Brooklyn Structure: Residing on a Coffey Road Row
By Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
Red Hook is one of Brooklyn’s oldest neighborhoods with a unique history. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that Coffey Street, which sits between the Atlantic Ocean and the Erie Basin, should also have a unique history.
Here is the story of Red Hook’s early years and a well-preserved row of Italian brick houses built for the working and middle classes on what is now Coffey Street. The range is one of Red Hook’s most picturesque, with pretty rope details around the doors and pretty carved decorations over the windows.
Red Hook’s early years Hook
The road network was established when Brooklyn became a city in 1834. Most of the city would not be built for another 50 years. Many of the roads proposed by Red Hook were still under water. Coffey Street began as Partition Street, a bulwark between the inland and the waterfront, which in some places was only a block away.
The Brooklyn Eagle began publication in 1842. At that time the land around Partition Street still belonged to Matthias and Nicholas van Dyck. Various members of the Van Dyck family owned much of the Red Hook. Dikeman Street takes its name from them.
Partition Street opened in 1848 along with most of the other streets in the area. The city issued public notices for contractor-bidding purposes for the next several years. Streets and sidewalks had to be leveled and relocated, curbs cut, and sewer, gas and water pipes laid.
By now the industrialists had realized what a treasure they had in what was then South Brooklyn. The topography of the shoreline was perfect for creating enclosed harbors that are protected from the elements. With the tons of earth excavated from leveling the Brooklyn hills, they began to fill the streams, ponds, and marshy land that drained into the sea.
A system of docks and piers was built around and through the new harbors, creating a larger boardwalk than the one across the river in Manhattan.
Colonel Daniel Richard created the Atlantic Basin in 1839. It faced the Buttermilk Channel, the body of water that separates Governor’s Island from Brooklyn. Twelve years later, William Beard began building a much larger port, which he named the Erie Basin. It opened in the late 1860s.
Both bodies were teeming with warehouses, granaries, and heavy loading docks full of goods and materials of all kinds. Manufacturing and heavy industry grew up as they moved inland, more concentrated in the Atlantic Basin, in the new neighborhoods we now call Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill .
The growth of Red Hook produces a powerful politician
Partition Street was renamed Coffey Street in 1891 in honor of local politician Michael J. Coffey. Like the neighborhood he grew up in, Coffey was rowdy, hardworking, and sea-bound. He was born in County Cork, Ireland and came to the United States with his family in 1844 when he was five years old. His parents first settled in Chicago and then moved to Red Hook when they were 10.
He was a teenager when he started working as a carpenter at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He joined the Navy during the Civil War and served on the gunboat Monticello, where he earned the attention and respect of his captain and earned a reputation for fearlessness and bravery. After the war, he returned to Red Hook and began a career as a port construction contractor.
He became interested in local politics and allied himself with Hugh McLaughlin, the powerful leader of the Democratic Party in Brooklyn during those years. The Coffey borough was in Brooklyn’s 12th Ward, which included Red Hook and its docks – some of the city’s most important real estate. A man in control of the docks controlled much of Brooklyn’s finances.
Coffey became Alderman, the equivalent of today’s city council, and served his district between 1867 and 1874 when he became a state assemblyman. In this position he worked until 1892, when he was again city councilor and president of the city council. In 1893 he was re-elected to the New York State Senate.
Mike Coffey was a short man, only six feet tall, but he cast a long shadow. His 39-year career in politics earned him the nickname “Emperor of Red Hook” and his district was known as Coffeyville. Before he broke up with Hugh McLaughlin, he was one of the boss’s right-wing men. Nothing was going on at Red Hook that he knew nothing of or was involved in.
He negotiated the purchase of land for Red Hook’s only city park, which was named after him long before his death. The parkland was bought in three parcels – the earliest and largest parcel by Coffey in 1892. Coffey Park officially opened in 1901. Subsequent parcels were bought in 1907 and 1943, creating today’s park.
In 1901 he defied McLaughlin’s democratic establishment machine and was accused of “treason”. He lost his seat and went back to building docks. He developed cancer and died at Long Island College Hospital on March 22, 1907, after complications after surgery.
A nice group of houses on Coffey Street
An atlas map from 1855 shows the streets laid out, but almost no buildings on Partition Street. There are a couple of townhouses on nearby Ferris Street. There were no residential buildings until 1860.
A later map from 1880 shows these eight houses – Numbers 168 to 182 Partition Street. The house at 174 Partition Street is mentioned in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1874. None of the others appear until the 1880s.
The houses are Italian brick transition houses, with a little creativity in the inexpensive decoration. The distinctive hoods over the doors and windows as well as the floral lunettes underneath give the series a touch of humor. With the changes in many of Red Hook’s streets over the centuries, this remains one of the most intact streets.
Only one house is now missing at 174 Coffey, and most have their exterior details. Even number 180, which had a suburban style entrance and picture window, kept the hoods and lunettes. The houses also retained their massive window sills and large arched wooden cornices that mirror the lines of the window hoods.
The series was built by unknown builders as a speculative single family home for middle and working class homeowners. But for economic reasons and the housing shortage, everyone was divided into dormitories or apartments at an early stage.
Not much was happening here that was newsworthy, just ordinary workers going about their lives. For most of the late 19th and 20th centuries the neighborhood was solidly Irish and Italian. They rarely did the papers except to make funeral announcements. But there were a few exceptions.
In 1903, 31-year-old John C. Steiger got into great trouble. He was visiting a cigar shop and pool hall on Hamilton Avenue when police ransacked the place. Steiger made the mistake of reaching out to hold Captain Patrick Summers back. He was arrested and charged with disrupting a police investigation and assaulting a police officer.
The case got much bigger when Summers and three of his men were charged with “repression” by the pool hall owner. Apparently they came into the facility and tossed their weight around for no particular reason. The case made the papers for several days. However, the result is unclear.
In 1909, a tug named Proctor sank from a nearby dock. It was owned by James Brooks at 182 Coffey Street. The cook sleeping on board was awakened by water that splashed on his face. He and others have fled. The boat’s seams were believed to have opened after a particularly heavy workload in the previous weeks.
In 1931 a worker named Edward Stryte who lived at Coffey 174 was burned while he was working in a car junkyard. He and his colleagues were dismantling old cars when his acetylene burner ignited the gasoline tank of a truck he was working on. He was knocked over and his clothes went up in flames. He was hospitalized and recovered.
Today, the neighborhood championed by Michael Coffey is very popular, also because of the “authenticity” it maintains on blocks like this one. Coffeyville was discovered.