Bottle Beach and Dead Horse Bay

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Bottle Beach at Dead Horse Bay. These bottles and other debris fall out of the landfill under the embankment behind the beach.

 

Many Brooklynites have heard of Bottle Beach, often called Glass Bottle Beach, the stretch of beach along Flatbush Avenue opposite Floyd Bennett Field just before the Marine Parkway Bridge to the Rockaways. It’s one of the most litter-strewn beaches you’ll find anywhere in the world, with every step falling onto not just glass bottles, but all manner of recrement ranging from pieces of animal bones to shoes to tables to refrigerators, the type of trash changing on every visit. Where does all this dross come from?

The water lapping onto the beach is known as Dead Horse Bay, and the beach’s dirty (literally) little secret is that its scattered detritus comes not from the waters of the bay but from under the sand on the embankments behind it. In the nineteenth century, horses were a big part of everyday life. By 1880, there were upwards of 100,000 horses in New York City, working as the engines for streetcars, drays, and coaches. Their utility was indispensable, but they posed huge health hazards, each one generating +/- twenty pounds of solid waste and a quart of urine per day. In addition to that problem, they often died in the street, from sickness or overwork, and a carcass often remained where it fell until it had rotted and dried out enough to be easily carted away.

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Prior to being connected to the mainland, Barren Island (lower right) in Jamaica Bay could be accessed by walking through the marshland north of the island.

As people became more aware of how disease spreads, officials looked for a place to process the horses’ bodies and contracted the job to several “horse rendering plants” (read glue factories) on Barren Island, an isolated spot in Jamaica Bay. In addition to horses, the plants processed dogs and cats, cows, goats, pigs, etc., all commonly found throughout New York City and Brooklyn in those days. Besides glue, the factories turned out soap, fertilizer and grease. The island became known throughout the area as the most foul-smelling place in the state, and maybe the country. The workers who lived there with their families were considered somewhat less than human. The post-processing remains of the animals, mainly bones, were dumped into the bay, which along this stretch now carries the Dead Horse moniker.

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A factory on Barren Island, c. 1911. From the Brooklyn Collection of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Once Brooklyn became part of New York City, the island became a repository for trash as well as offal. Later, Jamaica Bay along the eastern part of Barren Island was filled in with sand dredged from elsewhere in the bay, connecting a few other islands together and to the mainland in order to build Floyd Bennett Field, which opened in 1930. The water around these islands had always been shallow and marshy, and the Dutch settlers walked through the bay water from one island to the next and back to the mainland, so filling in all those channels in was not a huge engineering feat. The western side of the former island continued to be used as a dump, and as Robert Moses bulldozed entire neighborhoods to make way for his expressways, many of the poorer homeowners and renters in the right-of-way areas were forced out with not much more than the clothes on their backs. The debris from these swaths of razed homes were sent to Dead Horse Bay, including clothing, furnishings, mementos, photos, and keepsakes, all of which now fall out of the sand banks and onto the beach along with the broken remnants of horse bones and bottles.

 


 

Pioneer Works

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There are so many reasons to love Red Hook: The waterfront, the many old warehouse buildings, now housing great modern shops and manufacturing companies such as German Kitchen Center

, the Red Hook Winery, Scanlon Glass, Steve’s Key Lime Pie, and Fairway, as well as more modern constructions like IKEA; the quaint nineteenth-century row houses along the narrow streets and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal at Atlantic Basin; and the baseball and soccer fields and the large public pool at the Sol Goldman Rec Center. There are also many arts and community organizations, both commercial and non-profit, that attract visitors from all over the metro area. These include the Waterfront Museum Barge, The Brooklyn Waterfront Artist’s Coalition Gallery, and Added Value Farms.

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A group listening to an artist talk about his work at the Potoprens exhibit at Pioneer Works, September 2018.

One of the larger of the arts organizations is Pioneer Works, located in a former Ironwork factory at 159 Pioneer Street, at the foot of Imlay Street  between Van Brunt and Conover Streets. Pioneer Works is a cultural center “dedicated to experimentation, education, and production across disciplines. Through a broad range of educational programs, performances, residencies, and exhibitions, Pioneer Works transcends disciplinary boundaries to foster a community where alternative modes of thought are activated and supported.” In plainer English, the organization’s goal is “to make culture accessible to all.”

One of the ways it does that is through its Second Sundays events. Second Sundays is a free event series which provides the public free access to tour the space, visit the studios of current resident artists, and view the current exhibitions. There is live music, and the organization’s program leaders give hands-on demonstrations and programs in art, education, science, and technology.

