Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Friday, April 30, 2010

Plaza Theater

Updated: Commenter LGR is correct about the Bunny Theater. See subsequent post about the nearby Flatbush Pavilion.

The Brooklyn Public Library recently digitized and made available on the web its photographs of Brooklyn theaters. Naturally we reviewed the collection, looking for anything related to Park Slope.

One of the newly-available photographs features an early view of the Plaza Theater, at the corner of Park Place and Flatbush Avenue. The image is from 1914. The mansarded building on the right is the Durfey residence, 158 Park Place, which stood until 1932:

Plaza Theater, 1914
Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

The center building housed an amazing mix of businesses. All of these signs beckon the passerby:

Prospect Lunch
Brush's Dining Room
Bedford Rubber Tire Co. - Auto Tires Repaired

The Plaza Theater lingered until quite recently, finally succumbing to the ultimate ignominy of becoming a chain clothing store.

Hundreds of Park Slopers walk this very sidewalk every day, between the Q train entrance just beyond the edge of the photograph, to the left, and the foot of 7th Avenue to the right.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Annals of Espionage: Prospect Theater

According to theater historian Cezar Del Valle, whose fascinating lecture on Brooklyn Motion Picture Theater history we were privileged to hear this evening at the Brooklyn Public Library, Park Slope's Prospect Theater played a bit part in the Cold War, when Alger Hiss was introduced to his Soviet handler in the mezzanine there.

Prospect Theater in 1966
image: Brooklyn Public Library

The only evidence we have found to support this claim appears to have been authored by Mr. Del Valle himself, in a volume of essays entitled The Brooklyn Film, edited by John Manbeck and Robert Singer. Unfortunately the citation lacks a footnote:

Pete Hamill cites the same tale here. Who knows if it is really true, but it is a great story.

UPDATED: Mr. Del Valle provides evidence supporting the account in the comments section. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

1870s Park Slope: 11th & 12th Streets

Below is an excerpt from the 1880 Bromley Brooklyn Atlas, showing the 7th-to-8th blocks of 11th, 12th, and 13th Streets. North is to the top. The most obvious feature is the Ansonia Clock Factory at the lower left, which of course still stands on 7th Avenue between 12th & 13th Streets.

One notes that the rest of the blocks are largely empty, with a smattering of frame houses (in yellow). The most substantial buildings, besides the Ansonia, are the two rows of brick houses (circled) in pink.

The upper "brick" row on the map, on the south side of 11th Street between 7th & 8th Avenues, can be seen to this day. It is a row of eight simple, two-story-over-basement single-family houses, built to a generous 20' lot width. (The map shows a 9th brick building to the east that was later demolished for the firehouse addition.)

They were apparently built in 1879 by Henry Lansdell, to designs by architect A. V. B. Bush, as documented in the Brooklyn Eagle of May 10, 1879:

514-528 11th Street
A. V. B. Bush, architect - 1879
Henry Lansdell, builder

Brooklyn Eagle, May 10, 1879, p. 4 ("New Buildings")

The map also shows a row of 4 buildings on the north side of 12th Street between 7th & 8th. These too are still with us today:

413-419 12th Street
Ca. 1879 (architect unknown)

They are very similar to the 11th Street houses. At this time we know nothing more about this row in 12th Street beyond the fact that it was apparently standing by 1880.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Bromley Brooklyn Atlas

The "Bromley" Brooklyn Atlas is a great resource for armchair historians. The Atlas was published every few years from the late 19th into the 20th centuries, and the New York Public Library has many of them online here. (Unfortunately the library's viewing application is cumbersome and rather like trying to view the Grand Canyon while looking through a mailing tube.)

The Bromley Atlas is particularly valuable for building researchers because it shows lot lines and even individual buildings. What's more, the buildings are color-coded by material, with "brick" buildings in pink, and "wood" buildings in yellow.

We've spent the past few weeks reviewing the 1880 Bromley Brooklyn Atlas, and have recorded our findings in our ongoing Documentary History of the Park Slope Historic District Expansion Area (streets, avenues), and also in the photo captions of our comprehensive photo archive. We have already compiled a lot of research gleaned from sources like the Brooklyn Eagle and the American Architect & Building News. But, of course, there were gaps. The Bromley Atlas can at least tell us whether a building was standing by 1880 or not, which helps to fill out the history of Park Slope.

We will review some of our Bromley findings in subsequent posts.

