April 26, 2009
The House of Much History
By ELIZABETH GIDDENS
The wood house with the mansard roof stands out in its brownstone neighborhood.
The house around 1940
MY house, an asymmetrical wood-frame with a mansard roof in Bedford-Stuyvesant, sits over a mysterious tunnel. No one can say what purpose the passageway served. Coal chute? Too long and curvy. Sewage outlet? Too wide. Water intake? Too far from the cistern. Underground Railroad? Not likely.
Though architectural historians are flummoxed, amateur archaeologists are delighted, as the tunnel was filled with a century and a half of debris — a perfect slice of archaeological data stretching backward from 2004, when I bought this Brooklyn house, to the 1860s, when it was built.
The first few strata were dense with inauspicious fossils: crack vials, condoms and (ouch) hypodermic needles. Looks like the ’80s — proceed with caution. Then came the ’70s, full of liquor bottles, pantyhose and cigarette butts. The next few layers yielded scores of bones and bone fragments (probably butchers’ bones) and, finally, for good measure, yet another liquor bottle, this one made of heavy, mottled glass, presumably left by the men who built the tunnel.
The things the occupants left behind in this rambling four-story house have mostly to do with vice. The main exception is the last, best relic, from the very bottom of the dig: a cast-iron horse, a child’s toy from the 1870s.
Thanks to the tunnel, and to five years of renovation, I have established a respectable little reliquary on my bookshelf, and by sheer coincidence it is nestled in the American history section.
The tunnel piqued my interest in the history of the house, and a rich one it is, populated by 19th-century socialites, 20th-century prostitutes, R & B luminaries, enterprising crack dealers and Brooklyn notables like Hugo Tollner, the scion of the famous restaurant family. He bought the house 126 years ago next Sunday.
In fact, my neighbors say that so much has happened in my house that it must be haunted, which suggests another possible explanation for the tunnel: portal to the underworld.
As far as I can tell, the living currently outnumber the dead — I have six housemates in my ramshackle, 10-bedroom house on Franklin Avenue. We haven’t seen any ghosts, but sometimes the building seems to be brooding over its past. It has a strangely haunted look, burdened as it is with much black exterior paint and a striking resemblance to the house in “Psycho.”
It predates by decades the surrounding brownstones, and with its gracious front porch and spacious side yard and backyard, it’s about as close as Brooklyn gets to a pastoral idyll. As an architectural anomaly, it stands out in the collective neighborhood consciousness, which makes it an irresistible repository of local myth.
And so, as I delved into the house’s past, I found that it had a louder history than most, and that this history was both real and imagined.
ONE January morning, sitting in my parlor, clutching my coffee cup and rummaging through the online archives of The Brooklyn Eagle, I suddenly found myself reading about the very room in which I was sitting.
“The commodious house was thrown open entirely,” The Eagle reported of a soiree held in 1901, with the third-floor billiards room “being reserved for the men guests.”
My restless sock feet stopped midtap, on the very floor those gentlemen trod in their calfskin shoes and spats.
The gracious host of the party was Mr. Tollner, who bought the house in 1883. Hugo was the son of Eugene, co-owner of Gage & Tollner, the fabled restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn that maintained a tuxedoed staff and gas lights for 125 years, only to be transformed, five years ago, into a T.G.I. Friday’s.
Mr. Tollner and his family were good copy for The Eagle. In 1907, the paper reported on his success in selling Brooklyn’s first electric landaulet, a motorcar shaped like a horse-drawn carriage. The Eagle also reported on a number of newsworthy social events that the family held at the house, including an 1897 reception for Hugo’s bicycle racing team, the Uralia Wheelmen.
Given the number of newspaper inches and celebrities, the best party seems to have been the one in honor of the Lenox Euchre Club. (Upper-class Americans took their cards very seriously in the 1890s, and euchre was the national game.)
The gala fell in 1895, near the end of what was then called the Great Depression (before the 1930s usurped the title), a 24-year slump during which unemployment reached 19 percent. Apparently, the situation was not so dire for Mr. Tollner, who was at least able to employ a few musicians for the occasion.
“Dancing,” The Eagle reported, “was indulged in to the strains of a string orchestra until midnight, when a choice collation was served.”
The collation — a light meal — would have had the guests departing in the morning hours, which was fine because the considerate hosts had scheduled the party to coincide with the full moon. The ride home would have been through a genteel if sparsely populated suburblike section of Brooklyn, which was then still independent as well as being the third-largest American city. F. W. Woolworth, the king of nickel-and-dime merchandise, lived right around the corner.
My house, which is now part of the giant trapezoid called Bedford-Stuyvesant, was then part of plain Bedford, an area centered on the intersection of two old Indian trails, running roughly along Bedford and Fulton Avenues. Two and a half centuries before Mr. Tollner’s parties, when Brooklyn was largely wild, Dutch settlers hewed close to those trails, and in 1668 an entrepreneur named Charles Lambertse wisely established an inn at the intersection. A town slowly emerged around the junction.
Bedford was still mostly farmland when our house was built in the 1860s, but in 1885 an elevated railroad linked the area to the new Brooklyn Bridge, and development exploded forthwith. By the time of the euchre ball, the house was already old and anomalous, stranded in a sea of new brownstones.
