Victorian Flatbush

6

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.

University Heights

5

For many years, The Bronx’s University Heights was home to NYU’s main campus. So many people have this false perception of The Bronx as one of the most dangerous places in the city, when it was a quite desirable, lovely place till the postwar exodus to suburbia commingled with things like blockbusting and redlining to create severe urban decay and the sharp downward decline of many once-wonderful cities.

University Heights is bordered by West Fordham Rd. on the north, West Burnside Avenue on the south, Jerome Avenue on the east, and the Harlem River on the west. Like much of the rest of the city beyond downtown Manhattan, University Heights too was very rural until developers got to it.

With the coming of the subway in 1917, University Heights swiftly transmogrified into a place for the idle rich to build summer mansions and suburban estates. For modern people with memories and scare stories about how awful the Bronx was at its nadir, it may be hard to picture the borough as a leafy, bucolic getaway from the congestion of Manhattan, with ample room for traditional houses.

The next chapter in the neighborhood’s history, starting not long afterwards, was that of a preponderance of low-rise apartments for the bourgeoisie. Many proletarians making decent money also moved into these apartments, as well as former townhouses split into duplexes.

Croton Aqueduct Walk on Fordham Rd.

In 1894, NYU built its new main campus on a hill in University Heights. Their original campus on Washington Square in Greenwich Village was too overcrowded, and the Bronx had lots of land. The university also desired to follow the rest of the city by expanding upwards.

Because the new campus was so much more spacious, the entire undergrad College of Arts and Science and School of Engineering moved there, along with most of NYU’s other operations. However, the grad school remained on Washington Square. Their original campus was also home to a women’s undergrad auxiliary school in the years before NYU was properly co-ed.

Hall of Fame of Great Americans, Copyright Enki323

In 1900, an outdoor sculpture gallery, the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, was completed, situated on land occupied by the British Army in 1776 during their attack on Fort Washington. Its architect was the infamous Stanford White, and philanthropist Helen Gould (who attended NYU’s law school) donated the Beaux Arts structure.

Inspired by München’s Ruhmeshalle (built 1843–53), NYU’s gallery was the very first hall of fame in the U.S. In those days, “fame” meant “renown,” not “celebrity.” The colonnade has room for 102 bronze busts. Nominees must be U.S. citizens, dead for at least 25 years (originally ten), and have made significant contributions in political, economic, or cultural life.

Copyright Bestbudbrian

Honorees include Clara Barton, Daniel Boone, Jane Addams, Louis Brandeis, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Washington Irving, Robert E. Lee, Abraham Lincoln, Maria Mitchell, Edgar Allan Poe, both President Roosevelts, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, and George Washington.

Unelected nominees include Dorothea Dix, Louisa May Alcott, Samuel Adams, Martha Washington, Fiorello LaGuardia, Amelia Earhart, Lou Gehrig, Al Jolson, and Horace Greeley. In August 2017, the busts of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were ordered removed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (because that’ll totally change history that already happened!)

Copyright Hugo L. González

Sadly, the Hall of Fame fell into disrepair after NYU relocated its main campus back to Greenwich Village, and the state spent $3 million in the late 1970s restoring its crumbling foundation. In more recent years, the 98 busts were restored for $200,000.

These days, there are almost no private gifts supporting the Hall of Fame. FDR’s bust was unable to be commissioned for nineteen years, the length of time it took to raise the requisite $25,000. In 2001, Bronx Community College, on whose property it now sits, launched a million-dollar fundraising effort.

Edgar Allan Poe, Copyright Professorcornbread

Though the tragic urban decay in the Bronx hadn’t reached University Heights, according to a city government study, many locals and families of potential NYU students were terrified by the sharp, rapid decline of the nearby Grand Concourse and the borough’s overall state. Between 1969–71 alone, the main campus lost over 40% of its students.

In 1973, NYU sold their University Heights campus to CUNY. Though many alumni wanted the campus to stay in their alma mater’s hands, it wasn’t financially feasible to maintain two campuses. The city was also on the verge of near-bankruptcy.

Local park University Woods also fell into degradation after NYU left. It was once named the city’s worst park.

A number of my characters attend NYU during the years it was in University Heights.

