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It's Here: The Brooklyn Collection Teacher's Guide!

Feb 26, 2009 11:08 AM | 1 comment

Open a PDF of the Guide Here!We are proud to present a new FREE resource for educators in Brooklyn - A Teacher's Guide: Student Projects at the Brooklyn Collection.  Our new publication will help Social Studies teachers create exciting and rewarding projects for their students using the thousands of materials held right here in the Brooklyn Collection.  In addition to basic information about our collection, the guide also provides...

Worksheets and Lesson Plans:

Sample Documents from Brooklyn's past:

Example projects with step-by-step instructions:

Teachers, school administrators, and educators are welcome to stop by and pick up a FREE copy of this new resource.  You may also download a digital copy via the Brooklyn Connections website.  We hope that this guide will encourage educators across the borough to check out our collection, work with us on projects, and incorporate more local history and primary sources into their U.S. History curriculum.  If you have any questions about the guide or would like more information about educational offerings at the collection, don't hesistate to ask.  Enjoy!

The Sheepshead Bay Race Track and the Birth of a Black Community. Illustrated talk, Wed Feb 25th, 2009, 7 p.m.

Feb 24, 2009 2:05 PM | 2 comments

Brooklyn Collection Librarian June Koffi and others will give an illustrated talk on the history of the race track, the founding of the First Baptist Church of Sheepshead Bay that welcomed many of its African American workers, and the community that grew around them. This program will take place at 7 p.m. in the Brooklyn Collection Reserve Room on the Second Floor of the Central Library.

Bath houses or Axel Hedman Part III

Feb 24, 2009 12:31 PM | 2 comments

I am probably the only person alive in Brooklyn to have made regular use of a Scottish municipal bath house as well as a "steamie," a public laundry facility. In my student days in Edinburgh I lived for a year in a flat with a bath tub that filled so slowly that by the time you had  enough water for a bath, it was stone cold.  The solution was the bath house around the corner from James Thin Bookseller, which had big deep bathtubs with an enormously wide faucet that released a river of hot water, filling the tub in seconds. While some probably associate such places with poverty, cold, damp and the smell of disinfectant, to me this memory is of a luxurious oasis of steam and heat and thick white towels. Perhaps I'm making up the towels, but the faucet was for real.

Hence, perhaps, this peculiar interest in the bath houses of Brooklyn.  After the discovery of the image of the lost Hicks St bath house exterior in the Swanstrom dinner menu, a friend of the collection sent a photograph of that building's interior by Edward E. Rutter. It does not look luxurious, but the surfaces appear to be of marble, the space airy and moderately clean. Definitely better than a teacup of cold water in a dirty tub at home.

Another of Brooklyn's notable bath houses is Public Bath no. 7, the landmarked building on Fourth Avenue and President Street that now seems to be permanently surrounded by scaffolding. This building is by Raymond Almirall, who also designed three of Brooklyn Public Library's finest branches--Pacific, Park Slope and Eastern Parkway. (He was also the unfortunate architect of the Central Library that never saw the light of day, of which, more in another post.) The provision of public bath houses and the expansion of the public library system were both civic achievements of the first 10-20 years of the twentieth century, when public and private monies worked together to create institutions of lasting value such as the Carnegie libraries we still use today. The twentieth century saw the rejection of the public sphere in favor of the private in so many areas of activity.  Just as the public bath house gave way to the private bathroom, the public theater fell victim to the private TV set, the growth of public transportation systems suffered from untrammelled passion for the private automobile, and now some functions of the public library are giving way to private access to the internet. In each of these cases we may gain our private oasis,  but even in the case of the public bath house--a strange claim, I know-- we lose a forum for public endeavor, we lose a communal experience, and we miss opportunities for good architecture.  

Pictures: Top: Public bath on Hicks St, architect Axel Hedman. Photograph E.E. Rutter, 1921

Bottom: Fourth Avenue flooded, with public bath No 7 in background, 1922

On moving houses, and John Thatcher.

Feb 19, 2009 2:48 PM | 1 comment

A print that is new to our collection got me thinking about buildings that have been moved, about things worth keeping, and exile, and all sorts of serious things. Single-pointed focus is not my strong point, and so the faithful reader--if you are still there, thank you--will just have to put up with reading several posts melded into one.  

This print shows the Brighton Beach Hotel being moved back from the beach to terra firma in 1888, after erosion brought the ocean to the very foundations of the building.   No small structure, the hotel was dragged backwards 555 feet by eight or ten locomotives on specially constructed tracks. In a city obsessed with knocking down perfectly good structures and replacing them with inferior ones, why were a few buildings deemed good enough to move?

The Montauk Theater was moved and turned  an eighth of an inch at a time, to accommodate the creation of the Flatbush Avenue Extension. Investors discovered it would be far cheaper to move the building than to create a new one.  When the Perry Mansion was moved across the Street in Bay Ridge, who knows what combination of sentiment and economics combined to create an extraordinary feat of engineering. And then there was the Lefferts Homestead.

