Friday, December 7, 2012

Venetian Splendor on the Park Slope

Amid the remarkable architecture of Park Slope stands a singularly distinctive building. Perhaps it is the structure’s resemblance to an Italian palazzo that makes it so unique, as it would seem more plausible to view it along the canals of Venice than the streets of Brooklyn. Housing The Montauk Club, it has stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Place since 1891, and is the creation of Francis Kimball, a prominent architect whose work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to grace New York City. Most of Kimball’s buildings are in lower Manhattan, and with the current construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, his Corbin Building has been spared from demolition and is presently being restored.

In 1883, not far from the Club, the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century was completed as the majestic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge first soared over the East River. At this time, the five boroughs had not yet consolidated; Brooklyn was still an independent city, and with the opening of the great span, civic pride was at its peak. Six years later, the Club was founded by leading citizens of Brooklyn whose names have been memorialized through names of streets and institutions: Pratt, Schermerhorn, Lefferts, Dean, Underhill, and Montgomery.
The Club’s striking Venetian architecture is complemented by graceful brickwork, stained glass, tiled roof, and terra cotta ornamentation detailing scenes of American Indian life. Once inside, the lighting, dark woodwork, furniture, and aged objects transport visitors to a different time. One can imagine gentlemen from the early twentieth century arriving by way of horse-drawn carriages, entering, and depositing their coats and hats with a butler in the vestibule. Such an entrance might be followed by an elegant dinner, preceding conversation, billiards, or relaxation in plush club chairs with brandy and cigars. There were many such clubs in existence at the time, and some of the buildings housing them still remain, although now with different functions. The most notable of these structures is the Unity League Club on Bedford Avenue and Bergen Street, fronted by an outstanding equestrian statue of General Grant. 

Today, access to the Montauk Club’s dining room is offered via reciprocal arrangements with similar clubs in places like the Philippines, India, London, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Through such an arrangement with a Pennsylvania institution, I had the pleasure of dining at the Club this past July. Throughout my youth, I had admired the Montauk Club’s exterior, so it was a treat to view the inside of this beautiful building. As I entered, an old grandfather clock chimed the hour in a tone that was unlike the timbre one would hear in a modern clock. This, along with the lighting, furnishings, high ceiling, and other features, offered a thoroughly unique reception. 

I thought it would be interesting to speak to someone who had been associated with the for several decades, so upon leaving I spoke to the General Manager, who referred me to Dino Veronese, a long-standing member and former President of the Club. After coordinating with a few different contacts, I finally made arrangements to meet both Veronese and the Club’s current President, Tim Thompson.

I arrived a few minutes early. Once Dino and Tim stepped in to the building, we ascended to the second floor card room. There, we sat and chatted for the next hour and a half. To my right, two windows capped by leaded-glass looked out over Eighth Avenue. With Dino sitting across from me and Tim to my left, we began a wonderful conversation about the Club, and Brooklyn in general. Between the three of us, we had over 150 cumulative years of experience in the borough. We touched on each of our individual memories, as well as joint recollections.

First, we spoke of the history of the Montauk Club and its most notable guests, including Presidents Cleveland, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. While neither Dino nor Tim was present for JFK’s visit, Dino recalled seeing former New York State Governor, Hugh Carey, at the Club. I learned that the homes directly across the street from the Club were known as Sportsmen Row, where some key figures in thoroughbred racing lived.
William Gaynor, who served as New York City’s Mayor from 1910-1913, lived across from the Club as well. Gaynor was the only NYC mayor to be the target of an assassination attempt, and although he survived the incident, he subsequently suffered complications and died three years later. On a more positive note, all New Yorkers owe a debt of gratitude to Gaynor, although they may not know why: 102 years ago, largely the result of his efforts, tolls were abolished on the East River.
Originally, the Club owned the adjacent lot, as well as the entire building. The basement included a bowling alley, while on the other floors there was a kitchen, dining room card room and an upstairs dormitory where members could spend the night. Today, only two of the five floors remain in pristine condition and belong to the Club; the others have been sold as condos. Dino relayed how the times have changed, as has the way one refers to Park Slope. Today, residents say that they live in Park Slope, while years ago residents said they lived on the Park Slope. One thing that has not changed is the Club’s 38-year-old annual tradition of greeting new members with music by the Princeton Tigertones, a renowned collegiate group that has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The White House, and other respected venues around the world. 