Monday, April 19, 2010

1887 Oulton & Wirth Row in 7th Avenue

On the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street stands a wonderful row of five mixed-use buildings ("flats over stores"), with apartments on the upper floors over ground-floor commercial space. The buildings are serving exactly the same function today as when they were first built:

424-430 7th Avenue
W. H. Wirth, architect - 1887
Sampson B. Oulton, owner/builder

Our research in the American Architect and Building News tells us that the row was apparently built in 1887 by Sampson B. Oulton to designs by architect W. H. Wirth:

"Building Intelligence; Tenement-Houses; Brooklyn, N. Y.," AABN vol. 21, no. 600 (Jun. 25, 1887): p. xiii.
– "Seventh Ave., s w cor. Fourteenth St., four-st’y brick and terra-cotta stores and tenement, tin roof; cost, $12,000; owner, Sampson B. Oulton, 188 Eleventh St.; architect, W. H. Wirth."
– "Seventh Ave., w s, 20' s Fourteenth St., 4 four-st’y brick and terra-cotta stores and tenements, tin roofs; cost, each, $10,000; owner, Sampson B. Oulton, 188 Eleventh St.; architect, W. H. Wirth."

We can now confirm this citation, based on files that our intrepid researchers have uncovered at Brooklyn's Department of Buildings. Below is a photograph of the actual "Detailed Statement of Specifications" on file for the building at the southwest corner of 7th Avenue and 14th Street:

Material like this from the DOB has only just begun to come into our hands. We hope someday to organize it all and make it available on the web for other "armchair researchers" like ourselves.

In the meantime, it is gratifying to find that the DOB documents support the research we have compiled from the AABN, the online Brooklyn Eagle, and other sources.

This great block of intact 19th-c. mixed-use buildings boasts a wealth of interesting brickwork and terra-cotta details, including large decorative panels set between the windows at the 2nd and 4th floors:

424 7th Avenue - detail

Terra-cotta detail, 430 7th Avenue

The original cast-iron columns at the first floor, mostly covered by modern storefronts, are visible at #428:

Cast-iron columns, 428 7th Avenue

The corner building features an inset stone at the 2nd story, no doubt an early sign carrying the street names:

Street sign, 424 7th Avenue

A stylistically very similar building stands just behind this row in 14th Street, just off 7th Avenue. For example the terra-cotta detailing and arched windows are the same as on the 7th Avenue row:

370 14th Street
W. H. Wirth, architect - 1887
Sampson B. Oulton, owner/builder

Thus it is not surprising to find an AABN listing confirming that Wirth also designed the 14th Street building for Oulton, at the same time as the 7th Avenue row:

"Building Intelligence; Tenement-Houses; Brooklyn, N. Y.," AABN vol. 21, no. 600 (Jun. 25, 1887): p. xiii.
"Fourteenth St., s s, 80' w Seventh Ave., four-st’y brick and terra-cotta tenement, tin roof; cost, $8,000; owner, Sampson B. Oulton, 188 Eleventh St.; architect, W. H. Wirth."

We have encountered both Oulton and Wirth before. Oulton built a row of small brownstones on 11th Street between 4th & 5th Avenues. Wirth designed another wonderful row of mixed-use buildings for Charles Nickenig, nearby on 7th Avenue between 8th & 9th Streets.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Park Slope Jewish Center - Part 5

We conclude our series on the Park Slope Jewish Center with some words about its cultural significance.

The congregation's home, at 8th Avenue and 14th Street, is already listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places:

Park Slope Jewish Center
Allen A. Blaustein, architect - 1925

But the congregation is equally significant for the many ways in which its history parallels that of Park Slope and larger American society in the 20th century.

The congregation's Historic Register Designation Report tracks the decline, consolidation, and ultimate resurgence of the three congregations that ultimately became PSJC:

The decline in the Jewish population in New York City due to passage of the restrictive immigration law of 1924 resulted in declining membership at Tifereth Israel and other synagogues. The original plan to build a $250,000 community center in the adjacent lot was not carried out...

After World War II, the decline in Jewish populations in Park Slope continued to sap membership. The first formal discussion of a merger between Congregation Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel with Congregation Bnai Sholaum took place on April 20, 1948... Representatives of Congregation Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel agreed to accept mixed seating of men and women during the services, as long as separate men-only and women-only sections were also established. The proposed name of the new organization was "South Brooklyn Jewish Organization." It is not clear why the merger was not finalized until 12 years later... merged on January 4, 1960 to form Park Slope Jewish Center. At the time, Bnai Jacob Tifereth Israel had only 125 members and Bnai Sholaum had only 80 members.

The decline in membership continued. By December, 1981, membership had shrunk to only 45 households... The congregation began growing slowly in the early 1980's, as Jews moved back into the Park Slope neighborhood. By December, 1982, there were 77 households.