Tottenville, Staten Island

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Tottenville is on Staten Island’s South Shore, and the southernmost settlement in both the city and state. It started life as Bentley Manor, so christened by early settler Captain Christopher Billop (1638–1726) in honor of one of his ships. According to urban myth, he secured Staten Island for New York by fulfilling the terms mandated by King James II of England.

James, then Duke of York, declared any islands in New York Harbor which could be circumnavigated in 24 hours would belong to New York. If the voyage lasted longer, the islands would belong to New Jersey. Captain Billop put a lot of empty barrels on deck to attract more wind, and made the journey in 23 hours.

Evidence is almost nonexistent, leading most historians to declare it apocryphal. It probably was created by Staten Island chronicler Gabriel Disosway in the mid-19th century.

Captain Billop’s Bentley Manor, now Conference House, Copyright Dmadeo

In 1869, the neighborhood was renamed Tottenville after local bigwigs the Tottens. Prior to contact with white settlers, the Raritan tribe lived there. The entirety of Staten Island was populated by the Lenape, of whom the Raritan are a branch.

During the Colonial era and much of the 19th century, Staten Island was a major stopping-point between NYC and Philadelphia, since it had a ferry crossing Arthur Kill to Perth Amboy, NJ’s Ferry Slip. This ferry slipped in popularity when the Outerbridge Crossing Bridge opened in 1928, but remained in use till 1963.

Tottenville highlighted in orange; Copyright Decumanus

Historic buildings include:
The above-pictured Conference House (so renamed because it was the site of unsuccessful negotiations to end the American Revolution in 1776), built 1678
The Bethel United Methodist Church, built 1840, destroyed by fire, and rebuilt 1886
The Tottenville School (now P.S. 1), with a traditional sloped roof, built 1878
An abandoned factory used by Nassau Smelting, built 1900
The railway station, built 1860
The Tottenville branch of the NYPL, opened 1904
Our Lady of Help Christians School, a Catholic school dating to 1904 and now closed

Copyright Jim.henderson

United Methodist Church

Many of Tottenville’s houses are Victorian, marking it as much older than other South Shore neighborhoods. To date, seven buildings have received the Preservation League of Staten Island Award, including the library. Many people like to make fun of Staten Island as not being a real part of NYC, but where else can you find such a plethora of large, beautiful houses in such a bucolic area?

Even long after Staten Island ceased to be so rural, there are still by far the most and largest green spaces there of any other borough, as well as the most traditional houses. There are apartments too, but nothing like the high-rises of the other boroughs. Staten Island’s tallest building is only twenty stories.

Public School 1

In prior eras, oyster-harvesting, shipbuilding, and small factories played a major role in Tottenville’s economy. Though Staten Island remains the sleepiest of the boroughs, more like a small town or suburb than part of a metropolis, it now is home to many modern companies and job opportunities.

Sadly, greedy developers have begun buying some of the large, historic Victorian properties with intent to raze them and erect ugly new townhouses in their stead. Hopefully more of these homes will be designated landmarks to avoid the cruel fate of destruction.

Tottenville also has a lovely beach, which was largely undeveloped till the 1990s.

Part of my Zyuganov family moves to Tottenville in September 1945 and lives in large Victorian houses next door to one another, with ample land for a small farm. After living in a crowded family apartment above a restaurant in Manhattan for years, they’re eager to be in a place with wide-open spaces and traditional houses again.

The only downside is how long it takes to travel back into the other boroughs to visit family and friends, and how little there is to do in comparison to the excitement of Manhattan.

St. Nicholas Park and St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church

6

St. Nicholas Park was created in the intersection of Harlem, Hamilton Heights, and Manhattanville in 1895. Its borders are 127th St. on the south, 141st St. on the north, St. Nicholas Avenue on the east, and St. Nicholas Terrace on the west.

The park was once the site of the Croton Aqueduct, which was built from 1837–42 and dramatically improved city sanitation and home plumbing. Prior to the aqueduct, there were many epidemics and a high mortality rate caused by tainted water. Wealthy people who lived in private houses were also able to start using bathtubs and sinks with running water, and public bathhouses for the masses came into being.

Less happily, many cellars were flooded due to a sharp decrease in usage of city wells and a subsequent rise in the water table. Sewers were then built on residential streets.