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One of the twenty artists exhibiting work at the Potoprens show talks about his work.

The center offers classes in each of its different focuses, i.e., art, science, technology, and music. Many classes relate to the current exhibitions. Admission is free, though a reservation is required. A link to order a free ticket is on the page of each program, class, or talk.

Scientific Controversies (Sci Con) is a series of conversations between scientists on unsolved quandaries, hosted by Director of Sciences Janna Levin. Conversations can be on any scientific riddle, such as Swarm Intelligence, String Theory, Black Holes, or Dark Matter.

One of the more well-known events sponsored by Pioneer Works is the annual Red Hook Regatta, in which homemade boats race along the Red Hook waterfront in New York Harbor.  The 2018 regatta, the fourth annual, takes place on September 28th. The race features two classes of boats, 3-D printed boats and general do-it-yourself boats. All boats must fit in a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ box. Electronic controllers are provided by Pioneers Works. Registration and controller-kit pickup ends on September 9th.  Full rules are here. Spectators can watch from Valentino Park pier from 1:00-5:00 p.m. The event is free, and there is catered food available (not free) and live entertainment during a half-time break.

Visit the center’s Web site for a complete list of current goings on.

Some History

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A picture of one of the steamrollers made at the Pioneer Iron Works near the close of  the 19th century. The building is now the home of the Pioneer Works cultural center.

The original Pioneer Iron Works factory opened by circa 1866 on Williams Street at the foot of Imlay Street, under the ownership of Alexander Bass. Ten years later the company was a leading manufacturer of tar kettles and steamrollers for road construction, and sugar production machinery and “temporary railroads,” the latter two products sold to companies in Cuba to be used on sugar plantations. The factory suffered two devastating fires, one in 1881 and one in 1906 but was rebuilt each time. The company closed in the mid-1940s, about the same time as the end of World War II, and the building was used for some time after as a storage facility for the Time Moving Company.

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Map detail from 1903 showing both William and Pioneer as the names of the street where the Pioneer Iron Works was.

William Street was renamed Pioneer Street around the turn of the twentieth Century. Maps from 1898 have the way named William Street. By 1903, both names, William and Pioneer, are used as the name. Eventually, William was dropped completely.

We’re repeat visitors to the center and to  Second Sundays, and can say it’s well worth a stop-by any time you’re in Red Hook, which we think should be fairly often.

Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street
Hours: Thurs – Sun, 2 – 7      Admission: FREE!

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The Brooklyn Theatre Fire

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The aftermath of the Brooklyn Theatre Fire, which claimed the lives of at least 278 men, women, and children, many burned beyond recognition.

 

On December 5, 1876, upwards of 900 people were gathered in the Brooklyn Theatre enjoying a production of The Two Orphans, starring Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock. Claxton especially was a major star of her day, and the play, a melodrama in five acts adapted from a French play, would go on to be one of the most produced theatre pieces in the country well into the twentieth century. Just at the beginning of the final act, a cotton backdrop above the stage swayed close to a gaslight and caught fire. Several crewmen attempted to dowse the flames without stopping the show or sounding any alarms, but failed, and in the conflagration and ensuing panic that followed, at least 278 people died (an exact number was never determined). The theatre burned to the ground in ninety minutes.

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A post card depicting the Brooklyn Theatre, which opened in 1871 and burned down in 1876.

The Brooklyn Theatre stood on the corner of Johnson and Washington Streets (now Cadman Plaza East at this junction), directly across Johnson Street from where the U.S. Post Office building now stands. Built in 1871, the theatre was made mostly of wood, and was lit by gaslights. The auditorium rose three tiers high, including the first-floor Parquet Circle, a second-level Dress Circle balcony, and the Family Circle (the cheap seats) on the top tier. This third level was accessible by just one switchback staircase, and once upstairs, there was no way out except that staircase. Most of the dead had been sitting in this section of the theatre.

It was between the fourth and fifth acts that a crew member noticed the small fire in the rear fly area above the stage. Rather than evacuate the theatre, it was decided to put out the flames while the show went on. Most theatres at the time kept water buckets and wet blankets backstage for smothering small fires, and the Brooklyn Theatre had a hose tied into a dedicated water pipe. However, all those were on the deck and the fire, small though it was, was in the air, and when the curtain rose for the final act, the inrush of air from the auditorium fanned the flames, which ignited other scenic drops and the dry wood battens that held them, and the fire took off.