       I very much enjoyed my meeting with Dino and Tim as we reminisced about trolleys, Ebbets Field, historic hotels that are no longer standing, and other aspects of Brooklyn, including our thoughts about the new Barclays Center. If you find yourself on the Park Slope, take some time to appreciate the 25 Eighth Avenue building, and if you are interested in inquiring about membership in the Montauk Club, visit their website at

--Tommy Coca

The Remains of St. John the Baptist

Brooklyn is a large city, home to 2.5 million people. For most of my life, I've been one of them. Despite living in the borough for decades, when I look at a subway map I realize how little of it I know.

Most of my friends and family come from Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. These are the neighborhoods in which we played, we ate, we drank, and we felt comfortable. In the summer there was Coney Island, and when we wanted a steak there was Peter Luger’s in Williamsburg. Other than that, we didn’t have much of a reason to visit other neighborhoods. What did I know of Greenpoint, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach, Ditmas Park, Cypress Hills, or any number of other areas? Little to nothing, and I expect those living in these neighborhoods know little of mine.

On a recent Saturday, a friend and I took the subway to areas we’d never before visited to do some exploring. We started in Ridgewood, which lies in both Brooklyn and Queens.  We had no particular destination; we spent the day zigzagging, walking down streets that appealed to us or toward a distant building that caught our attention. The walk brought us to Bushwick and then to Bed-Stuy: all around us were places that would not make it onto any tourist’s destination guide, yet they were unique points of interests in their own right.

We passed the elegant and sculpture-laden former Bushwick Theater; originally a Vaudeville venue, the building is now a high school. Further along we saw a firehouse with ‘BFD’ -- Brooklyn Fire Department -- inscribed above the entranceway, indicating the pre-1898 days when Brooklyn was still an independent city and before the BFD became part of the NYFD. Countless aged churches and elegant brownstones lined our trek: architectural treasures built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as architectural nightmares built in the second half of the 1900s.

As we walked along Broadway, a structure down Hart street caught our eye. Though we had already seen plenty of churches, we were attracted to this one in particular because of its massive stonework and squat size. We later learned that a long, open field had once led to the building. Today, however, this space is filled with dozens of low-rise homes. While the path leading to the church must have been truly majestic in its day, what remains is nonetheless impressive in its own desolate way.

As we looked upwards, we saw a large rose window. Now boarded up, as are the other windows, the colorful stained-glass is hidden. Birds roosted in the upper reaches. Fences and barbed wire now encircle the church, keeping trespassers at bay. We learned that this structure is St. John the Baptist Church, and the adjoining buildings were once a part of the College of St. John. One entire city block, bounded by Hart, Willoughby, Lewis and Stuyvesant, comprised the college and the church. As we circled the block, we learned that although the building has fallen into disrepair, the parish still survives and serves the community.  

The College of St. John was founded just after the Civil War, and construction on the church began shortly afterwards. The architect for the project, Patrick Charles Keely, was well-known and extraordinarily prolific in his day, designing more than 700 cathedrals, churches, convents, schools and other buildings. Many of his works remain intact and can be found elsewhere in Brooklyn. The commissions for the stained glass, paintings, and sculptures were also given to preeminent artists of the era.

The College of St. John provided a higher education factility in Brooklyn from the second half of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. In the 1950s, the decision was made to seek more bucolic surroundings, and the institution moved to a sprawling new campus in Queens. With the move also came a name change: the college became St. John's University.

At one time, St. John the Baptist Church and parish towered over the neighboring row-houses and brownstones. Today, it is mostly hidden by taller public housing structures, and can easily be overlooked and camouflaged in this environment. It is unfortunate that such an outstanding example of religious architecture now merely survives as a ruin. A true church, though, is not only a building; it is a congregation of the faithful. Thankfully, the parish that served as the foundation of a great university continues to live on here in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

--Tommy Coca


Monday, April 2, 2012

1940 Census Now Available!

As of this morning, April 2, 2012, the 1940 U.S. Census is available for public use.

For privacy reasons, each census does not become available to the public for 72 years after it is taken.

Check out this National Archives web site to learn how to use the 1940 Census, which can be tricky because you can't search by name. You need to search by location, and thus must have a general idea of where the person lived that you are looking for. But it is an amazing resource for all you budding genealogists. Happy hunting!

For more specifics on the census and Brooklyn, check out this online exhibit at the Brooklyn Historical Society about what we can learn from the census about trends in interracial marriages in our borough.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Kickstart 'The Bushwick News' with the 'Boundaries of Change' Walking Tour

A 3-hour historic walking tour of Bushwick is being offered on Saturdays May 5 and May 12 by John Dereszewski, who was district manager of Bushwick's community board during the 1970s.