The question of women's role in Conservative Judaism looms large in the history of the Park Slope Jewish Center, echoing women's search for equality in larger American society. The Park Slope Jewish Center has been at the forefront of this struggle:

The women's movement in America, which began in the 1960's, has had its Jewish counterpart. In traditional Judaism, women were relegated to the balcony, or separate side sections of the synagogue. They were not allowed to read prayers. Ordination as rabbis or cantors was out of the question...

PSJC began experimenting with expanded women's roles in Friday night services in 1981. In 1983, the same year the Jewish Theological Seminary voted to admit women, PSJC's members voted to follow and egalitarian form of worship in all services, granting full equal rights to women in ritual matters. The issue of women's rights and women's ordination has been divisive for the Conservative movement as a whole. It was extremely divisive at PSJC. Some members were so opposed to this vote that they split off from the congregation, claimed that the vote was invalid, and insisted on a right to use the lower sanctuary. Court action on these questions lasted from 1983 until the cases were finally settled in 1999.

In 1983, PSJC elected a woman president of the congregation. In 1984 the congregation hired a woman rabbi, and around the same time hired a woman as cantor. Women rabbis and cantors were rare at this time in the Conservative movement.

The LGBT movement, which has played such a large role in Park Slope's recent history, also finds a pronounced echo in the Park Slope Jewish Center:

The gay and lesbian movement in America also has its counterpart within Park Slope and within Judaism. The PSJC has a vocal and supportive lesbian community, and has an annual Gay Pride parade. Traditional Judaism forbids homosexual activity. However, Conservative synagogues are reconsidering this position, and many have dropped all restrictions on gay and lesbian members. During the 1990's the Conservative movement began deliberating the acceptability of ordaining openly gay or lesbian rabbis and cantors.

PSJC's mode of worship is now fully egalitarian. During the 1980's, the synagogue began a practice of offering family membership to gay and lesbian families on the same basis as traditional families.

Not all of these many changes were fully accepted by everyone at the Park Slope Jewish Center. In a kind of microcosm of America's "culture wars," the congregants who had decamped to the Lower Sanctuary ultimately left altogether, and reoccupied the old 9th Street home of B'nai Sholaum, now reconstituted as the new, Orthodox Congregation B'nai Jacob (not to be confused with the "old" congregation B'nai Jacob!):

Originally Congregation B'nai Sholaum
Hedman & Schoen, architects - 1913-15
Present-day Congregation B'nai Jacob

Paralleling the resurgence of Park Slope in general, the Park Slope Jewish Center has attracted many families who have decided to remain in the city rather than move to the suburbs. PSJC has recently restored much of the main building, and has plans to soon rebuild the steep front steps, long blocked off due to their poor condition. The congregation even has plans finally to build a small accessory building on the adjoining lot, where a community house was supposed to have been built decades ago; the addition will provide additional office space and much-needed elevator access to the main sanctuary floor. The renditions of the proposed work, from the congregation's website, make clear that the congregation is highly sensitive to the surrounding historic fabric of the neighborhood, and that the proposed work is very much in keeping with Park Slope's historic character:

Park Slope Jewish Center - proposed new front stair configuration

Park Slope Jewish Center - proposed addition

In every sense, the Park Slope Jewish Center is a foundational component both of Park Slope's history, and of its present and future; Park Slope is privileged to be the home of the PSJC.

The rest of this series on the history of the Park Slope Jewish Center is available here:
Part 1: Beginnings
Part 2: Congregation Tifereth Israel
Part 3: Congregation B'nai Jacob
Part 4: Congregation B'nai Sholaum

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Park Slope Panorama

A reader sends in this panoramic photograph of Park Slope and environs, taken from the roof of the 9th Street YMCA last Thursday evening.

The occasion was the Park Slope Civic Council's first "Movers and Shakers" party; definitely the place to be last Thursday if you could obtain an invite. It was a lovely evening with a fantastic view. The evening's featured refreshment was the "Park Slope Passion".

The photograph spans about 180 degrees, from southwest to northeast. The large building in the left foreground is the former Prospect Theater, which cuts all the way through the block from 9th Street to 8th Street. At the extreme right is P.S. 39, a designated city landmark; to its left is the Park Slope United Methodist Church; to the left of that is the old 6th Avenue Methodist Church building, later a YMHA associated with Congregation B'nai Jacob, now Camp Friendship.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Annals of Crime: Willie Sutton

Okay, we're crossing over 4th Avenue with this post, so some folks might say this isn't Park Slope any more. They might say it is Boerum Hill, or Gowanus. But we like to joke around that everything down to the Gowanus Canal is the "West Slope". Deal with it! Maybe we'll go down there some time and plant the Park Slope flag in the middle of Dean Street between 3rd & 4th.