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A map, circa 1840, with the superimposed red area showing the location of the Brooklyn Theatre, which was built in 1871.

The performers onstage bravely tried to calm the audience as it rose and ran for the exits, but as the fire grew, the actors, too, ran to escape. Foolishly, Murdoch and castmate Claude Burroughs, a popular young rising star, went to their dressing rooms to grab warmer clothes than their costumes allowed, and both perished. Claxton and another actress, Maude Harrison, escaped through an underground passage that led from their dressing room to the box office on Washington Street.

Newspaper accounts of the fire describe horrific scenes of people being trampled, trapped, and jumping from windows, of which there were few, and ventilator outlets, and the collapse of the still-crowded and burning Family Circle tier into the middle of the ground level and on into the theatre’s basement.

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A report of the fire as published in the Brooklyn Eagle within days of the event.

The list of the dead includes not just adults, but many children and teenagers. Of the 278 known dead, 103 bodies were unidentifiable and were buried together in a mass grave in Green-wood Cemetery, where an obelisk stands today marking their final resting place.

The Brooklyn Theatre fire was at the time the worst public-assembly fire disaster in U.S. history, and today remains the third worst. A new fire code was instituted as a response, and included requiring theatres to have brick proscenium walls rather than wood, and to have a fire-proof house curtain. Those curtains, of course, were for almost 100 years after made of asbestos, now a known carcinogen and banned substance.

A fascinating footnote to the fire concerns Kate Claxton. As noted, she was a popular, highly regarded actor at the time of the fire, but just months later, she traveled to St. Louis to perform in a show there, and just after she arrived, her hotel burned down, with Claxton making another last-second escape. Thereafter, many actors refused to join any show she was in, and superstitious audiences fearfully avoided her performances. Her career was irreparably damaged.

 


 

Where’s the Hill in Boerum Hill?

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Boerum Hill offers many boutique shops of all kinds along Atlantic Avenue.

 

Boerum Hill might be Brooklyn’s most quietly popular neighborhood. For decades it was considered a great place to avoid at all costs, and even today many people raise their eyebrows at the area’s mention. For those who have taken the plunge and moved here it is a calm oasis of city living, a peaceful alternative to the more hectic pace associated with the its surrounding neighbors: Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Park Slope, Fort Greene, and Downtown Brooklyn.

The neighborhood is bounded by Schermerhorn Street on the north, angling down Flatbush Avenue and Fourth Avenue on the east, Warren Street on the south, and Smith Street on the West. Most of the residential streets are lined with one-to-four-family brick or brownstone row houses dating from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries. In addition, there are two mid-rise housing projects built after World War II and a raft of new condo buildings along or near Fourth Avenue on the East side of the nabe. It is consistently in the top five on lists of the most expensive neighborhoods in Brooklyn.

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Many of the buildings in the area are landmarked, and these storefronts provide a taste of what the neighborhood was like fifty or more years ago.

Location is everything, and Boerum Hill is perfectly situated near shopping, dining, entertainment, and transportation. There are stylish storefronts all along Atlantic Avenue between Smith and Nevins Streets; Smith Street is lined with restaurants and watering holes, as well has having a variety of clothing stores and delis; Fulton Mall is just above Boerum Place in Downtown; and the Barclays Center, BAM, and the Fort Greene cultural district are just across Flatbush Avenue. At that same location is Atlantic Terminal, with a full-scale shopping mall and the Long Island Railroad’s Brooklyn terminal and MTA subway hub for the B,D,N,Q, and R trains. The A, C, and G trains are at Hoyt-Schermerhorn Street, and the F and G are at Bergen and Smith Streets.

When the Dutch first arrived in the Boerum Hill area it was populated by the Lenape and Merechewick [spelling varies with sources] Indians. The area was eventually divided into parcels with Dutch owners with now-familiar names such as Bergen, Van Brunt, Cortelyou, Rapelje, and Boerum. England took over new Amsterdam in 1664, but the Dutch families in Brooklyn remained as citizens and landowners in the now English colony of New York. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the area had been further subdivided, but remained mostly farms and mills. During the revolution there was heavy fighting all around the area, in Park Slope Bed-Stuy, Gowanus, and Brooklyn Heights, but other than troops passing through or manning fortifications, not much happened in what’s now Boerum Hill. The nineteenth century was the major period of development throughout the northern half of Brooklyn, with the grid laid out, streets named—many carrying the monikers of those Dutch settlers–and today’s housing stock erected. The area became a magnet for immigrants, and waves of German, Irish, and Italians came into the neighborhood from the 1850s through the first half of the twentieth century.

