Victorian Flatbush

Large, detached Victorian houses, sprawling estates even, with big yards on both sides? Including garages and driveways? In a city known for apartments, townhouses, and rowhouses packed tightly together, with rather small backyards that don’t always have grass?

No, the subway didn’t go through a timewarp, nor did you get on the wrong train or miss your stop by several hundred miles. You’re in the western part of Flatbush, Brooklyn, home to the largest concentration of Victorian houses in the U.S.

Copyright Downtowngal

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Victorian Flatbush was developed from farmland in the early 20th century. Its dozen mini-neighborhoods and districts were among the city’s very first suburbs, representing the best of both worlds, proximity to the heart of New York and large houses to call home. It was originally advertised as The Village in the City.

Borders are Prospect Park on the north, Avenue H on the south, Coney Island Avenue on the west, and Flatbush Avenue on the east. Many of the streets have aristocratic names—Marlborough, Albemarle, Rugby, Argyle, Beverley, Stratford, Westminster, Buckingham, Clarendon, Newkirk, Cortelyou.

Victorian Flatbush contains Ditmas Park, Prospect Park South, Beverley Square East and West, Fiske Terrace, West and South Midwood, Albemarle-Kenmore Terraces, Caton Park, Newkirk, Midwood Park, and Ditmas Park West. To date, five of these dozen districts have been designated historic districts, and the other seven are working on recognition.

No two houses are alike, and a wide variety of architectural styles are represented—Queen Anne (my favorite!), Tudor (my second-favorite), Shingle, Victorian, Georgian, Colonial Revival, Spanish Mission, Bungalow, Craftsman. Homes are set thirty feet back from sidewalks.

Copyright Onorland

The Albemarle–Kenmore Terraces, pictured above, consist of 32 houses on two cul-de-sacs and were built from 1916–20. The majority are Colonial Revival, but six are in the English Arts and Crafts style, inspired by the Garden City movement (self-contained communities with greenbelts, a countryside environment in an urban locale).

The Kenmore cottages have something quite rare in Brooklyn, actual driveways and private garages, not just a reserved parking space on the sidewalk next to a house.

Also in Kenmore, though not in the historic district, is the Flatbush Reformed Dutch Church parsonage house (seen below), built in 1853 and moved to its current spot in 1918.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

The Beverley Squares were built from 1898 to the early Aughts, starting along East 19th St. Developer Thomas Benton Ackerson, who created much of Victorian Flatbush, initially offered East houses at a starting price of $10,000 and West houses starting at $6,500.

Disappointed by lacklustre sales, he erected relatively simpler houses in the remainder of the neighborhood. Unlike many modern luxury real estate developers in the city, he modified his strategy when he realized there was a limited market for his product.

Beverley Square East

Beverley Square West

Fiske Terrace began development in 1905, after the tragic razing of a forest, and has about 150 houses. Its Avenue H subway station, built 1906 and seen below, is the city’s only wooden cottage with such a purpose. In 2004, it was designated a landmark.

Copyright how_long_it_takes

West Midwood was developed 1899–1908, by the abovementioned Ackerson and another company, Germania. To maintain the Village in the City vibe, front yard fences were forbidden, and utilities were buried underground.

The 42 houses along Westminster Rd., created by Ackerson’s company, originally sold for $10,000.

Copyright Beyond My Ken

Prospect Park South (represented above) began development in 1899, and is perhaps the most grandiose of all dozen districts. These houses have a mandatory minimum square footage of 3,500, some reaching over 10,000. One of the largest mansions in this district has a floor-through ballroom in its top story.

Original prices were over $5,000.

Copyright BeeGrace

Ditmas Park contains the additional Ditmas Park Historic District, with 172 houses built from 1902–14, plus the 1910 Neo-Georgian Flatbush-Tompkins Congregational Church. After the original wealthy residents moved out, many people from other parts of the city were attracted by the spacious houses for what used to be fairly cheap prices.

Many films and TV shows are shot in Ditmas Park because of the large concentration of Victorian houses.

Copyright Onorland

My characters Fyodora and Leontiy move to Ditmas Park in 1949 after the ugly discovery of just what their dream of suburbia is like under the surface. They’re viewed with hostility and suspicion because of their Russian origins, and their son Oliver immediately notices only white people live there. Ditmas Park provides the big house they wanted to upgrade to without leaving the city they so love.

My characters Nestor and Yustina also move to a large estate in Ditmas Park right after their wedding, and my Minnesota character Anton has a third home there.