"Boundaries of Change" will include a history of the crooked boundary that separates Bushwick from Ridgewood (which apparently was a straight line until 1925 and cut right right through people's apartments). Stops on the tour will include an ancient ball park that hosted major league games in the 1880s, an old movie house, and the Onderdonk House, a Dutch farmhouse-turned-museum dating to around 1709.

The tour is being conducted as part of a Kickstarter campaign for a neighborhood news organization. Formerly known as the blog BushwickBk, the site is transforming itself into a legit news outlet to be known as The Bushwick News.

As they put it, "We're not just spewing snark from our dining room table anymore." They are hiring (as in actually paying) reporters and photographers to track down original, in-depth stories about Bushwick.

Through the kickstarter campaign they hope to raise $40,000. You can donate in various increments if you wish to support their noble pursuit, but a $40 donation will gain you admission to one of the walking tours in May.

They have until April 12 to reach their goal, so act now is you are interested. As of this posting, they have $14, 931 courtesy of 303 different donors.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Willie Sutton Documentary Screening on March 30

For those of you who enjoyed reading our post last month about Willie Sutton, the notorious Brooklyn-born bank robber who famously answered the question of why he robbed banks with the retort, "Because that's where the money is," you should know about a documentary screening next week.

"In the Footsteps of Willie Sutton," a 2011 documentary feature by Rich Gold, will be shown on Friday, March 30, at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan (899 Tenth Ave., Room L2.84) at 11 a.m.

The screening is free and open to the public, but you must RSVP to

The screening will include a Q & A with Gold, and Donald Shea, the police officer who arrested Sutton in Brooklyn in 1952 (and who was recently featured in the New York Post for this accomplishment) may also be in attendance.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BHS To Host Panel on Coney Island

On March 28, the Brooklyn Historical Society will host photographer Harvey Stein in a special discussion about his recent book, Coney Island: 40 Years, which documents the people, events and changing scene at Coney Island.

Stein will be joined by historian John Manbeck and Coney Island insider Lola Star, founder of the Save Coney Island Organization, to explore the role of Coney Island in shaping Brooklyn’s identity, using Stein’s photographs as the starting point for the conversation.

This event is part of BHS’s spring series, “Inventing Brooklyn,” which examines key people who have influenced Brooklyn and highlights cultural trends rooted in Brooklyn’s rich and diverse history. This event, at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

On the Lecture Cicuit: The Battle of Brooklyn, 'Brooklyn Transformed', and the Eminent Irish of Green-Wood

The Brooklyn Historical Society's public historian Julie Golia will deliver a lecture titled "Farm, Suburb, City, Borough: Brooklyn Transformed" at the 92Y Tribeca Lecture Hall this Thursday, March 8, at noon. Learn how Brooklyn has invented and reinvented itself over the past 400 years and how Brooklyn’s story has shaped the history of New York City and the U.S. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased here.

The interdisciplinary gallery and reading room Proteus Gowanus has announced the first in a series of public installations, workshops and performances paying homage to the Battle of Brooklyn — the first and biggest battle of the Revolutionary War. "Battle Pass – Revolution I" will launch on Sunday, March 11, at 5:30 p.m. at Gridspace in Crown Heights (112 Rogers Ave.), which is right near Bedford Pass, where part of the Battle of Brooklyn took place. 

Green-Wood Cemetery is hosting an "Eminent Irish of Green-Wood" walking tour on Sunday, March 18, 1–3 p.m. Join Green-Wood Historic Fund guide Ruth Edebohls as she leads visitors to the resting places of notable Irish, including one-armed Civil War General Thomas Sweeney (who retired from the U.S. military but went on to lead the Fenian invasion of Canada); the widow and son of 18th century Irish Revolutionary Wolfe Tone; 19th century Irish Nationalist Patrick O’ Donohue; actress and mistress of the mighty Lola Montez (Eliza Gilbert); India Ink manufacturer and American patriot Charles Higgins; copper magnate Marcus Daly and many more. Tickets are $20, or $15 for members. See more at

Monday, March 5, 2012

Before it was the Capote House, It was the Van Sinderen House

70 Willow St.
It has been reported by the Brooklyn Eagle, the Daily News and other news outlets that the house at 70 Willow St. in Brooklyn Heights has sold for $12 million — the biggest price tag for a single-family home in Brooklyn history.

This house is often referred to as the Truman Capote house, because the author lived and worked there for a number of years. Capote even wrote about the house and his love for Brooklyn Heights in an essay called “A House on the Heights,” in which he  —  much to the gratification of all Brooklynites  — opened the essay by declaring "I live in Brooklyn. By choice."