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A Mohawk atop a steel girder high above Second Avenue, the Chrysler building behind.

The 1900s saw the rise of New York’s steel-and-stone skyscrapers, including the iconic Woolworth, Chrysler, and Empire State Buildings. A number of the ironworkers on these buildings were Mohawk Indians from Canada, who were adept at traversing through the steel-beam superstructures high above ground. A large contingent of Caughnawaga Mohawks lived in Boerum Hill during that time, concentrated between Smith and Nevins Streets from Bergen to Schermerhorn Streets. The Mohawk population grew so large that the local stores began carrying products specifically for them, including grains and ales from the Caughnawagas’ home in Canada, and the Cuyler Presbyterian Church held services in the Mohawks’ dialect. This enclave became known as Little Caughnawaga. There are descendants of these workers living in the area today, and, tangentially to our focus, Mohawk Indians still work in the ironwork industry, including being active in the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after the September 11th attack.

All this interesting Boerum Hill history, it has to be noted, didn’t happen in Boerum Hill. The neighborhood is named for the Dutch settler Simon Boerum, who at one time owned much of the land in the area. We’ve heard that back then there was some sort of rise near what is now Carroll Park (in Carroll Gardens) called Boerum’s Hill, but the Boerum Hill name wasn’t applied to the current neighborhood until the 1960s. Until then this section was part of what was generally known as South Brooklyn; in the 1800s, residents called it North Gowanus, and in colonial times the eastern end was a wet, marshy section of the Gowanus creek waterway. There was never a hill here.

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The residences in Boerum Hill are mostly one-to-four-family brick or brownstone row houses, many with decorative railings, on tree-lined street .

 


 

The Hotel St. George

 

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The magnificent Hotel St. George at the height of its glory, taking up an entire city block in Brooklyn Heights. View here is the corner of Clark and Henry Streets.

 

Mornings and evenings in Brooklyn Heights, hundreds (thousands?) of commuters pass through a giant relic of what once was a glorious, spectacular gem of a hotel. The Hotel St. George operated for eighty years at Clark and Henry Streets, experiencing periods of broad expansion, opulent glory, and wild popularity before slipping into decline, decay, disaster, and demise.

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Postcards from the glory days of the Hotel St. George, featuring (top to bottom) the Bermuda Terrace restaurant, the Italian Village, the Colorama Ballroom (“Now Superbly Air Conditioned”), the Stardust Room, and the pool.

The Hotel St. George dates to when Brooklyn was an independent city. The initial building opened in 1885 on Clark Street, and by the 1920s had grown to an immense complex of eight buildings that took up the entire block of Henry, Clark, Hicks, and Pineapple Streets. At its zenith it offered 2,632 guest rooms, had 1,000 workers, and reigned as the largest hotel in New York City. Its unmatched grandeur included a 168,000-gallon salt water pool, a grand ballroom (one of 17 in the hotel) dubbed the Colorama for its 1,000 multi-colored light bulbs and which could hold 3,000 dancers, and dining rooms that could feed 7,000 people at the same time. Those lounges sported exotic names such as the Bermuda Terrace, the Egyptian nightclub, the Stardust Room, and the Italian Village. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the hotel’s glamor attracted the glitterati of the day and elite members of the arts, society, and politics, as well as everyday New Yorkers for weddings, celebrations, and elegant nights out through the end of the 1940s.

The hotel had permanent residents as well as transients. Suites were advertised in the early days at rates of $240 – $280 a month for four rooms. The pool was built along with what became the Tower Building and was open to the public at just ten cents for an all-day admission, drawing people from across the city. The subway station at the building entrance opened in 1919 and made the pool an easy destination to get to for families coming from as far away as the Bronx and Queens.

During World War II and the Korean War, the hotel served as housing for soldiers and sailors passing through New York as they shipped into and out of the country. (The Brooklyn Navy Yard is not far from the hotel.) Soon after, the hotel slipped into a long decline along with the rest of the borough and city during the middle-class flight to the suburbs in the decades that followed the wars. The complex was sold five times during the 1960s alone, and by the mid-70s, the pool was shut down and drained, entire floors had been closed, and the full-time staff was down to just forty employees. The remaining hotel buildings staggered through the 80s and in 1995 a huge fire destroyed the original Clark Street building.