The Lefferts Homestead was moved by the firm of Thatcher and Sons in 1917.  From its original position at the corner of Maple St and Flatbush Avenue, it was pulled across the Botanic Gardens and then across Flatbush Avenue to its current position.  To their eternal credit, the citizens of Flatbush raised $6000  to move the house, bucking the tide of demolition that destoyed so many colonial houses through the course of the 20th century. Apparently they thought they had something worth keeping, even if it meant sending the homestead out of the heart of Flatbush and into a little exile in Prospect Park.  

The picture here from Brooklyn Public Library's Thatcher Collection, shows the house en route through the Botanic Gardens. John Thatcher, founder of the firm, was a Welshman who came to  America in 1868 at the age of 17. He lived for some time in Chicago, where he worked as a plasterer, then moved back to Brooklyn to found his own plastering and building firm. Thatcher knew all about creating buildings worth keeping. He built the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Dime Savings Bank on Fulton Street, Erasmus Hall High School, the Greenwood Mortuary Chapel, the residence of Jonathan Bulkeley, Grace Church Parish House and other significant buildings. As a contractor rather than an architect, Thatcher's name is not often connected with some of these buildings, and yet  he is clearly a man who made an enormous impact on his home borough.

Thatcher was long gone when the firm bearing his name, taken over by his son Edwin,  moved the Lefferts house.  Appointed Superintendent of Buildings after serving under Borough President Swanstrom as Superintendent of Sewers,  John Thatcher died in 1912 investigating a violation at a building site near Snediker Ave in East New York. A scaffold broke, plunging him fifty feet to the ground. A young man on the scaffold with him survived, but Thatcher fell head first and died within a few hours of the accident. The outpouring of grief from colleagues and  friends is recorded in a series of letters and newspaper articles preserved in the Collection alongside a portfolio of photographs showing the construction company's fine work.   Thatcher lies buried in Green-wood cemetery in a vault built to last by his employees--another exile like Axel Hedman, who embraced Brooklyn as his home and quietly left a solid legacy of buildings worth keeping that has lasted into its second century. 



Give a Man a Job!

Feb 12, 2009 10:59 AM | 9 comments

Last week a teacher asked me to find evidence of the New Deal in Brooklyn.  She is asking her students to complete a project on the Great Depression and compare it to the economic situation in Brooklyn today.

As my research progressed, I stumbled upon the story of the NRA, or National Recovery Administration, a New Deal initiative with direct ties to Brooklyn's past.  Started in 1933, the NRA (not to be confused with the Rifle Association), was one of President Roosevelt's first major efforts.  It was designed to enforce strategies that were set forth in the National Industrial Recovery Act.  NRA leaders helped industries create voluntary agreements over work hours, wages, and prices.  Businesses that abided by these regulations posted a blue eagle symbol in their window.  Consumers were encourage to patronize only these businesses.  It was hoped that this regulation would stabilize the economy and protect vulnerable consumers and employees.


Brooklyn, like many communities across the country, embraced the NRA with open arms.  In November of 1933, 15,000 men, women and children marched in the NRA Parade in Park Slope.  In Coney Island, staff members and volunteers held a pledge drive for NRA consumers.  Even theatergoers were reminded of the NRA's presence.  Brooklynites may have seen this promotional short starring Brooklyn born Jimmy Durante:


But not everyone was convinced by Mr. Durante's ardent patriotism.  Big businesses were handling much of the negotiations.  The Eagle even mentioned the "grave injustice" that the NRA was placing on certain small businesses.  The debates over the effectiveness of the NRA came to a head in July of 1934 when four brothers from Brooklyn were chosen to test the legal limitations of the NRA.  Joseph, Martin, Alex, and Aaron Schecter ran a live poultry market that catered to kosher butchers at 858 East 52nd Street. Their company, the Schechter Poultry Corporation, was charged with violating a series of NRA agreements.

The Eagle covered the legal proceedings in detail; it was the first NRA criminal prosecution in New York and only the third in the country.  In November, a local court found the brothers guilty and sentenced them to time in jail and a fine.  The brothers quickly began an appeal process that resulted in their appearance before the United States Supreme Court.

It was to be the NRA's first and last judicial test.  The brothers argued that the national government had no right to regulate their business because they only operated within New York State.  The Supreme Court unanimously agreed and declared that the NRA was unconstitutional.  With one decision, FDR's great patriotic initiative was gone.  President Roosevelt was severely disappointed in the ruling, and spent the following years criticizing the Court and trying to alter its political leanings.  He also worked to establish new administrations that repilicated the successful aspects of the NRA.

The Schechter brothers, however, were unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor.  They had accrued over $60,000 in legal fees and within a year had only paid off a third of that.  The business they had fought so hard to save was bankrupt.  By 1936, three of the brothers had found alternative employment, but Joseph was still out of work.  His wife Lillian told the Eagle that she wanted "to forget it all.  I wish everybody would stop talking about it."  Unfortunately, people continue to talk about it to this day.  For in the words of the Eagle:

Eagle Clipping - Jan. 4, 1936