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What's in a name?

Dec 30, 2008 4:11 PM | 2 comments

Ever since one of my graduate art professors instructed her students to physically or conceptually transform the telephone book, I’ve been fascinated by city directories.  These lists of people--most of whom don’t know each other--are linked together by the simple fact that in one particular year, they all lived in the same village, city, or town. It is an archeological document of people, forever frozen in time.


Our city directories run from 1796 to 1934, and you can consult them on microfilm in the Popular Library. What makes them a lot more interesting than modern phone books, is that in addition to listing the name and address of each head of household, they also include the person’s occupation.  So, if your friend John Smith the mason asked you to call on him at home, you would have no trouble finding him at 55 Elliot Place, and would not make the mistake of bothering John Smith the sailmaker at 10 Clermont Ave, or John Smith, the shipfastener at 91 ½ N.3rd.  Also, because the directory publishers chose to list occupations, it’s easy to find out which jobs were prevalent at a particular time. You see the emergence of some occupations--

Atkins Joseph, photographer, h.357 Pacific;

the endurance of others –-

Sinnimon Mary, teacher, h. Lafayette near Navy;

 and the decline of others--

Seery Peter, marblepolisher, h. 379 Dean.

These examples are all taken from the 1863 directory.


Who you callin’ a ***?

In addition to the listing of occupations, African-Americans living in Brooklyn were further distinguished by a variety of terms, abbreviations, symbols, etc. from 1822 to 1870.  In the initial year of 1822 the directories  used the term “black” directly after a name  – no beating around the bush here. At first I wondered if they were referring to the occupation of blacksmith. But there were too many of them, and after cross-referencing the names of officers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, I found that all of those names had “black” after them. 

What was also interesting is that in the 1820's, in most cases no occupation was listed after these names. Was it such hard work being black that they had time for nothing else? How did they end up in the city directory? Were slaves allowed in the directory? Only a few lucky inhabitants warranted the listing of an occupation, like Gilbert Gilberts for example: 

During the 1855's an * was used -- a bit more discreet.  During the 1860's, the abbreviation "col" was used, and by 1870 it was replaced by col'd.

What was the reasoning?  We may never know for sure, but whatever the reason it has opened up a way to do further research.  Where did these early African-American Brooklynites live?  What type of work were they able to find?  I've been combing the pages of the 1863 city directory and compiling a list of names of everyone with "col" after them.  I guess I'm making my own directory.  What I find out will be in my next post.    


The Brooklyn That Never Was Part 1

Dec 23, 2008 11:45 AM | 4 comments

I doubt that Brooklyn is more beset with projects that came to nought than any other borough--or is it? As we contemplate the slowdown, if not the demise, of the Atlantic Yards project, let us pause to consider some other ideas that got little further than the paper they were drawn on.  My last post mentioned the Union Temple House. Union Temple and Temple House

If you recall, I was transported back to 1929--Thursday October 24th to be exact-- and found myself floating in mid air next to the shell of the Flatbush wing of the Central Library, with pigeons using my head as their perch and my shoulders as--never mind, let's have a little decorum, after all this is the fifth largest public library system in the Unted States...A distant rumbling could be heard from across the river. It was the sound of the stock market falling, losing 9% of its value in a single day.

Just around that time plans were afoot to create a magnificent adjunct to the Union Temple House,  across the street. The architect was Arnold W. Brunner. Like the Raymond Almirall library design and a few other important projects, this structure never saw the light of day. In a 1926 Eagle article, Philip H. Lustig, then President of the Temple said, " After the Temple House, you know, we plan to erect a Temple building adjoining it, which will be a house of worship for between 2,500 and 3,500 worshipers." (Brooklyn Daily Eagle [BDE], May 9, 1926.) The caption of a 1925 picture of the temple house under construction says "The temple proper will be a low Greek structure while the temple house will have ten stories and contain all the appurtenances of a modern clubhouse and community center." (BDE Dec 27, 1925). In January 1930,  the Eagle announced that work was to start on the new temple on April 1st--perhaps the newsman's idea of an April fool's joke? This building was to be in the style of the Italian Renaissance and would rise 100 feet to a dome decorated in colored tile. The record falls ominously silent until Nov 16, 1936, when the Temple's president declared with forced cheer that "Economic conditions have changed much for the better during the past year. Commercial and industrial circles have made strong advances toward recovery."

It would be about 80 years before ground would actually be broken for a building on that site, and it was not to be a temple. This time, the Richard Meier Building went up before the stock market came down.

Photographs: Top--Rendering, Union Temple and Temple House. Brooklyn Daily Eagle,  Dec 22, 1929. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Bottom: Richard Meier Building and Union Temple House, Dec 23, 2008. Photograph, June Koffi.