The four Western buildings, those being the Tower, Grill, Pineapple, and Cross Hall, were parceled off to a developer who converted them to luxury rentals, but the buildings were not well managed, and tenants brought complaints and suits against the owner. In 1982, the owner converted the Tower and Grill buildings to co-ops, and those buildings have thrived since. 

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The gutted interior of the Clark Building after the horrific fire in 1995.

The pool room has been converted to a two-tiered gym and smaller pool, and the Eastern end of the hotel, along Henry Street, is now a dormitory for local college students.

These days, the many commuters that rush through the former entrance of the hotel to grab the subway that runs under Clark Street to Manhattan, just one stop away, have little, if any, knowledge of the storied  and glorious past of the once-fabulous building.

 


 

Venetian Elegance: The Prospect Park Boathouse

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The boathouse in Prospect Park, now home of the first urban Audubon Center.

 

Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s natural-wonder gem, is a fantastic funscape of outdoorsy things to do, including biking, hiking, walking, running, ball playing, sunbathing, picnicking, sledding, cross-country skiing, and more. There are also many structures throughout the park that offer even more: the playgrounds, the zoo, the band shell, the Lakeside skating center, the carousel, and the Lefferts House museum. Not to be overlooked is the boathouse, home to the first urban Audubon Center in the country.

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A late nineteenth century post card picturing the original boathouse.

The Audubon Center has been a tenant of the boathouse since the structure’s last renovation, in 2000. Prospect Park is in a designated Important Bird Area, or IBA (an actual thing), and is in the migratory path of literally hundreds of species of birds traveling through in the spring and fall. The center offers programs and instructional aids regarding these and the many local birds found in Prospect Park.

The boathouse was built in 1905, replacing a more rustic structure dating from the opening of the park in 1867. The original building stood on the edge of the Lullwater section of the park’s water course, making it an easy boarding area into the rental boats. The current structure, designed by Frank Helmle and Ulrich Huberty, is a two-story Beaux Arts-style beauty based on the Library of St. Mark in Venice. It features a long row of arched floor-to-ceiling French doors on the first floor and a terraced second floor with an awning-covered porch on the west side. Outside, there are white terra cotta eaves, and on the inside, gorgeous tiled vaulted ceilings on the first floor. A lullwater (usually put more bluntly as deadwater, but Prospect Park is a happy place) is an area of barely moving water, and these are great places for algae to grow. As a result, the water in front of the boathouse is often covered with thick algae blooms.

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Undated photo of the boathouse, from the Brooklyn Public Library’s Brooklyn Collection, via the Gowanus Lounge.

After the second World War, as the entire city fell into the post-war doldrums of the 1950s and ’60s, the boathouse fell into disrepair, was put to varied city-agency uses, and was eventually closed. It came very close to being razed in 1968, with the bulldozers scheduled, when, after months of hard work, it was saved by preservationists under the new (1966) Landmarks law just 48 hours before demolition was to begin. When you see this stunning structure and its environs today, it’s agonizing to think that it was just two days away from disappearing forever. The boathouse was one of the very first buildings to receive landmark status.

Now, two renovations since its rescue, the boathouse  has become one of the most popular destinations in the park. The immediate area around it is beautiful, with the lullwater bridge in front and the recently made over Lakeside area just to the south. Besides the Audubon Center, the boathouse doubles as a venue for weddings, receptions, and private parties. There are often boats paddling by in the Lullwater, but those are rented now at Lakeside on the lake proper.

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Algae blooms are common in the lullwater in front of the boathouse.

The next time you spend a day in Prospect Park, be sure to stop by the boathouse. You can walk, you can bike, or you can glide past in a pedal boat. No matter what your mode of travel, be sure to snap a few pictures of the magnificent Prospect Park Boathouse.

The Audubon Center is open Thursday and Friday, Noon – 5:00 p.m. and weekends 10:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m.

 


 

The New York Transit Museum

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Left to Right: A trolley car, circa 1947, a group picture of women trolley car operators during World War II, and on a trolley car in the same era. Pictures at the New York Transit Museum.

 

These are not the best of times for the New York City subway system. Underfunded by the State of New York, an outrage every New Yorker should be up in arms over, including $100 million in funded money rerouted by the governor to pay off MTA debt interest that the state should be paying, an outrage every New Yorker should be livid about, the system experiences dozens of problems effecting hundreds of thousands of riders daily. The general long-time neglect of the system was compounded by the flooding of most of the tunnels under the East River and Newtown Creek, as well as damage to the causeway across Jamaica Bay, during hurricane Sandy, nearly six years ago already. Repairs are made nightly and during every weekend, with trains rerouted or suspended, creating a nightmare for New Yorkers and a complete game of chance for tourists and other visitors.

