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A Birthday Cakewalk through the 'Hood

My thanks to worthy fellow Brooklynblogger Brownstoner for today's link. If this is your first visit to this vale of renovation wretchedness, cheer up--we will hustle you immediately off the property and a few blocks away to posh Prospect Park South, where houses just as big and a few years older than the CrazyStable were built with lavish detail and maintained with landmarked obsessiveness. A glutton for punishment, I could think of no better way to spend my birthday last Saturday than on a walking tour of Victorian Flatbush, conducted by the enthusiastic Mr. Ron Schweiger, the borough's Official Historian (a post that pays, he informed us, less than Mayor Bloomberg's salary of $1.00 per year).

I've "done" the area on tours before, but I always learn something new, and love to hear gasps elicited by the familiar streetscapes that we walk to the supermarket and library. This time, we began at the Newkirk Avenue station of the B and Q lines, which started life as the "Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island Line."   newkirkrail.jpgThe train, which still tootles through a curiously bucolic open culvert through many backyards , linked the booming city of Brooklyn (today's "downtown" ) with the grand hotels, raffish amusement parks (Luna, Dreamland, Steeplechase), and racetracks of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. It was once a steam line...chuffing through sheep pastures and fields still farmed by descendants of the Dutch settlers. The fields were sold and grids were drawn, and upon them a handful of visionary developers sketched in a new concept: the luxury commuter suburb. (By the time they started building, however, it was just about 1900, making this technically "Edwardian" rather than "Victorian" Flatbush, but I quibble.)

Ron's tour was a bit Ron-o-centric, focusing heavily on the illustrious history and membership of his temple, Temple Beth Emeth, on Church Avenue. But that was okay, actually, since I've lived down the block from this "little jewelbox" but only once set foot inside its Art Deco sanctuary.    (Here's a window; I think it's King Davibethemethwindow.jpgd. No, it's not by Tiffany, but as Adam Sandler says in the Hanukah Song, "not too shabby.")

The rock stars of this tour, of course, are the great Painted Ladies and Newport-style mansions. I relished the familiar recitation of which-titan-of-industry-lived-where (the Gillettes in the shingled manse with a silo tower on Buckingham Road, the presidents of American Can Company and Ex-Lax nearby, and Admiral Sperry, the gyroscope guy, around the corner, where he supposedly built a small plane on the third floor of his house--and decided he needed a bigger house, around the corner). Two blocks south of the CrazyStable, Nellie Blye lived across the street from the home of Charles Stillwell, in whose basement Thomas Edison tinkered (and whose daughter Edison married).

But for someone who's been logging heat-gun hours lately, it was the houses themselves that took the cake. Drool, drool, drool.

ditmaspaintedlady.jpgThis Ditmas Park dead ringer for a Cape May B&B had me worshipping, and craning my neck to love up the top-floor dormer. ditmasdetail.jpg According to Ron, this block isn't even in a landmark district (yet)--quick, landmark it before someone turns it into a Mighty Stucco Bloater Teardown!

(Sorry the image is blurry--I have ordered a new camera, and if the Canon Powershot works as well for me as it does for RobJ of City Birder, you are in for some mad Flatbush photoblogging in months to come.)

I also discovered an amazing streetful of California bungalow-style homes on East 16th Street south of Dorchester Road (my photo came out totally blurry--trust me, they're very cool houses).

We ended up in "the Magic Land" as we call Prospect Park South, where the day's most haunting discovery lay nearly hidden behind a chain link fence in a forested vacant lot (now owned and kept blessedly wild by the owners of the adjacent "Tara" mansion--the family of my obstetrician, actually). alvordson.jpg Here stood the home of Dean Alvord (shown here with his son), the developer of this gorgeous enclave. Alvord went on to develop similarly lavish Ragtime-era digs in Roslyn, Long Island and Florida, where he retired like a good Brooklynite. But Prospect Park South was his first great canvas, where he sought to ''illustrate how much rural beauty can be incorporated within the rectangular limits of the conventional city block'' for ''people of culture with means equal to some of the luxuries as well as the necessities of life.'' (These people of culture, of course, pointedly excluded Jews and blacks...)

Alvord's home ( which, intriguingly, was right next to the railroad culvert, a "less desirable" location within these desirable blocks) burned in the 1950s, and remained a "haunted house" for neighborhood kids until its demolition and near-sale to a hospital for a housing block helped fuel the area's landmark designation. Now it's one lucky family's private woods, but you can see, under the leaves and moss, just one trace of its grandeur...Mr. Alvord's front steps to nowhere. alvordsteps.jpg

Ron will give this tour again, by the way, on October 8, 2006, as part of openhousenewyork (punctuation theirs, not mine). And here's some more excellent linkage:

Paul Goldberger on getting "to Utopia by bus and subway":  http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E06E0D81E39F934A25757C0A967948260&sec=&pagewanted=print

The Flatbush Malls (our nifty flowering street medians): http://www.nycgovparks.org/sub_your_park/historical_signs/hs_historical_sign.php?id=11822

And, if you must move here immediately, learn more from the new blog by Mary Kay Gallagher, the doyenne of "Victorian" Flatbush real estate: Living in Victorian Flatbush.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention...having worked up a stupendous appetite on this jaunt, I was treated by the Stablemates to an exquisite dinner in our newest Real Restaurant on Cortelyou Road, The Farm on Adderley.  No, it is not overrated, and not overpriced, either. The setting is like a fairy grotto next to a secret garden. They give you a little guest book to sign with your check; the Child sketched a pig and commented, "Mind-altering pork." (That would be the double-cut pork chop.) Spouse got the burger, which is the platonic ideal of all burgers, and I got the delicate brook trout. Brooklyn birthdays rock!

Posted on Tuesday, September 12, 2006 at 10:07AM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | Comments3 Comments

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Reader Comments (3)

Queen Victoria ruled until 1901, so you don't quibble, you're just mistaken. I quibble. Thanks for the pics.
September 12, 2006 at 10:32PM | Unregistered CommenterWill
Ow, yes, the old girl made it to January 1901! But given that many, if not the majority, of 'Victorian' Flatbush houses were built slightly after that date, I will emulate the estimable Rev. Al Sharpton, who defended his unfounded allegations in the Brawley case by saying they represented the "emotional truth." Ahem!
Glad you liked the pics, thanks for stopping by (even quibblers are welcome here)...
September 13, 2006 at 08:18AM | Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn
Ron is a wealth of information on "Victorian" or "Edwardian" (If it pleases you!)Flatbush. I've obtained numerous photos of my home that predate the 1940 Tax photos. Just one thing to note: The people of culture with means definitely excluded Black residents unless they were household "help." Jews on the other hand appear as homeowners in Prospect Park South, Beverley Square West and East, Ditmas Park, etc. on the 1910 census as homeowners. Although they are not listed as Jewish per se, if you view the coloumn on the census form for Native language of mother and father, "yiddish" often appears. Temple Beth Emeth was built in 1911 to accomodate a growing population.
December 3, 2006 at 05:18PM | Unregistered CommenterStacey

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