Belcher Hyde 1929

Dec 19, 2008 10:10 AM | 14 comments

I am searching for an analogy that would best describe my relationship to the Belcher Hyde Desk Atlas of Brooklyn, of 1929. It is intense and ongoing, much like the relationship a serious language student has with a good dictionary.  It is less messy than human relationships, because the atlas never answers back, never betrays, always gives me something when I turn to it, even if it is not exactly what I am looking for. Unlike my dogs, it never disobeys or embarrasses me, and while it lacks warmth it is constant and true.  You would not call it beautiful, but you might call it fascinating, like an older actress with slightly asymmetrical features.  And just as readers of Proust return to his volumes again and again  finding something new every time, the atlas constantly surprises me with previously unnoticed details.

Well, enough of this. An atlas is only an atlas.  It is a tool of the trade, and as such I imagine it invokes some of the same feelings a carpenter might harbor for his favorite plane.  I could wish its publisher had a more mellifluous name--the Florian Devilliers Atlas, perhaps--but you have to accept people, and atlases, just the way they are.

Which is not to say that you can't help them along in life. We have had a preservation photocopy made of our Belcher Hyde, so that we can slap it onto a copy machine with impunity and share it with any visitor who needs it. When this one wears out, which it soon will, we will order another from our bindery, and so its future is assured.

Our original copy belonged to a Carl Kirsch, Real Estate and Insurance, 141 Broadway NY 6 Phone WOrth 2-2776.  In four volumes of about 200 pages each, it covers the whole borough in extraordinary detail. It is big enough that one can read it without a magnifying glass, but not so big that one needs bulging biceps to carry it around the room. Goldilocks might say that the atlas of 1886 is too big, of 1912 is too small, but the atlas of 1929 is just right.

For the pleasure of it, I have just opened the atlas at the atypical page that shows the spot where I am right now, on the second floor of Brooklyn's Central Library at Grand Army Plaza. Most atlas pages are dense with colored buildings, but the unpopulated park and the Botanic Gardens are shown in black and white. Back in 1929 I would have been floating somewhere above a big hole in the ground. To my left would have been the half-built Flatbush wing of the building with an elaborate beaux-arts facade. Flying around my head would be the pigeons that inhabited what was known as the city's largest pigeon coop. And to my right would have been Eastern Parkway and the Union Temple House with a still-empty lot giving onto Plaza Street. The atlas shows this wing as a pink lozenge on Flatbush Avenue, with the Mount Prospect Reservoir (now filled in and called Mount Prospect Park) directly behind it.  I must have looked at this page a hundred times before, but only today did I notice that right next to the Lefferts homestead was the "Deer Paddock," and at the other end of the park, between Prospect Park West and the West Drive, between 9th and 11th Streets, were the "Archery Grounds."  That tricky old Belcher Hyde, always pulling some rabbit or other out of its hat.

Pictures: Top, Desk Atlas of Brooklyn. New York: Belcher Hyde Co, 1929 Vol 1, p.107

Bottom: Central Library, Flatbush wing designed by Raymond Almirall. Photograph by Roy Pinney, c 1938. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

The Gregg Chapel

Dec 16, 2008 11:18 AM | 4 comments

Here was a little puzzle which I knew could be best solved by taking my deskbound self out of the library and hitting the streets with a camera. But being more inclined to search through old atlases and surf web sites, I told myself I was doing essential background research.

The Gregg Chapel was the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church's mission to the Italians of Gowanus in the early years of the 20th century.  A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article dated August 5, 1913, describes the plans for the building on Fourth Avenue: "It will be of modern construction...On the first floor will be a club room, the pastor's study and a large auditorium for congregational use, for the attendance is expected to be great from the surrounding neighborhood...The second floor will be divided into a large Sunday School room, with a smaller room for the Sunday kindergarten. The roof will be used as a playground for the children..."

The Gregg Chapel Collection, a recent Brooklyn Collection acquisition, consists of 32 photographs showing the building and the activities that went on within its walls.  On the human level, the images tell a story of progressive education and Americanization. Young children build towers with blocks on the floor, while others play in a sand table. Women sew hats at a round table. A girl's basketball team poses for one shot, while in another, a string septet plays beneath their hoop. Men and women in a semi-circle with women on one side and men on the other hold open books in their laps. On the chalkboard is written "English Class, Gregg Chapel 1923." On the roof, children spread hammocks that look like fishing nets spread to dry on the beaches their parents left behind. In our collections, interior shots from the early 20th century are rare, so these photographs provide invaluable documentation of a population in the process of becoming American.

 As regards the building itself, a couple of puzzles present themselves.  In a note on the verso of one image, the address of the chapel is given as 290 Fourth Avenue, while on another the street number is 190. Which is correct? The excellent 1929 Belcher Hyde Desk Atlas of Brooklyn provides a quick answer--it was at 190 Fourth Ave, between Degraw and Sackett. That was easy.