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A subway car on the IRT, with rattan seats and a colorful floor. Electric fans hanging from the ceiling provided the only air flow in summer.

 That said, our subway is one of the best, most complex subway systems in the world, with 424 stations covering more than 236 miles throughout the five boroughs. You can get just about anywhere in the city on the trains, either directly or via transferring from one line to another, and if there is an issue on one of the lines, there’s usually a way to reroute trains around the problem or jump on another train and get close to where you intended to go.

 We love the New York City subway system. If you do, too, do yourself a big favor and head over to Downtown Brooklyn and spend an afternoon at the New York Transit Museum, an underground treasure trove of subway history and memorabilia housed in the decommissioned Court Street station of the IND system, with an entrance at the northwest corner of Schermerhorn Street and Boerum Place.

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Another car, from the 1960s. Many of these cars were in use through the 1980s and into the 90s. See it at the Transit Museum!

 Once in the station, on the mezzanine level you’ll find exhibits on the construction of the subway system (which opened in 19040, on early streetcars and trains, including models and photos, the damage and reconstruction to the system from Hurricanes Irene and Sandy (still ongoing six years later), and the effects of the 9/11 attack. Currently, there’s a large temporary exhibit on the subway in the comics, including in comic books, magazines, and newspaper comics pages

Down on track level, there is the permanent, though ever-changing display of old railroad cars, some recent, some dating to the 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s, and even back to the separate Brooklyn Rapid Transit company, which predated the BMT.

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A murky photo of devastation at a lower Manhattan subway station after Hurricane Sandy, on view at the New York Transit Museum.

The museum is open Tuesday-Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 11:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Admission is: $10, Adults; $5, Children 2-17; $5 Seniors 62+. Active-duty military personnel get in free. If you love the subway, warts, hiccups, and all, you must make a visit to the New York Transit Museum.

 

 

 

 


 

The Montauk Club

 

 

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The Montauk Club building at 25 Eighth Avenue, corner of Lincoln Place, in Park Slope.

 

Private men’s clubs have been popular among the elite class in New York City almost since the city’s establishment. The first in New York, the Union Club, was founded in 1836. Others followed, including (in no particular order) the Harmonie Club, the Knickerbocker Club, the Players Club, the Union Club, the Yale Club, and on and on. What they all have in common is exclusivity and a pretension to status.

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The dining room of the Montauk Club.

 

There were similar clubs in Brooklyn, including the Carleton Club, which stood at Sixth Avenue and St. Mark’s Place in Park Slope. In 1888 a number of dissatisfied Carleton Club members began organizing a club of their own, which became the Montauk Club, incorporated in 1889.  One of the founders, a broker named Leonard Moody, gave the money for the down payment on the site for the club at 25 Eighth Avenue, and the architect Francis H. Kimball was contracted to design and construct the clubhouse, which is a Venetian Gothic-style building. It’s windows with pointed arches and Quatrefoil design are direct copies of those in the Palazzo Santa Sofia (the Ca d’Oro) on the Grand Canal in Venice. Just a stone’s throw from Grand Army Plaza, this is one of the most striking and well-known buildings in Park Slope, and maybe in all of Brooklyn.

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The rear of the Montauk Club, facing Plaza Street near Grand Army Plaza.

The building extends from Eighth Avenue to Plaza Street. The basement had a bowling alley and a café. In front of the building, a stone stairway still leads to the front of the first floor from Eighth Avenue. To the left of that, a smaller set of stairs rose to the ladies’ entrance to the building. The first floor contained a grand reception room, a reading room, and a café. The second floor had two billiard rooms, as that was a popular game at the turn of the twentieth century, a buffet, two card rooms, and the club’s board rooms.

A large dining room, partitioned into three sections, took up most of the third floor, and a separate ladies’ dining room overlooked Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Place. A separate Ladies’ reception room was here, too. The fourth floor had the kitchen and, along Lincoln Place, six apartments used by visitors and members. Those visitors could sit in the designated “Jolly Room,” a sitting room in the rear of the building on this floor. The six apartments shared one bathroom with two toilets, two tubs, and two sinks. Above that, the area of the attic that had been finished had a laundry as well as quarters for servants.

