths in the building, not to mention foreclosures and bankruptcies and day-after-Christmas visiting hours, when a pastor lived there in the 1890s.
  • That because of all the frantic flipping, continuing into the 20th century, my wasband and I have owned the building far longer than anyone else ever did.

It may have been this last startling realization that recharged my sense of responsibility toward this historic, if degraded, property. It spurred me to plan a spiffing-up, this coming winter, of the public halls, which haven’t been painted in many years and are sorely in need of new floor tile and stair carpet.

My cosmetic improvements are happening at a time when the house is about to be dwarfed by a mixed-use complex known as 80 Flatbush (renderings above — it’s the weird basket-shaped thing), with two towers of 40-something and nearly 70 stories. Ezekiel Frost would be very surprised.

The construction will take eight years. But this house is a survivor, and it will go on.

127 Winters Ago in Brooklyn


HAPPY NEW YEAR, devoted readers and anyone who may have landed accidentally on my humble six-year-old blog.

For my first post of 2015, here’s a small sampling of seasonally appropriate photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s online photo database. It’s a tremendous resource, and great fun to search when you’ve got a free evening or it’s too damn cold to go outside.

The images in this post are lantern slides, glass transparencies to be viewed through a projector (called a ‘magic lantern’) that casts the image on a wall. They were all taken by Adrian Vanderveer Martense (1852-1898), a lawyer by profession and an amateur photographer. Martense documented houses, streets, and his friends and neighbors in Flatbush, as well as momentous events like the legendary blizzard of March 1888 and the moving of the Hotel Brighton in Coney Island in April 1888. He was a member of the Brooklyn Academy of Photography and served as its first recording secretary when it was established in 1887 (it later became the Brooklyn Camera Club).

Top: Adrian Martense, center, with pinhole camera, along with two other men and a boy on a tricycle, c.1880

Martense was descended from Dutch settlers who came to Brooklyn in the 17th century. His family’s land is now part of Greenwood Cemetery. Some of the photos in this post show a rural side of 19th century Brooklyn; others were taken downtown and show buildings that still exist. Most of these were taken on March 15, 1888, when Martense evidently set out to record the aftermath of the great blizzard in several different neighborhoods. And aren’t we glad he did?


Men standing at side of stage sleigh after blizzard


Men clearing snow from Flatbush Avenue train tracks after the blizzard


Children climbing into the back of a horse-drawn sleigh at Flatbush Avenue and Clarkson Avenue following the 1888 blizzard


Man standing in front of City Hall (now Borough Hall) and elevated train tracks after the blizzard


Man in front of coal and wood shop, as other men work to clear snow from the streets at Flatbush Avenue and Bergen Street


Horse-drawn carriage stopped in front of 7 Sutherland Sisters, on Clinton Avenue near the corner of Fulton Street, after the blizzard


People walking between piles of cleared snow at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, following the blizzard


Horse-drawn carriage in snow-covered street, c.1890


Street car and horse-drawn carriage at Adams Street and Willoughby Street under the elevated train, with men standing on the sidewalk

This is just a tiny sample of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Martense collection; you can see them all right here.

The Fascination of Faded Ads

Midtown Manhattan

WHAT IS IT ABOUT those barely-there painted billboards of yesteryear you occasionally spot — often, perhaps, spot if you are purposefully looking for them — clinging to the sides of old buildings like ghosts of another era?


That’s just it, I guess, the fascination: their ability to persist through the radical changes in the built environment around them, as well as their bold size. They’re hangers-on from a day when the most exciting way to advertise soda and zippers and other then-novel products was to emblazon them fifty feet high on a brick wall.

New York City

Frank Jump is one of those who purposely looks. A blogger and author of The Fading Ads of New York City, published last November by the History Press, he is speaking tonight (Wednesday, February 15, 2012) at 7PM at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and no doubt, showing examples from his long-running photographic project documenting vintage murals on building facades, many of which have been covered up or otherwise destroyed since he captured them.


Tickets are $10, $8 for BHS members. For more info, go here.

Photos: Frank Jump, 1997-8

Fort Greene Then & Now


ARE YOU ON THE EMAIL LIST of the Brooklyn Historical Society? It’s worth it for their  “Photo of the Week,” a gem from their archives that never fails to get my attention. This morning came the ca. 1897 shot above, of three horses drinking from a fountain at the intersection of Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, a block from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The accompanying info, from the BHS’s 1897 and 1898 city directories, reveals that 63 Lafayette was occupied by Joseph Nadler, a ladies’ tailor; 65 Lafayette by William H. Fricke, a furrier, and August Kretzer, a grocer; and #67 by Theo. Eisenbiegler, a butcher.