Willie Sutton, West Park Sloper

Willie Sutton (1901-1980) was an accomplished bank robber. It was he who famously responded, when asked why he robbed banks, "because that's where the money is." (Makes perfect sense to us!)

Sutton reportedly stole more than $2M during his career. He was a master of disguises, which earned him the nicknames "The Actor" and "Slick Willie". When not in disguise, he was apparently a sharp dresser. He was also good at breaking out of prison, escaping for the last time in 1932. He never killed anyone during his career, and although he carried weapons in the course of his robberies, they were reportedly never loaded, because he didn't want anyone to get hurt. The guns were just for show. After escaping in 1932, Slick Willie robbed a few more banks, but then laid low for many years. When the FBI created its "Most Wanted" list, in 1950, Willie was 11th on the list.

In 1952, 24-year-old Arnold Schuster was helping out in his father's tailor shop at 5507 5th Avenue in Sunset Park. Schuster was a bit of an amateur detective and was fascinated by the "Most Wanted" poster that had been dropped off in his father's shop by FBI agents. Schuster had studied it carefully for months, and had grown very familiar with the faces on the poster.

On February 18, 1952, Schuster had gone shopping in downtown Brooklyn, and had boarded a downtown BMT train at DeKalb Avenue for the trip home. As he gazed at the people seated across from him, one face seemed oddly familiar. He soon realized it resembled a face on the "Most Wanted" poster that he had been studying for months. The man across the aisle looked down, and then got off the train at Pacific Street, in Park Slope, the next stop.

Arnold Schuster also got off the train, and followed his man to a gas station at 3rd Avenue and Bergen Street. He then flagged down a couple of police officers, saying, "I think that guy is Willie Sutton."

Gas Station, 3rd Avenue and Bergen Street -
Possibly the one to which Schuster trailed Sutton

The officers followed the man back to Dean Street between 3rd & 4th Avenues, where they found him changing a dead battery in his car in front of his rooming house at 340 Dean Street. The officers questioned him, and ultimately took him over to the precinct house at 6th Avenue and Bergen Street, a few blocks away, where he was positively identified as Willie Sutton, famous bank robber and escapee.

78th Police Precinct House, 6th Avenue & Bergen Street

New York Times account of Sutton's apprehension
March 9, 1952

It was a huge news story, and when Arnold Schuster's role in Sutton's apprehension was made known, he started receiving threatening phone calls and letters. One of the letters read, "You don't have long to live... Willie has friends."

On the evening of March 8, 1952, Arnold Schuster left his father's tailor shop and began walking to his home at 941 45th Street in Borough Park, between 9th & 10th Avenues, a distance of about a mile. He never made it. A few doors from his home, near the corner of 9th Avenue and 45th Street, he was gunned down, shot once in each eye and twice in the groin, if certain accounts can be believed. His body was found in the driveway adjacent to 913 45th Street. Despite a massive manhunt, his killer or killers were never apprehended.

New York Times, March 9, 1952, p. 1

It was later claimed that Albert Anastasia, a leader of one of the so-called "Mafia" families, had ordered Schuster to be offed after seeing the story on television, exclaiming, "I can't stand squealers! Hit that guy!"

We first heard this story in 2003, and immediately took the bike over to 340 Dean Street to see if the building was still there. At that time it was still standing, although abandoned and boarded up:

340 Dean Street (right) - 2003
Willie Sutton apprehended here

But we were surprised to find that even at that late date, Willie Sutton was not forgotten. Spray-painted on the doorway, back in 2003, superimposed with "KEEP OUT", were the words "Willy [sic] Sutton RIP":

340 Dean Street, 2003 - doorway

This was Willie Sutton's last hideout, just a few blocks from the Bergen Street precinct house; this was his home when he was apprehended due to the hapless Arnold Schuster.

Sometime in the last year or so, 340 Dean Street was demolished, to make way for what will undoubtedly be marketed as another "luxury condo" tower. The site has been quiet of late, so it appears that luxury may have to wait a bit longer in this part of the West Slope.

340 Dean Street (right) - 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Al Capone, Park Sloper

Amongst other such notables as Barack Obama, Al Capone was a Park Sloper.

