Brooklyn Structure: Clinton Hill Digs constructed for a sugar baron
While Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill has a well-deserved representative as the address of 19th-century Brooklyn elite and their grand houses, Washington Avenue has some fine architectural specimens of its own.
One such home is the lush brick and brown stone Queen Anne mansion built for sugar baron and real estate developer Henry Offerman at 361 Washington Avenue.
According to his obituary in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, young Henry came to the United States as an immigrant from Germany in the 1830s, started as a shop clerk and worked his way up in the dry goods business until he entered the world of sugar in the 1860s. He did business in Brooklyn in the 1870s and founded the Brooklyn Sugar Refining Company in Williamsburg on South 2nd Street.
While his business was in Brooklyn, Brooklyn City records indicate that his family started in Hoboken, New Jersey. But by 1889, Henry and Lena Offerman settled in their new home in Clinton Hill – perhaps with some of their five children, all of them young adults.
The house is in the historic Clinton Hill neighborhood, but no architect has been identified. The most striking element of the design is the L-shape, which enables the tower with a mansard top to protrude forward from the recessed entrance.
From there, the house is a surprise bag with elements from Queen Anne and Classics – a cuboid (roughly cut) of brown stone, a mix of window styles, keystones, quoining and bay windows – in this case a three-story bay with a decorative iron balustrade.
While the house looks a bit reserved by some Queen Anne standards, look closely and see terracotta ornaments between the window strips – there are faces, creatures, loot, and stylized floral designs. Even the brown stone that surrounds the windows has a bit of ornament: an easily overlooked incised curlicue.
There is also a massive, braced and littered cornice at the foot of the dramatically steep mansard roof, punctuated with dormer windows.
In addition to his house, Offerman had other real estate projects in the works in the 1890s – which proved wise as his sugar days drew to a close. Around 1887 his company, along with several others, joined Henry O. Havemeyer’s Sugar Refineries Company – a move that was under legal investigation for price fixing.
According to an 1891 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Offerman believed “in Brooklyn and its future.” That future included real estate development – the newspaper claimed he had just bought 20 houses.
His most notable development was when Peter J. Lauritzen was commissioned to design two buildings on Fulton Street, a major shopping street in downtown Brooklyn. Fulton Street 503-513, completed between 1890 and 1893, was rented to the S. Wechsler & Brother department store. Built as a landmark in 2005, the complex has been restored (including the Offerman sign on the facade) and is now home to retail and luxury rentals.
The Offermans couldn’t enjoy life in Brooklyn for long in their Washington Avenue home. They only lived in the house for about seven years. Lena Offerman died in 1895 and Henry just a year later.
Around 1900 the house was offered for sale as an “elegant” house with hot water heating and “all other improvements”. According to the announcement, the property was “particularly suitable for a doctor”.
Today the four-story mansion, which once housed a single family, comprises 10 rental units.
[Photos by Susan De Vries]
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