Although some embellishments have been added, the buildings are still standing, as visible in the Google street view, below.

To see more online images from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s collection, pop on over here.

Researching a Cobble Hill Alley


Verandah Place in the 1930s

A COUPLE OF HOURS SPENT IN THE STACKS of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s library goes a long way toward understanding what Brooklyn was really like in the days when our brownstone neighborhoods were first carved out of farmland into building lots — who lived here, and just how it all came to be.

Last Saturday, I took part in the BHS’s ‘Research Your Old House’ workshop, an introduction to the resources of this venerable institution. It’s now open Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from 1-5 without appointment, to use books, periodicals, atlases, scrapbooks, directories, files of newspaper clippings, and a database of digitized images and oral histories.

For the two dozen who attended the workshop, there’s probably nothing more thrilling than sitting in a balconied Victorian-era chamber and being handed a stack of brittle papers with 19th century drawings and notes detailing the conveyance, or transfer, of property over the decades. You almost can’t believe you’re being allowed to handle them at all. These documents are called  Land Conveyances, and they show the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) in every real estate exchange going back to 1699, and provide leads for follow-up research — original deeds and such — at the Brooklyn Hall of Records a few blocks away.


Verandah Place today

There’s lots more, but I didn’t get past the Land Conveyance documents, as the sheaf of papers pertaining to the Cobble Hill block I was researching —  bounded by Warren (formerly John), Henry, Congress, and Clinton Streets, that includes today’s Cobble Hill Park, and Verandah Place, a mews alley on which my family has owned a house since 1986 — was at least 3 inches high. It took me the whole two hours to go through the stack, in the course of which I discovered, among other things, that:

  • A 170’x245′ plot of land that later was to include our house was conveyed in 1838 by Conklin Brush (mayor of Brooklyn 1851-2) to George S. Howland, along with an “alley 20 feet wide lying immediately north thereof as laid down on said map”
  • By 1853, the land had passed to Edward W. Dunham, and the unnamed alley of 20 feet “is to be kept and used in common to all lots between Henry and Clinton Streets”
  • In May 1854, a plot of land — whether with or without a house is not clear from these papers, but measuring the exact dimensions of our lot (21’x65′), and the correct distance from the corner of Henry Street, was granted to Stephen B. Harriman by Edward W. Dunham. [If you go to the BHS library to research a house, you need to know the distance of the house in question from the nearest street corner, as there are no lot numbers or addresses, and the surveyors’ pencil sketches that accompany the Land Conveyances are not to scale]. The alley is now written as Veranda Place (no final “h”). I believe this was the first sale of the new house, which I’ve long known dates from the 1850s. It seems that Stephen B. Harriman was the first owner. But did Dunham build it?
  • Ten years later, in October 1864, the house passed from Harriman to Eliza A. Denham (not Dunham?) and then, in 1868, from Amanda P. Harriman (the notation ‘….of Stephen B’ – wife? mother? daughter? – is illegible) to Charles A. Eckert (what happened to Eliza?), a wine merchant who had a business at 123 Atlantic Avenue
  • Eckert owned the property (and many others in the area) for 24 years, until he died in 1892. His executors sold the house to Ann Burns, wife of Michael Burns (why all the women’s names on these documents?)

It only got more interesting when I got home. As it turns out, there’s plenty that can be discovered without leaving your house at all, particularly the online database of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which published from 1855 until the 1960s. It’s been archived by the Brooklyn Public Library in its entirety and is searchable by keyword. What a goldmine! I can’t believe I didn’t know about it before.

Reading through the Eagle‘s ads and articles, and searching on the names of the various people in the Land Conveyances — learning about the death of one early owner’s 2-year-old, for instance, and seeing the ‘Situation Wanted’ ads for laundress and housecleaning positions run by residents of our address — finally began to make the abstract real for me.

One priceless article, from Dec. 2, 1900, below, reveals that Verandah Place at the turn of the 20th century was so rowdy the neighbors on Warren Street tried to wall it off. They had to put up with “riotous conduct,” “maudlin songs,” and “language more forcible than polite float[ing] out of the rear windows of the tenements, across the sodded lawns and into the dining rooms of the Warren Street residents,” not to mention the “decaying fruit and vegetable matter cast daily into their scrupulousy clean backyards.”

Another clipping with the same date, below, actually shows a picture of the board fences erected by the irate Warren Street neighbors, and describes the tenants as “poor people, whites and blacks.”


All that really paints a picture. My fond imaginings that our house was lovingly occupied and cared for in earlier years have been dashed. But I can’t help identifying a little with the ‘obstreperous’ residents of Verandah Place. We had a few wild parties ourselves over the years. Fortunately, our neighbors on Warren never got quite that pissed off.