Brooklyn Structure: Picket body survivors in Boerum Hill
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2013 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
I’ve always liked these timber frame houses. They’re tucked away at 69-71 Dean Street between Smith Street and Boerum Place, just on the second block of Dean Street. Perhaps because the road and pedestrian traffic seems to stay on Smith, the houses appear to be a bit off the radar – a situation that probably saved them after all these years with no landmarks.
Boerum Hill is an old neighborhood and began to develop strongly in the 1850s when the growing city of Brooklyn spread out from the docks and shoreline of Brooklyn Heights and what is known as South Brooklyn – now Red Hook, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens.
Wooden and brick houses were built by dozens of small builders / developers who acted as their own architects. These two houses were likely built in the late 1850s or 1860s. The first printed houses appear in 1860 when Charles Kellis, who may have been the builder, asked for his property to be fenced in at 69 Dean Street. Approval has been granted.
The houses are classic wooden-framed Greek revivals such as those found in Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Wallabout, Boerum Hill, and elsewhere in the oldest parts of Brooklyn. They were built on a brick foundation, with a brick floor on the first floor and clapboard cladding over it. The windows are classic six over six, and the houses have pointed roofs so that snow and rain can drain away. The windows are replacement but are the original style for the house.
They originally had flat roofs, but in 1873 a Mrs. Dewhurst applied for a permit to replace the flat roof at # 69 with a pitched roof. On that day, many permits for the same were applied for, so the advantage of a pitched roof was definitely in the local discussion at the time. The same thing was done at some point, probably shortly afterwards, at 71.
Both houses became apartment buildings almost immediately. There are tons of ads in the Brooklyn Eagle adverts for rent in both boarded houses, but especially in 69. Most of Boerum Hill appeared to be doing the same. This was a popular working-class neighborhood whose residents shipped the workers to nearby factories and shipyards, and many were also employed as owners and workers in local retail stores and businesses. Like all homes, these two have their stories to tell, mostly stories of births, weddings, deaths, and funerals, all of which take place here or nearby. Two are the most notable.
In 1882, two “colored” women named Matilda A. Simmons and Elizabeth L. Hewitt lived in 71 Dean. They were both victims of an unscrupulous life insurance salesman named James Sylvester. He worked for the John Hancock Insurance Company, but had a nice side business of berating customers. He sold the ladies 71 life insurance policies from Dean, took their first payments and never came back with the policies and never turned the money over to John Hancock. They weren’t the only victims of his plan. He was eventually arrested where it was found he was also making claims for fictitious people with fake policies with John Hancock and pocketing the money. Insurance fraud is not a new crime.
The other story comes from next door at 69 Dean Street. In 1900, officials from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children searched rooms here and found James and Bridget Line’s two children in filthy and terrible conditions, hungry and crying. The parents were taken to the magistrate, where the sad story came out. Apparently the husband, James Line, had long complained about his wife’s drinking habits, and the neighbors had long complained about the appalling way the children aged three and one were treated. That was how the company found out about the case.
When asked to explain, Ms. Line, 27, was unable to do so. The judge lectured the couple loudly and at length, telling them that neither of them was a fit parent. He ordered them to leave the courtroom and immediately report to the nearest pastor and accept the pledge. He sent a court clerk with him to make sure. Then he postponed the trial for three weeks to see how the couple handled their pardon and sent them on their way. Considering he could have locked up the parents and forced the children into one of the overcrowded orphanages on site, it was a compassionate result. I hope you did well.
Over the years, homes have done relatively well considering the alternatives. The houses next door have long since disappeared, so that this semi-detached house is left alone with its neighbor. A photo from the Brooklyn Historical Society shows the houses dating from 1960. They have lost their original six over six windows, the brick looks like it’s plastered, and the door of number 71 has been altered and covered in something that looks like a fake looks like brick veneer. By the 1980s, 71 had its bricks replaced or covered with aluminum or vinyl siding, according to tax photos. The clapboard next door had also been replaced with asphalt, the more familiar gray-textured stuff. All window frames have been covered or removed.
But today everything is a different story. Restoration work on both houses restored historic details and weathered new wood paneling, giving both houses the appearance of a New England coastal city street. While 71 is again a single-family house, 69 is a two-family house. The blog on the wooden house project also has a nice post on these houses.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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