Luna Park

Luna Park was the second of Coney Island’s three amusement parks. Built in 1903, it was partly on what used to be Sea Lion Park (1895–1903). Luna Park joined Steeplechase (built 1897), and the triumvirate of fun was completed by Dreamland (1904–11).

Luna Park was created by Frederic Thompson and Elmer “Skip” Dundy, who designed the popular A Trip to the Moon dark ride at the 1901 Pan–American Exposition in Buffalo, NY. Tickets were fifty cents ($15 today), twice the price of other rides, but over 400,000 people eagerly ponied up.

After the expo closed, they moved their ride to Steeplechase Park. When the 1902 season ended, they rejected owner George Tilyou’s contract renewal offer, which cut their profits by 20%. Instead, they signed a long-term lease for Paul Boynton’s Sea Lion Park.

Mr. Boynton left the amusement park business due to a bad summer season and too much competition from Steeplechase. This provided the perfect opportunity for Messrs. Thompson and Dundy to create their own park on the 22 acres, which included abandoned adjacent land where once the Elephantine Colossus Hotel had stood.

They spent $700,000 (publicly claimed as a million dollars) rebuilding the park from the ground up and adding more rides. Luna Park had an Oriental style, with over 1,000 painted spires, domes, and minarets. By night, they were lit up with over 250,000 electric lights, as seen in many photographs.

At the centre of the park was a 200-foot (61-meter) tall Electric Tower boasting 20,000 incandescent lamps, a miniature version of the Electric Tower from the Pan–American Expo. Cascading fountains were at the base. Later, two circus rings were suspended above the central lagoon, to prevent patrons from being bored between rides.

Luna Park opened the gates and turned on the lights at 8:05 PM, 16 May 1903, Saturday, at sunset. Sixty thousand eager patrons paid ten cents for admission, with rides costing up to a quarter. It was a sustained success, even in the face of intense competition from Dreamland.

Dreamland, which opened in 1903, had four times as many lights, an even more colossal tower, decadent rides like Feast of Belshazzar and the Destruction of Babylon, and a Lilliputia village populated by real dwarves. (As I mentioned in my review of Freaks, circus sideshows were just about the only place such people could find work and protection in this era.)

During the Aughts, the three Coney Island amusement parks heavily competed with one another and many independent parks. I would’ve loved to have lived in this era to experience all these wonderful rides!

Mr. Dundy passed away in 1907, and Mr. Thompson went bankrupt in 1912. Luna Park went to creditors, though he remained as manager. Rides came and went over the years, but Luna Park remained a mainstay of a visit to Coney Island for the next two generations.

Starting in 1933, the park went into bankruptcy several times and had a succession of owners, none of whom were able to scare up much of a profit. When the World’s Fair of 1939–40, hosted in nearby Queens, closed, most of the exhibits, rides, and shows were relocated to Luna Park.

Luna Park stayed open during WWII to boost morale, but had to keep its lights dimmed for security.

Tragedy struck on 13 August 1944 when a fire destroyed much of the park and caused $800,000 worth of damage. Due to legal disputes over insurance money, Luna Park never reopened. In August 1946, it was sold to a company who wanted to tear it down and build Quonset huts for veterans in its place.

That October, another fire broke out and destroyed what was left of the park.

Rides and attractions included:

Witching Waves (steerable cars on an undulating track)
Drop the Dip, later Trip to the Moon (a wooden roller coaster)
Helter Skelter (a slide twisting around a tower)
Dragon’s Gorge (a scenic railway)
Canals of Venice (a gondola ride)
Shoot the Chutes (a flume ride)
The Teaser (spinning wooden chairs)
Little Egypt (exotic dancers)
Old Mill (a tunnel of love ride)
Trip to the North Pole
Chinese Theater
Professor Wormwood’s Monkey Theater
Grand Ballroom
Martin Couney’s incubators for preemies (the only option in an era when most hospitals refused to help infants under five pounds)

Luna Park is on glorious display in Harold Lloyd’s Speedy (1928), director King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928), and Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton’s Coney Island (1917).

Luna Park features in many of the summer chapters of the early volumes of The Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan, as the Konevs and their closest friends holiday by Coney Island for two weeks every summer. The church camp the next generation works for also goes to Coney Island as the summer’s penultimate daytrip every year.

Luna Park also appears in my third Atlantic City book, when many of the characters visit NYC to see the World’s Fair in 1940.