The New Croton Aqueduct, which is still in use, was built from 1885–90.

135th St. New Croton Aqueduct Gatehouse, Copyright Midmodsquad

More land was acquired from 1900–06, and creation of the park began in earnest in 1906. Parks Commissioner and landscape architect Samuel Parsons, Jr. took charge of the design, saying, “[a] dominant note must be followed with a harmonious treatment, a high hill made higher, a rugged slope more rugged, a deep valley made deeper, thus invariably following nature’s lead.”

In 1909, the park expanded downward to 128th St. This new area included The Point of Rocks, where General Washington stood during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. The expansion increased the park’s size to 23 acres.

A playground was added in 1931, within which was a garden where farm produce was grown for educational purposes.

Since 2008, Hamilton Grange, the 1802 home of Alexander Hamilton, was moved 500 feet into the park. Prior, it stood on Convent Avenue on the north, facing 141st St. Its current location is within the borders of Hamilton’s original 32-acre estate.

Much of the City College campus is just across St. Nicholas Terrace to the west. Three churches also border the park—St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, St. James Presbyterian Church, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.

Hamilton Grange, Copyright Ajay Suresh

My character Nestor Ugolnikov, a former Marine who lost his leg at Iwo Jima, is walking through the park with two bags of groceries on the eve of Orthodox Easter 1949 when he has a tumble in a patch of mud. His prosthesis, which he forgot to fasten tightly enough, falls off and is soon stolen by three mean little boys. Even worse, it begins raining.

His future wife Yustina Yeltsina-Baronova comes to his rescue by rebagging his groceries and getting a cop to search for the leg and give him a ride home. That December, they break up in St. Nicholas Park, but are soon back together and engaged, when Nestor finally realizes Yustina loves him just as he is and doesn’t care he’s missing a leg.

More information:

http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/st-nicholas-park/history

http://stnicholasparknyc.org/

Copyright Beyond My Ken

St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church was built in 1859 on 266 Mulberry St. in Gingerbread Gothic style. It began life as the Chancery Office Building of the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and was designed by James Renwick, Jr. and William Rodrigue, who also designed the new St. Patrick’s.

In 1936, the building took on a new life as a Russian Catholic church under the leadership of Father Andrew Rogosh, who arrived in New York on Christmas Day 1935 in the hopes of establishing an émigré apostolate. New York was one of the largest White Russian enclaves.

Though the disgustingly-named “Emergency Immigration Act” of 1921 and its follow-up, even more ridiculously xenophobia quota of 1924 made it nearly impossible for people from Eastern Europe to come to the U.S., there were some lucky people allowed to immigrate despite the strict, fear-fueled red tape.

Father Rogosh provided spiritual guidance and comfort to these new immigrants who’d been driven from their homeland by the Russian Revolution, Civil War, and Stalin’s goons. He often travelled to DP camps in Europe as part of his ministry.

Over the years, many people of all faiths and ethnicities came to St. Michael’s to hear the beautiful Russian-style Byzantine Rite service.

Sadly, gentrifiers drove up the property values, and the community had to relocate to St. Catherine of Siena on East 68th St. in 2019.

My character Varya Koneva visits the church after work in May 1952 and speaks with Father Rogosh about her spiritual dilemma re: a looming interfaith marriage. She’s engaged to a Polish Catholic (from the family who saved her niece Darya’s life during the war), and they have to choose a church for their wedding. Varya isn’t particularly attached to Orthodoxy, but doesn’t want to be excommunicated for marrying in a Catholic church.

Father Rogosh says there are few significant differences between Orthodoxy and Eastern Catholicism, and encourages her to try out St. Michael’s as her new spiritual home.

More information:

http://www.saintmichaels.nyc/

http://sthughofcluny.org/2019/02/the-last-liturgy-at-st-michaels.html

http://66.39.99.22/history.php

http://www.ncregister.com/site/article/the_russians_are_here

http://www.nytimes.com/1964/03/15/archives/byzantine-mass-sung-at-st-patricks.html

Rockaways’ Playland

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Rockaways’ Playland in Queens started life as a resort area in 1876, developed by William Wainwright and James Remsen. This resort included the Seaside House, then the biggest hotel on the coast. Sadly, a fire on 21 September 1892 destroyed eight blocks of Rockaway Beach, among them the Seaside House. Undeterred, Mr. Wainwright rebuilt it at even grander proportions.