Like so many other buildings in Park Slope, the Montauk Club property converted to a condominium, in 1996. The club took the basement and the first two floors, and the third, fourth, and attic floors are private residences.

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Many TV shows and movies have used the Montauk Club as a location, including Boardwalk Empire, shown here. photo: Macall B. Polay / © HBO / Courtesy: Everett Collection

Today, 139 years after incorporation, the Montauk Club carries on. From inception it has always been a social club, and so has no overarching mission. New members are welcome. Sponsorship is not required, though the club has a membership committee and there is a space on the application to name people you know, so applying for membership is no guarantee of acceptance. The cost of membership is not little but is quite a bit less than that for most of the Manhattan private clubs. For members, the club is available for weddings, receptions, and private parties. Non-members can book space there, but membership is part of the price tag. The members-only dining room is open Wednesday-Sunday, and the menu, which changes weekly, is very inviting.

If hob-knobbing with other Brooklyn social ariveés over diner in private dining rooms is your thing, the Montauk Club is definitely worth your investigation. “Affordable,” friendly, welcoming, and in a unique, elegant setting, the Montauk Club could be just what you’re looking for.

 


 

Brooklyn’s Historical Mega Breweries

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The Schaefer Beer Brewery on the bank of the East River in Williamsburg.

 

Beer here! Right here in Brooklyn. The borough is a major center of hops mashing and beer brewing, and the industry is growing rapidly. These days, the borough is dotted with microbreweries, with popular beers cooking in Williamsburg, Bushwick, Gowanus, Greenpoint, Red Hook, and even Coney Island. Some are big, like Brooklyn Brewery, the first and probably best-known of the present-day crop, but most are small, like Threes Brewing in Gowanus and Greenpoint Beer and Ale, the latter of which makes their beer just five barrels at a time.

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A promotional sign for Piels beer, featuring the marketing characters Burt and Harry Piels.

Today’s local brews continue a long tradition of beer brewing in Brooklyn. In the mid-nineteenth century, the politics of Europe sent many German immigrants to the United States, and they brought their taste and talent in beer with them. Many settled in Greenpoint and East New York, and by the turn of the twentieth century there were almost 50 active microbreweries in the borough. Those small labels had to compete with what became the three major-label beers that were brewed in Brooklyn in the last century: Schaefer, Piels, and Rheingold. For several decades those three large Brooklyn breweries pumped out beers that quenched the thirst of the entire east coast.

During the prohibition era, most of the micro taps went dry. The larger companies limped through the era selling legal “near beer.” When America’s dry period ended, the larger companies ramped up production quickly, and Schaefer and Rheingold beers were popular again from Maine to Florida and as far west as Ohio. The Piels brothers’ pale lager, brewed in East New York, was popular throughout New York and south to at least Philadelphia.

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The Miss Rheingold contest captivated New Yorkers throughout the 1940s and ’50s.

The Rheingold brewery took up several blocks in Bushwick on Forrest and Stanwix Streets from 1854 until 1976. At its peak, the brand had a 35 percent market share in New York City. More than for its beer, Rheingold is most remembered for its annual Miss Rheingold contest, a marketing phenomenon that allowed customers to vote for one of six finalists for the crown. In 1956, over 23 million votes were cast into ballot boxes in bars, beer distributors, grocery stores, and wherever beer was sold. (Voting multiple times was allowed.) The contest ran from 1940 to 1964. By that time, the company was feeling the pinching encroachment of the national brands that eventually forced all three of Brooklyn’s mega-breweries out of business, and the annual cost of running the contest–$8 million at one point, about $60 million today–became more than the company could afford.

Over in Williamsburg, the Schaefer brewery sat on the East River at Kent Avenue and South 10th Street, which became known as Schaefer’s Landing. Schaefer began production in Manhattan, on Broadway and 18th Street, in 1842, but the popularity of the Schaefers’ lager beer, which was a new type of beer to America at the time, caused the company to outgrow Manhattan, and they moved to Brooklyn in 1916, just four years before the start of prohibition. The company survived and grew to be the fifth largest brewer in the country in 1950 and again in 1970. Over the years, the company had built breweries in Albany and Baltimore, and in the 1970s opened a modern plant near Allentown, PA. The company then began closing its older, less efficient breweries, and the Brooklyn plant shut down in 1976, the same year as Rheingold’s Brooklyn factory finally shut down. By 1981, despite remaining a popular brand, the company sold out to the Detroit-based Stroh Brewing Co.