Al Capone mugshot

Young Al is associated with two addresses in Garfield Place, and with P.S. 133. According to his Wikipedia article, his family first lived at 38 Garfield Place, on the south side of the block between 4th & 5th Avenues:

40-38-36 Garfield Place - unprotected

The Capone family immigrated to the United States in 1893 and settled at 95 Navy Street, in the Navy Yard section of downtown Brooklyn, near the Barber Shop that employed Gabriele at 29 Park Avenue. When Al was 11, the Capone family moved to 38 Garfield Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. (wikipedia)

While living in Park Slope, Capone attended P.S. 133, a few blocks north of his Garfield Place residence. Capone's biography dismisses the school as a "hideous Gothic monstrosity", but the building was well-loved by its neighbors and was the subject of an unsuccessful preservation campaign:

Excerpt from Capone by Laurence Bergreen

P.S. 133 - unprotected "Gothic monstrosity"
C. B. J. Snyder, architect

After being expelled from school, the 14-year-old Capone began running with several Park Slope street gangs. Around the same time, his family moved down the block to 21 Garfield Place, on the north side of the street:

17-19-21 Garfield Place - unprotected

Shortly after he was expelled, his father moved the family to 21 Garfield Place, in the neighborhood that would influence the direction of Capone's life and ultimately, his future. Capone joined two local street gangs, the Brooklyn Rippers and the Forty Thieves Juniors. Among the members were Johnny Torrio and Lucky Luciano. (u-s-history)

2010 House Tour: 178 Garfield Place

This house will be featured on the 2010 Park Slope House Tour, which will be held Sunday, May 16. Tickets will be available at 7th Avenue merchants, and are available now through the Park Slope Civic Council's website. All proceeds from the House Tour are returned to the community through the Council's Grants Program.

178 Garfield Place, part of a longer row of 11 similar houses on the south side of the street between 6th and 7th Avenues, in many ways exemplifies the history of Park Slope as a whole.

182-180-178 Garfield Place - unprotected

These houses are outside the Park Slope Historic District, so we know little about when or by whom they were built. A smaller row of matching houses stands behind these, through the block on 1st Street. The entire group is visible on an 1880 map of Brooklyn, so we know that they must have been standing at that time, when Garfield Place was still called Macomb Street (it was renamed after the 1881 assassination of President James Garfield):

1880 Park Slope Map
178 Macomb Street (now Garfield Place) in row at lower right

Stylistically the houses mark the transition from Italianate to Neo-Grec. The flat facade, the arched windows and doorways, the exceptionally graceful parlor windows that drop all the way to the floor, and the remaining original ironwork on the rows are all characteristic of the Italianate style. Yet the geometric console brackets and incised decoration below the pedimented doorways herald the arrival of the new Neo-Grec style.

178 Garfield Place was associated with the Robbins family for over 70 years, beginning in the late 1870s. The 1879 Lain's Brooklyn Directory lists Thomas H. Robbins, whose occupation is listed as "bricks", in residence at 178 Macomb:

CLARKSON John painter h 178 Macomb
ROBBINS Thomas H. bricks h 178 Macomb

Thomas Herrick Robbins was the father of William Alfred Robbins and Lillian Florence [Robbins] Naylor. Both children remained associated with 178 Garfield Place for the rest of their lives. The New York Times of September 11, 1933, carried the obituary of Lillian Florence Naylor, with services at her late home, 178 Garfield Place. Meanwhile her brother, William A. Robbins, a lawyer and genealogist, lived until 1951, and his address at the time of his death was also 178 Garfield Place.

The history of the house becomes unclear at this point, but it probably followed the same arc of neglect and decline suffered by the rest of Park Slope, as families abandoned the city for the suburbs after World War II. In 1969, the police raided the second-floor apartment at 178 Garfield Place and arrested the occupants for selling heroin:

New York Times, January 23, 1969

Happily, both 178 Garfield Place and Park Slope in general have recovered immensely from their earlier nadir, as the abandonment of urban centers has been reversed. 178 Garfield Place has most recently been the recipient of a highly sensitive restoration by Levenson McDavid Architects.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Prospect Place Infill

Recently we found ourselves in Prospect Place between 6th & Flatbush Avenues and noticed a new infill building rising at #94 Prospect Place on the south side of the street:

96-94-92 Prospect Place

The formerly vacant lot had been overlooked by trompe l'oeil murals on the sides of the adjacent buildings. We wrote about the murals last year, and wondered who painted them:

96 Prospect Place, circa 2008

We never did learn anything about the murals and never confirmed our theory that they might possibly have been by muralist Richard Haas. This case does however illustrate the rather transitory nature of the mural as an urban art form.