In 1901, he retired and left his son in charge. Then, on 1 June 1902, another fire broke out in Kasten’s Hotel, killing four people, injuring four more, and destroying many of the resort’s properties.

Concurrently, George Tilyou, owner of Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park, bought land in the nearby Seaside neighborhood in 1900. Very unoriginally, he also called it Steeplechase Park.

Mr. Tilyou offered two acres of his new property to roller coaster pioneer LaMarcus Adna Thompson, who’d almost gone bankrupt after being unable to exhibit his Switchback Railway coaster at the 1901 Pan–American Exposition. Mr. Thompson eagerly bought the land, and Thompson’s Amusement Park opened in 1901, 1902, or 1903.

In this era, there were many popular, successful amusement parks in Queens, particularly on Rockaway Beach. Patrons came from the other boroughs via a ferry added in 1903.

Mr. Thompson passed away in 1919, and his family continued operating the park for eight years. In December 1927, they sold it to Robert Katlin’s syndicate. Mr. Katlin proceeded to expand the park with new rides, a gymnasium, a pool, and a new arena.

In January 1928, local lawyer A. Joseph Geist bought the park and renamed it Rockaways’ Playland. Almost immediately, he set to work with even more expansions, including a dancehall and menagerie. Thanks to all these rides, attractions, and the beach, the park remained popular through the Depression.

Who else but the vile Robert Moses got involved in 1937! To build his precious Shore Front Parkway no one asked for, he shut down the park and destroyed many homes and businesses in the way. Mr. Geist lost half the park’s rides thanks to that evil megalomaniac obsessed with unnecessary roads. The bungalows many guests rented were also razed.

Thankfully, his selfish plans to shut down Rockaways’ Playland failed, and Mr. Geist was able to reopen in 1939 after much rebuilding.

Crowds were thinner during WWII, and the lights had to be shut off to avoid enemy detection. In August 1945, the blackout lifted.

Though many local amusement parks suffered in attendance during the postwar era, when people began driving to farther away places with flashier attractions, Rockaways’ Playland regained popularity with the addition of new rides and attractions, including kiddie park Joytown. New lighting systems were also added to modernize the park.

Visitors came not only from NYC itself, but nearby cities like Yonkers, New Rochelle, Jersey City, and White Plains. Boats to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn opened in 1954, and a ferry to Westchester County arrived in 1964.

During these postwar decades, Rockaways’ Playland stayed relevant and successful through many special events and contests, such as children’s contests each Saturday afternoon and a beauty pageant every Monday evening. In July 1953, 600 orphans were treated to a day at the park.

There was an understandable small dip in attendance during the 1964 World’s Fair at nearby Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, but the crowds picked back up as usual soon afterwards. By 1970, 175 million people had visited.

Attendance started shrinking in the late 1970s, since the rides and attractions were increasingly seen as dated. It was difficult to keep up with the new amusement parks, and as more people owned cars, they tended to choose destinations more than a brief distance away.

A. Joseph Geist’s son Richard, now the manager, didn’t want to close his park, but insurance premiums went through the roof and became impossible to pay. He made the difficult decision not to reopen the park for the 1986 season.

Though a housing development was planned in the park’s place, the land stood empty for years. Only in 2003 was it finally developed. The only thing remaining of Rockaways’ Playland today is the Beach 98th St. subway station sign.

Copyright Youngking11

Rides and attractions included:

An Olympic-sized pool used for Summer Olympic tryouts
Gravity Wonder (a roller coaster)
Skee-Ball
A Funhouse
A shooting gallery
A 1,000-foot-long bathhouse with 5,500 lockers
A Steeplechase roller coaster
A Noah’s Ark funhouse
Leaping Lena
Rig-a-Jig
The Pretzel
Cave O’Laffs
The Atom Smasher (a wooden roller coaster featured in 1952 film This Is Cinerama)
The Caterpillar

A number of my characters regularly visit Rockaways’ Playland and the nearby beach starting in the 1930s.