The story of Brooklyn’s builders, architects and builders
In the minds of many people, the planning and construction of buildings is a man’s job. Eventually it was viewed as a male occupation in Western societies as people crawled out of caves and started building shelters. A man had the physical strength to cut trees, collect large stones, or climb a roof. It was impossible, or apparently impossible, for a woman to do this job. That’s the way it was.
By the late 19th century, the Victorians presided over a world with very codified gender roles. But even then, things started to change. Women began to do things that had always been “men’s work”. Sometimes it was the need, but often it was because women realized they were good at doing some of the things men had claimed to be doing. And since there should be a woman’s place in her home, why shouldn’t she have the opportunity to build or design some of them? Why couldn’t a woman be a developer or an architect?
New York State had some of the most advanced laws in the country regarding a woman’s right to own property. An 1848 law prohibited the courts from confiscating a woman’s property or property if her husband owed any debt. The same law also prohibited the husband from appropriating his wife’s property in the event that he should run up his own debts.
This law was enacted after the financial panic of 1837 to prevent families from becoming homeless or destitute due to financial problems. It became a model for other states to follow. Husbands in business quickly realized that it was good policy to put their business assets in their wives’ names. The courts could not touch her, and real Victorians, the creditors were reluctant to bring a respectable woman to justice. It made the believer look bad.
Many of the town’s builders and land speculators have listed their land above the wives, so it is not uncommon to find a woman’s builder or landowner name in the town’s newspapers or records. Often times the woman was just a front and she had nothing to do with the developer’s business. There were notable exceptions, however.
Susanna Russell was one of the earliest developers of Bedford Stuyvesant
There are likely several unknown women who have been involved in construction throughout Brooklyn’s early history, but we don’t have names or information available. Brooklyn’s first known developer was Susanna Edith Cosey Russell, who appeared on the scene in 1870. She was also often the architect and builder of her projects.
Susanna and her husband Walter C. Russell were born in England. He was born around 1819 and she was much younger, born in the 1840s. They were married and lived in Manhattan in the 1860s, where Walter was listed in the city registers as a “heating and ventilation company”.
Ten years later, records show that they live in Brooklyn with their three daughters. The house was also shared by Frederick and Josiah C. Matthews, nephews of Walter, also immigrants from England, and bricklayers. The brothers lived with the Russells for more than 10 years. During this time, their professions changed to “master builder” and “painter”.
During this time, Walter was listed as a “Builder” and Susanna as a “Housekeeper” on the census records, although the census also found that Susanna owned property valued at $ 20,000, a small fortune at the time. The Russells began their joint construction company in 1871.
They decided to buy land in Bedford and, after initial success, continued building in the neighborhood. They were among the earliest developers there and wisely invested in the neighborhood as the Brooklyn Bridge was built and residential growth expanded outward from downtown Brooklyn. Like those who came later, they helped create one of Brooklyn’s trendiest and most upscale neighborhoods in the late 19th century.
Given the day’s prejudice, it was not surprising that many of Susanna Russell’s permits were filed with SEC Russell, obscuring her gender. Who knew, since most men were listed that way?
She has been listed as Mr. SEC Russell by the Brooklyn Eagle more than once. She is listed as “owner, architect and builder” for five rows of houses between 1878 and 1882 and as “owner and builder” of two houses designed by the architect Isaac D. Reynolds. She is listed as the “owner and carpenter” for a group of houses that were built in 1882. She was also listed as “SEC Russell, Builder” in the 1880 Brooklyn City Register. Her husband had a separate listing.
All of their homes and many more were built in what is now the Bedford Historic District and are roughly between Nostrand and Franklin Streets, from Halsey to Monroe Streets. The largest groups are on Halsey, Hancock, and Jefferson Streets. Groups include 70-84 Hancock Street, 101-107 Hancock Street, and 276-284 Monroe Street.
Other homes outside of the historic district have been found, including one on St. James Place in Clinton Hill, suggesting that they may have developed many more homes than we have discovered so far. The Russells were mainly built at a time when the modern Greek architectural style prevailed. Her later houses are designed in the style of Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival.
Their success must have given the Russells enough money and social standing to be accepted into Brooklyn society, but they were never mentioned on the Society’s pages. They did not belong to any church, organization or political organization in public. Perhaps being an infrequent upper class woman was a disadvantage? We just don’t know.
Walter died in 1893 and Susanna died a year later. While we have no photos and very little personal information, they have left a wonderful legacy of buildings, many of which are preserved by landmarks. If the unmarked corridor that extends north of Putnam Avenue through Lafayette Avenue were properly investigated, more Russell buildings would undoubtedly be discovered.
Susanna wasn’t the only one
More women appeared on the records in the late 1880s and into the 1890s. In Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights, Martha L. Swimm is the developer of the record for 324-328 Putnam Avenue, which was built in 1882 and designed by her husband Theodore Swimm. Emma M. Neal developed 575 Macon Street as well as other real estate.
Kate Acor is the owner and developer of a group of townhouses on Bainbridge Street, including 189-205 Bainbridge, as well as other houses here and there on the block. Some were owned and built by Kate and husband Lewis, while others are fully credited to her.
Eastern Stuyvesant Heights also features developers Isabella H. Moore and Catherine Stootoff, both listed as owners and builders. Ms. M. McKinney (owner); Hannah E. Stoutenburg, who worked with her husband, the builder George B. Stoutenburg; and Mary A. DeRevere, who was in partnership with her husband George DeRevere. Their houses are located on Decatur, Bainbridge and Macon Streets and are mostly townhouses, but there are also occasional apartment blocks.
Over in Crown Heights North, Carrie Hine was her husband’s partner, Frederick L. Hine. They developed more than 135 homes that are now part of Phase 2 of the Historic Crown Heights North District. These include 286-298 New York Avenue between Lincoln Place and Eastern Parkway, 820-840 Lincoln Place and 939-961 St. Johns Place.
Frederick was the architect, but Carrie was the business end of their business. By the time they were active in the last decade of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the courts had overcome their squeamishness about lawsuits against women. Carrie was in court a lot. She and Frederick were great builders with beautiful homes, but they often stretched too thin and went to court many times to ward off liens and lawsuits from sellers and builders. They finally left Brooklyn in the early 20th century and settled in Glen’s Falls, NY, where Frederick died in 1922.
The legacy of Susanna Russell
As the 20th century went on, owning and developing property became less new for a woman. It was still uncommon for a woman to be an architect or a contractor to directly supervise construction. By the end of the century, there were far too few women listed in both professions. It is not uncommon to have female architects these days, although there are still far more male architects in the business. Architectural professions statistics recently show that two out of five new architects working in the field today are women. Women are catching up.
The numbers for women as real estate developers are far lower. Most of the women who are in development are in the residential area. The big commercial development is still a boys club. Few women have made it big there successfully. Here in New York, MaryAnne Gilmartin, former CEO of Forest City Ratner and now a partner at L&L MAG, is probably the most successful and well-known. She is a successor to women like Susanna Russell and Carrie Hine; They saw the opportunity and had the talent and drive to be successful – no matter what anyone thought.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]