THE parties held at the house in the 1960s and ’70s were not the sort that get written up in newspapers, which is a shame because they were apparently epic throw-downs. These events do, however, exist in the memory of the neighborhood; in fact, it’s nearly impossible to find someone over 50 who doesn’t know something of the house’s doings back then.
The prize relic from this era is unquestionably the basement bar — not your father’s rinky-dink liquor stand but a professional, 12-foot-long baroque affair made of plywood and complete with upholstered sides and mirrors.
A big bar made sense because the house in that era was a sort of latter-day speakeasy, an unlicensed club tricked out not only with the elaborate bar but also with a handful of card tables, thousands of Christmas lights and a jukebox full of James Brown and Al Green. According to neighbors, revelers caroused throughout the house at all hours, limousines deposited big shots from the R & B scene, and there was dancing every night, often to live music.
Thanks to the lights, according to my neighbor Charles Mayfield, “it was like Christmas all the time.”
Accounts vary wildly as to who held the parties and who ran the bar. As with much about the house, a current of myth runs through these days. Some claim a famous R & B singer lived there. Some say a doo-wop group owned it. Others say that the Martins, the people whose names were on the deed, were the Rockefellers of Bedford-Stuyvesant and just liked to have parties.
Whoever they were, they managed to disappear into the mists of time more thoroughly than their 19th-century counterparts.
As the ’70s limped into the ’80s, the house fell into disrepair and was abandoned to squatters. Crack swept through in the early ’80s and devastated the neighborhood. The famous club became an infamous crack house, and the gracious parlor where Hugo Tollner’s guests danced the night away became the stash room from which a gang sold huge amounts of drugs.
These dealers, who were reportedly serious and well organized, ran a disciplined business and controlled it with an impressive arsenal. They waged a brief war with nearby competitors, which, according to neighborhood lore, they won by dint of a gun so powerful that it put holes all the way through the enemy building.
“That’s when we knew they were serious,” said Clarence Figgures, an ironworker who witnessed the house’s transformation from across the street.
The relics in the house from this era are bleak: countless crack vials piled in a wall cavity of the old billiards room; deep gouges on a 19th-century door that appear to be the frantic clawings of a large angry dog; human waste stashed in strange and unlikely places.
The stories, gleaned from neighbors, are bleaker: A woman lived in a cardboard box on the front porch. Another slept under the stoop and in the alley. Even the 150-square-foot sub-basement seems to have been inhabited for a time.
With its 10 bedrooms, the house was the perfect “crack hotel.” As one local resident remembers, “There were women in every one of them rooms.”
Even the spacious backyard was put to use. Though it hardly seems credible, neighbors claim that as many as a dozen women at a time would service customers there. One man who parked in the yard remembers opening his car door and interrupting two busy couples.
The house’s stint as a crack den was ended by a spate of homicides in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“Once people get killed at a good spot,” Mr. Figgures said, “it’s not a good spot anymore.”
Neighbors say a number of violent deaths, three to six, occurred within these walls. Some say that a man was shot point-blank in the front yard. Others say a man was chased into the house and shot in the basement. Still others say that a drive-by shooting took the lives of several men sitting on the front porch.
“A lot of people died in your house, man,” Mr. Figgures said on the day I moved in.
BETWEEN Mr. Tollner’s elegant parties and the speakeasy years, the house seems to have lapsed into domestic quietude. Apart from the butcher bones in the tunnel, the apparent relics of that era include a child’s bed that was sealed inside the wall and a full-length, hooded woman’s robe, which eight washings revealed to be bright red.
The bed now awaits the first member of the household to have a child, though I suspect it may be a nightmare machine, and the robe hangs in an uncannily lifelike manner from my bookcase.
I’m writing this in the erstwhile billiards room, mulling over my favorite tunnel find, the little cast-iron horse, frozen in flight beside me. My discoveries have changed the way I think about where I live. We buy a house believing it’s ours, but in fact it’s an ever-shifting palimpsest and we are merely the latest to write over it.
Nevertheless, for continuity’s sake, my housemates and I have kept to the tradition of holding big parties. It’s practically a civic duty. It would be selfish to keep all this house and yard to ourselves.
As befits a home built in an old farming district, we also have made a point of working the land, gradually putting the yard back into operation over the years. We removed 12 tons of concrete there, covered the devastated soil with free city compost and planted an organic garden that produces so many vegetables we’ve considered opening a farm stand.
We planted a fig tree and several berry bushes, and we bought a wine press to accommodate the fruits of the prolific grapevine. (As a concession to our retrograde American attachments, we put down a lawn just big enough for bocce but a touch too small for a cow.)
The garden is a particularly busy place now that spring is here. We’ve set up a coop in preparation for the chickens we have on order. We bought more than 50 varieties of seeds, many of them heirlooms that haven’t been in wide use since the house was built. And we’re stocking up on canning and pickling jars — the tunnel will make an excellent root cellar.
Among the stranger produce we’ve harvested from the garden is a doll we call Pinkie, who, with the hole in her stomach and her grossly misshapen head, was probably scary even before she was buried decades ago. Pinkie has become the house mascot. She sits on the front-porch swing, which is somehow always rocking, and keeps a constant vigil, staring into the middle distance through her one good eye.