The second puzzle is not much harder to solve. The images show two Gregg Chapels. What are these two buildings? Were they on the same site, or was the smaller chapel somewhere else altogether? Was it demolished to make way for the new one?  Or perhaps, was the new building created from the skeleton of the old? Certainly there are similarities between the two. The width looks about the same, the rhythm of the doorways is similar, and the pediment topped off with a cross seems to have been transferred in one piece from old to new. 

The surrounding buildings hold a clue. To the left of both old and new buildings is a brick structure with characteristic paired brackets beneath the cornice. To the right of both is a slightly lower brick building with a doorway that abutts the chapel.  So the surrounding buildings show that site was the same for both old and new chapels, and the little old chapel must have given way to its grander iteration soon after 1913.  Now the urban detective wants to know, is the building still there? Thanks to web sites such as and, the deskbound librarian still does not need to leave the office.   The perfectly astonishing Googlemaps brings me right to the door of 190 Fourth Avenue. Next to 190 stands the Danken automotive center, surely nothing like the dignified brick building with the dual brackets? But wait--there they are, painted bright blue along with the brickwork. And what of 190? An awning over the doorway announces it as "Solution Services," but surely this must be a different building altogether? There is stucco where once there was brick. There are three windows where once there were four. And yet the roofline, its cornice and pediment ripped off, extends the exact same distance above the roof of its neighbor. A narrow doorway to the right is an exact echo of an older doorway with a stained glass light above it; and the wider doorway to the left again recalls the proportions of the second Gregg Chapel, which itself copied the lines of its smaller mother. One is forced to the conclusion that the bones of the Gregg Chapel of c1913 lie hidden somewhere inside this renovation. 

And here is the final chapter: on the way to work today I stopped on Fourth Avenue with a camera to record the state of the building on December 17, 2008. The awning is gone, the Googlemaps picture is out of date, and time wreaks its havoc in the faces of buildings as well as in our own.

Gregg Chapel now

Photos: Top: The second Gregg Chapel. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Center: The first Gregg Chapel. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Bottom: 190 Fourth Avenue. Photograph: Joy Holland

The Romance of Cordage

Dec 9, 2008 12:11 PM | 3 comments

While re-housing the Business and Industry section of the Brooklyn Ephemera Collection, I stumbled across this catalog and price list for Waterbury Cordage.  I don't know why this little book seemed so interesting other than, a. I like the word "cordage" and b. the cover art is beautiful.  I found myself reading about types of rope, learning how to make splices, and deciphering strange images of what I now know to be a cross-section of rope.  My only knowledge of ropemaking  comes from reading Moby Dick. I was curious to see what else I could find out about rope, this company and these fascinating products.  I mean, look at the cover art, by Walter Meyner of New York!

Ropewalks have been present in Brooklyn since its settlement.  Henry R. Stiles' The Civil, Political, Professional, and Ecclesiastical History and Commercial and Industrial Record of the County of Kings and the City of Brooklyn, N.Y. from 1683 to 1884, in a section called "Ropes, Cordage and Twine" gives a fascinating account of this industry in Brooklyn.  Ropes were made by hand, in the early history of rope making in Kings County, "...the strands being spun and twisted by a wheel and spindle turned by a stout man...", according to Stiles.  Waterbury Cordage offered several types of ropes with concise descriptions for towing lines, steamboat lines, wheel rope, and mill carriage rope for examples.  The Waterbury 4 Strand Manila Rope was made both with and without a heart.  The two types of cordage mentioned on the cover of the catalog, Manila and Sisal, were spun by machines.  Many of these machines were invented and patented by John Good, the leading manufacturer of ropemaking machines in the United States.  His company was located at Washington Avenue and Park Avenue in Brooklyn. 

From the catalog itself, I learned that the Waterbury Company was founded in 1816.  After quickly reading through Stiles' section on the rope industry, I learned that Noah Waterbury was the man responsible for the opening of this ropewalk in the Eastern District of Brooklyn on Waterbury Street.  After searching for Waterbury Cordage in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle Online, I found that the company had a handful of owners and a scandal reminiscent of today's financial crisis. This scandal involved the excess profits that the McKinley Tariff provided to the company, and market speculation.  The McKinley Tariff of 1890 heavily protected American manufacturing and essentially wiped out the competition for imported goods.  The National Cordage Company (a company owned by J.M. Waterbury) was the most actively traded stock in 1893. Many investments at that time were financed by bonds with high interest rates. The over-valued company was placed under receivership after rumors regarding financial distress circulated. 

This little book, with its captivating cover art, led me to a new world of fascination and romance--the world of 19th century ropemaking.