Pick a block, any block, and you’ll find layers upon layers of history, unexpected traces of prior eras and inhabitants, the sediment of urban time. Brooklyn is particularly rich in collisions and coincidences of old and new.
Walking through northern Crown Heights, one stretch of New York Avenue, between Park Place and Prospect Place in Crown Heights North, catches the eye. Some of the neighborhood’s loveliest 1890s mansions and row houses can be found here, intermingled with thick, squat six-story apartment buildings. Traces of a vanished Brooklyn coexist with a vibrant street culture: walking around, you can see a not-always-seamless conjoining of the early 20th century with flashes of the seventies and eighties, as well as an overlay of 21st-century development.
The building up of Crown Heights, like that of many Brooklyn neighborhoods, hinged upon successive modes of transportation. By the 1870s, farmland that had belonged to slaveholder Leffert “Squire” Lefferts and his son Leffert Lefferts, Jr. was being transformed into a residential area served by horsecar lines. The 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge made the area attractive to Manhattan businessmen, and the Fulton Street Elevated, which reached what is now Crown Heights in 1889, made it boom. Mansions shot up in what would become known as the St. Marks District, St. Marks Avenue being its poshest address. One early twentieth-century author wrote, “In the heart of the St. Mark’s section are located many beautiful mansions, products of the master hand of the architect, the artist, and the modern mechanic. These beautiful homes are seldom offered for sale. They are cherished as homes and will probably pass from one generation to another, fine demonstrations of the confidence our wealthy men have in the stability of Brooklyn.” Many of the district’s residents were immigrant success stories. Except for black live-in servants, the area was almost all white.
The 1920 arrival of the subway under Eastern Parkway heralded a shift in name from St. Marks District to Crown Heights. Apartment buildings with elevators replaced opulent private dwellings; the upper crust giving way to the commuting middle class. In the postwar period, Crown Heights went from majority Jewish to predominantly African- and Caribbean-American — part of a broader trend of white flight and suburbanization. Today, the neighborhood is home to African-Americans, Lubavitch Jews, and newer middle class whites. While some houses show the signs of neglect or abandonment, much of the area’s architecture remains well-preserved.
Here are the stories of one block — and the people who once lived here.
This house was built around 1898 for commodities broker Franklin Quinby. A specialist in grain futures, Quinby died at 71 in 1915. Quinby's death wouldn't mark 903's last brush with the market: a physician who lived here in the 1930s, Dr. E. Leo Berger, sued two stock brokerages for losses incurred in October 1929, right after the crash. He won a verdict of almost $25,000.
Former home of Dr. Irving J. Sands, a neurologist and psychiatrist, and his wife Cecile Ruth Sands. Mrs. Sands was appointed to the New York City Board of Education in 1955, where she took a stand against McCarthyism and segregation. She was the lone dissenter against a move to require school employees to inform on former Communists and an advocate of integration, all while the only woman on the board. The current owner, Shirley Marsh, has lived at 202 for 25 years. The building is divided into three apartments occupied by Marsh and her two daughters.
Like 202, its semi-attached neighbor, this building is a sandstone and brick Renaissance Revival house. Many of the residential buildings in this area are in this style, a statelier alternative to their picturesque cottage- and mansion-inspired neighbors. The Renaissance Revival was spurred by the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which led to public and architectural interest in classically derived forms. Note the arch-headed door surrounded with pilasters, or in-built columns. First Lieutenant Jack Levine, who lived at this address, won a Silver Star in 1943 for leading a medical detail on the front lines in Tunisia.
Dubbed "The Mansion," this was once the home of distinguished Brooklynite Silas Belden Dutcher, a farmer's son who ascended to the worlds of finance and politics. Dutcher, who stumped for Zachary Taylor before he was old enough to vote, went on to hold positions from president of the Union Dime Savings Bank to commissioner of the New York State Department of Public Works. Dutcher died in 1909 on his 50th wedding anniversary; P.S. 124 in Park Slope is named the Silas Dutcher School in his honor. The building went on to have a turbulent history. The League School, for children diagnosed as mentally ill or schizophrenic, was established at 196 by special education pioneer Carl Fenichel in 1953. After the school moved out, the building sat empty for decades. A new owner bought the property in 2001 and spent four years renovating the mansion before moving in.
The building belongs to the Queen Anne style, which aspired to picturesque, often asymmetrical shapes, drawn from Elizabethan cottages and Tudor and Gothic influences.
Blues singer Ethel Waters lived here in the 1950s, and gave a live interview to Edward R. Murrow from the second floor. Designed in 1896 by Edward York, who would become a founder of the prominent York & Sawyer architecture firm, the brick and limestone 190 New York was the area's first house in the Colonial Revival style. This style, as the name suggests, was intended to recall the architecture of British colonies in North America, alluding to the homes of the Founding Fathers as well as the pre-revolutionary era.
It was built for John Simmons, an Irish immigrant made good. Simmons, described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in an obituary as “generous, but unostentatious, in his charities,” came to New York as a boy and rose the ranks to become owner of his own iron piping and fittings company. The house also held the reception of his Packer-schooled debutante daughter. After Simmons's death, straw goods importer C.S. Burr took over, only to die of food poisoning in 1905 after eating too much seafood at a Mystic Shriners clambake.
Three limestone row houses, c. 1898, Renaissance Revival style. Note the arch-headed windows on the second story and the continuous molded stone bands along the building. Clear divisions between floors and varied window styles were common motifs of this style, as is the downward-slanting hipped roof seen here. Multi-story row houses became an attractive option for families unable to afford a large private residence but looking for an alternative to renting. Often the owners would share the building with their tenants, to whom one floor would be rented.
Otolaryngologist Dr. Max Bakst, who came to the United States from Russia at age thirteen and became an associate at Beth Moses Hospital, lived here until his death at 54 in 1943. An Edward B. Vandergaw of this address registered a number of patents for printed textile fabric in the early 20th century.
Colonel Mortimer D. Bryant, who lived here in the early 20th century, won a medal for service as a machine gun officer in World War One. Colonel Bryant, a son of poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant, was a Spanish-American War vet and successful ad man who went on to be promoted to Brigadier-General. He was married to the daughter of John Carlisle Loudon, a Grand Commander of the New York Knights Templar, who plied the trade of coffee, tea, and spices wholesale merchant for 50 years until his death in 1927.
Police shot and wounded 33-year-old Duddley Perkins here in 1987 after the woman he lived with called to report that he was threatening to kill her and her son. One previous resident, James Noel Brown, had a bit more luck in life: born in Wales in 1850, he rose through a series of financial firms from New York to Council Bluffs, Iowa, dying in 1917 as head of J. N. Brown & Co. at his summer home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. In 1900, daughter Miss Alice May Brown married Princeton professor of romance languages William Updike Vreeland here. The Daily Eagle's account of the scene makes him sound quite the romantic: the wedding was described as bursting with “exceedingly elaborate” floral decorations: “Bride roses, lilies of the valley, Southern smilax, carnations, palms, pink roses, ferns and meteor roses were used lavishly.” In another aspect of the scene unlikely to occur these days, four Princeton professors served as ushers.