Brooklyn structure: the slim homes of Cumberland Road

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2010 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

People become successful developers by getting the most out of a property. Thomas H. Brush, the owner, architect, and builder of two narrow brownstones at 259 and 261 Cumberland Streets in Fort Greene and many other homes in Brooklyn, understood this well.

Cumberland Street in 1887. Map on the New York Public Library

He owned a 25-foot lot on Cumberland Street between Dekalb and Lafayette Avenues in 1875 when Fort Greene was in the midst of a major construction boom. He could have built a lovely 10 meter wide villa on this plot of land. It wouldn’t have been remarkable here, but he decided otherwise. Instead, he built two 12.5-foot-wide brownstones.

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 259 Cumberland Street

Cumberland Street in 1941. Photo via New York Public Library

As his own architect and with a fine sense of balance and proportion, he divided the property into two parts. He designed them to look like a large house by arranging the doors on opposite sides, creating the illusion of much larger houses with an open window sill on the upper floors and a common cornice.

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 259 Cumberland Street

He gave his 1876 Italianate / Neo-Grec style transition houses wide brownstone shelves and lintels, and framed the doors and windows with heavy molded window sills. The eye goes up and then across, absorbing the illusion of a large house that happens to have two doors.

Brooklyn architecture Fort Greene 261 Cumberland

Interior by 261 Cumberland in 2012. Photo via Corcoran

But in reality, the houses are some of the narrowest in Brooklyn. They each have a central staircase, which maximizes the usable area in the front and rear rooms. No. 261 was last on the market in 2012 and there are still photographs of the interior on the Corcoran website showing the room layout and a floor plan.

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 259 Cumberland Street Floor Plan

Image via Corcoran

Living in a cramped house takes some getting used to, but that didn’t worry the Victorians. The residents here have probably already stuffed their large furniture and low-hanging paintings and lots of curtains into their houses.

When Miss Mattie Towers died in 1897, her funeral was at her 259 Cumberland home. That was probably a crowded affair. Miss Towers probably had a nice view from the living room window with the mourners who had gathered from the front living room to the back of the house.

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 261 Cumberland Street

Edward Ostrom’s family lived in No. 261, starting around 1901. They were wealthy enough for the son’s wedding to make the Eagle’s society pages and the Brooklyn Life society pages.

Edward Ostrom was many things during his life. His father was a well-known banker in Brooklyn. He was one of the first members of Company C of the 23rd Elite Regiment.

In his role as superintendent of the Mayflower Mission, part of the Plymouth Church ministry, he taught a Bible course for young men for 50 years.

He was also a professional curmudgeon. He was one of those people who always wrote to the papers and complained about something.

He wrote to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1903 complaining that the coal pits in the new downtown post office on Washington Street were too small. When the coal was delivered, it took forever to empty the wagons because the men couldn’t get that much coal through the chutes at once. As a result, there were huge congestion on Washington Street when coal was being delivered.

Amazingly, as a result of his complaint, Ostrom received a letter from the postmaster stating that this would be fixed and larger coal ducts installed.

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 259 Cumberland Street

Encouraged by his new power, Ostrom took on his next goal, which was close to his heart: Christianity. In 1907, the school board had received many complaints from non-Christians about the Christmas school celebrations. They wanted to prevent children from being forced to sing religious Christmas carols in class and in meetings.

The Education Council considered this because there was a clear separation between church and state. Ostrom was one of many citizens outraged that a religious Christmas festival would be banned from schools.

Like many others, he wrote and complained both for and against the subject. Who said there was something new under the sun?

Brooklyn Architecture Fort Greene 261 Cumberland Street EAST

1917 article on The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Finally, in 1917, he spoke again about the eagle and complained about the ingredients bakers put in bread. He accused Baker of having brought massive “humbug” into the public eye.

He found that flour rose in part because of the gluten in the flour. The more gluten, the more the loaf responded to the yeast and the higher and looser it rose. He accused bakers of taking advantage of the shortages and war programs of World War I and deceiving the consumer by stopping using gluten.

He said the humbug came when bakers protested that because of the war they couldn’t sell bread for 10 cents as usual. In reality, he said, they were instead making huge profits by passing all of their higher costs on to the consumer. He wanted it to stop. He was right.

Unfortunately, his lamenting days ended in 1923 when he died at the age of 76. Good or bad, Mr. Ostrom’s work continues. Letters to the editor are still very popular. He would have loved the comment sections in newspapers and blogs.

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