The house was livable when we bought it forty-three years ago. The roof did not leak (much). The wall and floor joists were solid. Toilets flushed. Sparks seldom flew when appliances were plugged in. But the one-hundred-year-old house needed work. We, however, did not have the money for improvements. The spouse was transitioning to a post-doc in neurobiology having just obtained her doctorate, a position that was rich in remunerations in every way other than dollars, and I was working for the New York City Legal Aid Society, an employer not known (correctly) for lavish pay.
We could only afford the mortgages, taxes, and utilities if we rented out two floors of the four-story building, and because of our new-found religion. We prayed earnestly that nothing serious would go wrong in our new home because we could not afford to pay someone to fix anything. Our beseeching was successful. Desired improvements would have to be done by us, which meant primarily, but not always, by me. Some projects were more successful than others—the floor refinishing stood the test of time, a new closet was ok, but the self-installed windows, not so much.
These efforts often brought glimpses of a previous house and its inhabitants. We found remnants of what was probably an original painted frieze that ornamented the parlor ceiling molding. The same colors were discovered on the ceiling medallions. These indicated colorful paint jobs appropriate for the Victorian era but seldom considered tasteful afterwards. Seeing these decorating choices, I wondered what other owners had done that I would now discover. Some of them were puzzling indeed. As I stripped black paint off eight-foot, solid walnut doors, I wondered why anyone would cover such beautiful wood. What were they thinking? We also uncovered a backyard cistern; when was it last used? A postcard from Providence was found in a wainscotting gap. Was there a story behind that? Why was a fragile, but beautiful, stained glass window pushed off into a crawl space next to some abandoned sinks? Andirons rested with ashes in a covered fireplace that surely had not been used in a half-century. Why were they not carted off?
I started to think that it might be fun to research the history of the house. This seemed especially worthwhile because we were told when we bought it that ours was a uniquely historic house. “This home is known by locals as the Mayor’s House. It was built by the last mayor of Brooklyn, and the story says that, as impressive as it was, it was not grand enough so he built the house across the street [half again as wide as ours] and moved there.” (Brooklyn was a separate city until 1898 when it became part of a consolidated New York City, and the last mayor was the one in office when the consolidation occurred.)
I had known none of this honorable connection when we signed the house contract. In fact, I knew little about our new home’s neighborhood other than that it had been recently landmarked. I got the Landmark Commission’s report, which stated that farms were subdivided into building lots starting in the 1840s and that after the Civil War “wealthy merchants, lawyers, stockbrokers, and businessmen, who mostly commuted to Manhattan, began to build homes in what is now called Fort Greene. The brief history stated that “it remained a quiet and prosperous community for many years,” but in the middle of the twentieth century, “many of the middle-class residents left the area for the suburbs,” and “the poor moved into this old urban neighborhood.” Fifteen years before we bought our house, a newspaper referred to the area as “squalid,” but the Landmark report was upbeat. At the time we were moving in, it said that the “Fort Greene area is being revitalized as many rediscover the advantages of urban life. The buildings, many of which had been turned into rooming houses, again are becoming much sought-after private residences and today Fort Greene is a viable and vibrant community.”
We did not buy the house because of the neighborhood. Almost no one agreed with the real-estate gushiness of the Landmark’s report. Few, if any, applied “sought-after” and “vibrant community” to the area. Instead, many people avoided Fort Greene and felt fear when they did encounter it. We bought anyway. The house, which retained much of its nineteenth-century grandeur, appealed to us, we could (barely) afford it, and we had lived in what others referred to as high-crime neighborhoods before.
The bulk of the Landmark report is not as promotional as its history section and consists of one-paragraph descriptions of the buildings in the landmarked area. It says that our house was “erected by real estate speculator and former Brooklyn mayor Samuel Booth sometime between 1872 when he acquired the land and 1883 when he sold it to Charles and Kate Glatz.” So the story we were told about the mayor’s house did have a smidgeon of truth. It was built by a person who had been a Brooklyn mayor, but a little research revealed that Booth was not the last Brooklyn mayor. Booth had held the office thirty years earlier, shortly after the Civil War. And the story that His Honor had not found our house grand enough so he built a bigger one across the street was, according to the report, not true either. It says that the larger house was built in the late 1860s. Thus, its construction preceded that of our house. But still, our house was built by a Brooklyn mayor.
I had not heard of Samuel Booth, and I wondered who he might be and what, if any, was his historical significance. I also realized that there were more than a century of owners and inhabitants who preceded us. Were their stories worth learning and recounting? I found some pamphlets on how to research the history of a Brooklyn brownstone, but at the time I had other things to do, including not only my paid job but also such things as floor sanding and faucet-washer replacements. Historical research would have to wait, which it did for a long time.
(continued January 5)