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The Piels Beer sign over its East New York brewery was the largest beer sign in the world when it went up and featured a gnome bowling in neon lights.

The Piels Factory, at Georgia and Liberty Avenues, through years of modernization and innovation, became world renown, attracting visiting brewmasters and scientists who came to examine the refrigeration and storage techniques developed by the Piels brothers. In 1936, the company installed the largest beer sign in the world on the roof of their brewery, complete with neon lighting.

These three breweries were as big as any in the country for several years, but through the 1950s, the Midwest beer companies, including the big three Miller, Anheuser-Busch, and Pabst, found it easier to ship to the growing West Coast market than could the East Coast breweries. Conquering that area, they could pump unlimited advertising dollars into the new and burgeoning TV advertising industry, and by the late 1960s had knocked our locals off their stride. After a change in ownership in 1963, the Piels brewery shuttered in September 1973, having been in continuous operation for ninety years. Schaefer bought the rights to the Piels name and continued the brand for another dozen or more years until their sale to Stroh, which went down in the 1990s and licensed the Piels name to Pabst, which kept it alive until 2015.

When Schaefer closed its Brooklyn brewery in 1976, it ended a 134-year run of commercial beer making in Brooklyn. Twenty years later, the Brooklyn Brewery opened, also in Williamsburg, and ushered in a new era of microbrewing here. Today there are once again dozens of craft beers brewed in the borough, and there are rights holders working on bringing back both the Piels and Rheingold brands. We can only hope for now that if and when they come back, they will be brewed right here in Brooklyn.

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The logos of Brooklyn’s historical big three beer brewers.

 


 

Plymouth Church, Brooklyn Hts: An Historic Beacon for Civil Rights

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The façade of Plymouth Church on Orange Street, c. 1934.

 

One of the largest and historically most important churches in Brooklyn is almost hidden away on tiny Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. Plymouth Church, a Congregationalist parish established in 1847, was led for forty years by the orator and fierce abolitionist, Henry Ward Beecher, one of the loudest voices and most active people in America’s struggle against slavery in the years before the Civil War. This simple yet beautiful church, which opened in January of 1850, holds upwards of 2,500 people. It was built so large specifically to hold the crowds who came to hear Beecher preach, and from its opening was consistently packed with parishioners and visitors from across Brooklyn and from across the East River who came to hear Beecher’s thoughts not just on slavery, but on life and the human condition.

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The interior of Plymouth Church, with the pipes of the Aeolian-Skinner organ rising high above the chancel.

Putting his words into practice, Beecher used the church as a major stop on the underground railroad, helping to move runaway slaves from the south through the northern states to Canada and freedom. A tunnel under the nave was used to hide slaves during their layover at the church, which became known as “the Grand Central Depot.” The preacher encouraged his flock to join his active efforts to free slaves, and even held “slave auctions” in the church, where parishioners could bid to buy the freedom of slaves. In addition, Beecher brought in many abolitionist guest speakers, such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Charles Sumner, to promote their cause.

In February of 1860, the church invited Abraham Lincoln to speak to the congregation. Lincoln came and attended a service, and the pew where he sat has a small marker noting the seat’s history. (Lincoln’s speech was moved at the last minute to the auditorium at Cooper Union in Manhattan to assure a large crowd.) Another great speaker and civil rights champion, the Reverend Martin Luther King, spoke at the church in February of 1963.

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The shrine to Henry Ward Beecher in the garden of Plymouth Church, with the relief of Lincoln to the left.

Plymouth Church merged with a nearby Congregational parish, the Church of the Pilgrims, in 1934, and the full name of the church now is Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims. The building achieved National Historic Landmark stature in 1961.

One of the church’s main interior physical features is its beautiful organ, an Aeolian-Skinner with what those who know about these things call an “American Classic” sound. Originally installed in 1904, it was refurbished in the 1990s. A well-known exterior feature is the statue of Henry Ward Beecher in the garden area just west of the church proper. Nearby is a relief of Lincoln at the church. Both were sculpted by the same man who created the Mt. Rushmore presidential monument, Gutzon Borglum. Ironically, Borglum was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Today, this active church is extending its history in promoting and working for civil rights, with programs against human trafficking called the New Abolitionists, and the Racial Justice Ministry, a program of both action and reflection in the name of ending racism “in ourselves, and our society.

Next time you’re in Brooklyn Heights, whether heading for the promenade or Brooklyn Bridge Park, take a few minutes to walk down Orange Street and have a look at an important piece of American History, Plymouth Church.