Brooklyn Structure: 19th century mansions for the lots
Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published in 2014. You can view the original contribution here.
By definition, an apartment building is a building with multiple tenants, nothing more sinister than that.
In 1867, New York State defined it as “any house, building, or part of it that is rented, leased, rented, or rented out to be inhabited or inhabited, other than the house or residence of more than three independently living Families from one another and cook themselves on the premises or from more than two families on one floor, live and cook and have a common right in the halls, stairs, courtyards, toilets or private rooms. ”
The term has forever been associated with terrible, overcrowded, and inferior slums populated by the poorest of the poor, adding a stigma to all apartment buildings that wouldn’t go away until the first quarter of the 20th century.
In the last two decades of the 19th century, most neighborhoods had multiple building units, which by definition were technically apartment buildings, but certainly not slum buildings. They were built for middle class families.
The developers at the time hired the same architects who designed beautiful homes and mansions to design apartment buildings, and today’s twin buildings at 697-703 Bushwick Avenue are good examples of what could be done with the form. Similar buildings can be found across Brownstone Brooklyn.
Theobald Engelhardt was THE architect in the so-called Eastern District, which included Bushwick, parts of Williamsburg and the eastern part of Bedford. Over the course of his long career, he designed all types of buildings in the district, including most of the beautiful mansions in the area. These apartments, which he designed in 1889, were good looking mansions for the masses.
Many of these buildings were constructed with two apartments per floor on either side of a central staircase for a total of eight apartments. Both buildings have twice the number of units, now with four apartments per floor. Without seeing the original plans, I don’t know whether this subdivision was original or was carried out later. Many of the tenement houses had smaller apartments and were marketed in a less affluent market than the through apartments.
These are both beautiful buildings. It’s a shame that corner building 701-703 was painted white. Perhaps in time someone will strip the paint off and bring the original red brick and rich terracotta trim back to life. I hope they will also replace the cornice that can still be seen on its neighbor 697-699. Without them, the building looks incomplete. I would imagine that there is also more frequent water damage. Cornices served both a practical and a decorative purpose; They divert water from the facade.
Engelhardt designed these buildings for a Dr. HF Praeger, a local doctor who also invested in real estate. The good doctor lived on Tompkins Avenue across from what is now Von King Park. Tenants over the years have included merchants, a widow and her adult daughter, clerks and grocers, teachers and other common laborers, and an interesting collection of villains and mischief makers.
In 1894 one of the tenants in 703 was a wine merchant named Joseph Fuchs. In December of that year he was at the door of death in Arion Hall, the victim of a dispute between himself and another wine merchant named Gottfried Westermacher. Westermacher had pushed Fuchs and must have caused internal injuries in the course of the fall. Both men had gone home, but later Fuchs was dying. Westermacher was arrested.
Another tenant in the corner building was Charles Nolan. In 1897 he was arrested for stealing bicycles. It was later learned that he was the leader of a major bicycle theft operation. Young and well dressed, he would go to various bike shops in Brooklyn to rent or test bikes and then never return them. He then sold them to other bike shops.
Bicycles were the hottest fad of the day, and there were plenty of stores across Brooklyn. He specialized in the better models. He did just fine until the police and shopkeepers found out his MO and could finally catch him.
A tenant in the other building, 699 Bushwick, was a coal merchant named Edward H. Weisbrod. In 1909 he and another man were arrested for short deliveries of coal. The two reportedly sold 10,000 pounds of coal to the street cleaning department on Sterling Place and Bedford Avenue. They made the delivery and got paid for the delivery. Who knows what 10,000 pounds of coal should look like? It’s a lot of money. Unfortunately, a Weights and Measures official happened to be on site and found that the shipment was only £ 8,500. Oops.
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