As Capote is the author of revered works like In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany's, its not surprising that his time in the house has defined the property somewhat. But Capote wasn't the owner of the house. He rented the basement apartment from owner Oliver Smith, who was himself a revered fellow in the art world.

Smith was touted as "one of the most prolific and imaginative designers in the history of American theater" by The New York Times. He designed the sets for such Broadway hits as "West Side Story," "Hello, Dolly!" and "My Fair Lady." He was also co-director of the American Ballet Theatre for decades.

Smith lovingly restored the circa-1839 mansion at 70 Willow, so maybe it should be called the Oliver Smith House.

But then, if you lived in the 19th century, you would have called it the Adrian Van Sinderen house, which is how it is still referred to in architectural guide books. Van Sinderen was one of the respectable Dutch folks that lived in early Brooklyn and had the grand house built. But the name Adrian Van Sinderen became associated with scandal later in the century, through no fault of the old man's.

Van Sinderen's son, also named Adrian Van Sinderen, was a lawyer practicing in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In 1867 he became executor of the estate of his late friend William Lawrence and for many years Lawrence's family received income from the estate as planned. In 1886, one of the heirs discovered some "irregularities" in Van Sinderen's accounting and applied to the court to have him removed as executor. It was soon discovered that the entire estate had been squandered and Van Sinderen was indicted for grand larceny. He promptly fled to Europe, leaving his family behind.

But the scandal doesn't end there! He had not been seen or heard from in a few years when in 1891 it was reported that he died — not in Europe, but in New Lots, here in Brooklyn, right under his victims' noses! BUT THEN, in 1893 the Eagle reported that Van Sinderen was indeed alive and living in disguise in Berlin. Alas there was no extradition treaty between Germany and the U.S., so not much could be done about it.

So much excitement, all tied in one way or another to the Adrian Van Sinderen-Oliver Smith-Truman Capote house.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year Fun

It's Leap Year Day! This is exciting enough for us in the present day, but imagine in the years of yore when Leap Year signified a time when women were allowed to propose marriage to men! 

That's right. According to tradition, every four years, the shoe was worn on the other foot, and women could pop the question.

An Eagle article from March 3, 1888 explained in the ins and outs of this custom:

In three years out of every four, man has the privilege of "popping the question," and the annoyance of sometimes having a plainspoken "no" for the reply. On the fourth year, woman may propose, if it so please her.
 A lady has the privilege in Leap Year of suggesting marriage between herself and a bachelor acquaintance. In the event of his refusing, the penalty is that the ungallant gentleman shall present the tender damsel with a new silk dress. 
There is a reservation, however, that the right to claim this penalty depends on the circumstance that when she propose, the damsel was the wearer of a scarlet petticoat, which (or a little of the lower portion of which) she must exhibit to the gentleman, the understood idea being that the silken dress shall cover the petticoat and thus assuage dire feminine indignation at the rejection of her offered hand.

So, gentleman. Enjoy your Leap Year and be wary of scarlet underpants.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

NYT Begins Sharing Gems From its Morgue

Lucky for us, The New York Times is "eager to share historical riches that have been locked away from public view" and has just launched a new blog to help it do just that.

The Lively Morgue, as it is called, is going to feature historic photographs from the Times' sizable collection. Did I say sizable? I mean gi-normous. Here's their own description of the collection's parameters:

How many? We don’t know. Our best guess is five million to six million prints and contact sheets (each sheet, of course, representing many discrete images) and 300,000 sacks of negatives...The picture archive also includes 13,500 DVDs, each storing about 4.7 gigabytes worth of imagery. When the Museum of Modern Art set out to exhibit the highlights of the Times archive in 1996, it dispatched four curators. They spent nine months poring over 3,000 subjects, working with two Times editors, one of whom spent a year on the project. In the end, they estimated that they’d seen only one-quarter of the total. If we posted 10 new archival pictures every weekday on Tumblr, just from our print collection, we wouldn’t have the whole thing online until the year 3935.

(And in case you don't know, a newspaper morgue was not where clippings and photos went to die, but where they went so they could be found again. It's a useful reference system in which clippings are organized by subject headings so past stories on a person or subject can quickly be located.)

Photos on The Lively Morgue include the original caption that ran when it was published and links to relevant stories. The Times is also including an image of the back of each photo, which often contained a lot of information, like exactly when and where it was published, who the photographer was, how much they were paid, and whether the photo was one of a series.

While only the tip of the iceberg of this massive collection will be posted in our lifetime, Brooklyn Before Now will certainly be checking in on this welcome new trove of historic images.