September 21, 2007

Fillmore Place Historic District

23 and 25 Fillmore Place (photo: WPA)

One of the things that has been keeping us busy of late is Fillmore Place. For those of who don't know it, Fillmore Place is a one-block long street running between Driggs and Roebling, parallel and between Metropolitan and Grand. Turning the corner on Fillmore is like walking into a another world - the narrow street is lined on both sides with 1850s brick row houses, all constructed as a single development. Fillmore Place was the brainchild of Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller, a pair of Williamsburgh merchants and real estate developers who bought up property on the block in the late 1840s and opened Fillmore Place at their own expense.

Author Henry Miller spent his early childhood at 662 Driggs Avenue, his grandfather's house, at the head of Fillmore Place. In Tropic of Capricorn he recalled Fillmore Place as "the most enchanting street I have ever seen in all my life... it was the ideal street...". Miller, who also lived for a time in Bushwick, wrote frequently about Fillmore Place and the surrounding neighborhood, recalling a saloon at the corner of Driggs & Fillmore, his kindergarten at the opposite end of Fillmore, as well as the fishmonger on Grand Street (who lived at 18 Fillmore Place).

Clock & Miller constructed about 24 rowhouses on Fillmore Place, Driggs Avenue (then called Fifth Street) and Roebling (Sixth) Street. Twenty one of those rowhouses survive today, most of them quite intact. The three-story buildings are simple in design, decorated with a variety of brownstone details and wood cornices typical of their time.

In 2005, Fillmore Place was nominated by the Municipal Art Society as a potential New York City Historic District. Today, WPA is submitting an in-depth historical analysis of the block and the surrounding area to the Landmarks Preservation Commission. We are requesting that Landmarks move now to designate Fillmore Place as Williamsburg's first Historic District. The proposed Fillmore Historic District includes the 21 surviving Clock & Miller buildings, as well as the Henry Miller house and three other mid-19th-century rowhouses on Driggs. Together, these buildings represent a significant part of Williamsburgh's first real estate boom (yes, its happened before), a rare a surviving example of a large-scale pre-Civil War residential development.

September 23, 2007

How Fillmore Place Came To Be

Fillmore Place was a very late addition to the Williamsburg street grid. When the Village of Williamsburgh was laid out in the early 1800s, Fillmore Place didn't exist. The following is an excerpt from WPA's Fillmore Place Historic District nomination, describing how this one-block long street came to be.

The area of Brooklyn that is today called Williamsburg (without an “h”) was, together with Greenpoint, in Colonial times part of the town of Bushwick. One of the five original Colonial-era towns of Kings County (together with Brooklyn, Flatbush, New Utrecht and Gravesend), Bushwick was first settled by French émigrés. The center of the Town of Bushwick, such as it was, was located about a mile east of Fillmore Place, near the intersection of what is now Metropolitan Avenue and Bushwick Avenue.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the portion of Bushwick that was to become Williamsburg was sparsely populated. A few mansions and summer residences dotted the “Strand” – a road that ran along the edge of the East River from Wallabout bay north to Bushwick inlet (roughly where Kent Avenue is today). Inland, were the farms of various families, including Meseroles, Woodhulls, Morrells, Wyckoffs and Dunhams.

In 1800, Richard Woodhull established a ferry service from Bushwick to Rivington Street in Manhattan. Woodhull’s ferry departed from the foot of the Williamsburgh & Jamaica Turnpike Road, which ran along of the course of today’s Metropolitan Avenue. Within a few years, a second ferry service was established by Thomas Morrell from the foot of Grand Street to Roosevelt Street in Manhattan.

In 1802, Woodhull bought much of the land between the Brooklyn border (at today’s Division Avenue) and the Bushwick Inlet. It was on this tract of land, bordered on the east by Bushwick Creek (roughly where Union Avenue runs today), that Woodhull proposed to establish a new village. In 1802, Woodhull hired Colonel Jonathan Williams to lay out the streets and avenues of his proposed development. It was in honor of Colonel Williams that the Village of Williamsburgh (with an “h”) got its name.

The original plan of the Village of Williamsburgh consisted of a rather confusing array of numbered streets running north to south (with First Street (now Kent Avenue) at the river and Eleventh Street (now Union Street) to the east) and numbered streets running east to west. Grand Street served as the dividing line between north and south, with the east/west street numbers increasing in each direction (North 1st, North 2nd, etc. and South 1st, South 2nd, etc.). Williams’ plan retained a few thoroughfares that existed prior to the establishment of Williamsburgh, most notably the Jamaica Farm Road/Turnpike (which was renamed North 2nd Street in the Williams plan - it did not become Metropolitan Avenue until the early 20th Century).

Because the Jamaica Turnpike did not follow a straight path to the east, North 2nd Street carved an eccentric line through Williams’ otherwise rational grid. The curve of the Turnpike began between Fourth Street and Fifth Street (Bedford Avenue and Driggs Avenue today). This resulted in odd sized blocks between there and the Williamsburgh and Bushwick border.

Williamsburgh, 1846, prior to opening of Fillmore Place. North 2nd Street (now
Metropolitan, top) and Grand Street (bottom) are highlighted in green. Source:
NYPL (Richard Butt, Map of the City of Brooklyn, photoedited).

Fillmore Place was not part of the original Village of Williamsburgh, as laid out by Colonel Williams in 1802. North 1st Street always terminated at Fifth Street (Driggs Avenue), while Hope Street to the east started at Sixth Street (Roebling Street) and continued east to the village border at Eleventh Street (Union Avenue).1 The block that was bounded by North 2nd Street (Metropolitan Avenue) and Grand Street, Fifth Street (Driggs Avenue) and Sixth Street (Roebling Street), was thus very deep in its north/south dimensions.

The earliest reference to Fillmore Place comes in an 1852 New York Times article, which notes “Messrs. Clock and Miller have commenced opening, at their own expense, a new street, from South and Fifth-stret [sic], between Grand and North First. It will be built up with magnificent dwellings”. The earliest reference to name the street located to date is an 1856 assessment list in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; this refers to it as Fillmore Street.

In the same year that Fillmore Place was established, Williamsburgh was declared a city in its own right. In the preceding decades, Williamsburgh had grown from a small village to a town separate from Bushwick, and finally to a city. Along the way, the population of Williamsburgh had grown from 934 in 1820 to 1,117 in 1830 to 5,094 in 1840. By the time it was declared a city in 1852, the population of Williamsburgh was estimated at 38,000, making it one of the larger cities in New York State.

Williamsburgh’s independence was short lived, however. By 1854, the cities of Brooklyn and Williamsburgh were negotiating the annexation of the latter by the former. In 1855, the City of Brooklyn officially annexed the City of Williamsburgh along with the Towns of Bushwick and Greenpoint (it was at this point, for reasons unknown, that Williamsburgh officially lost its “h”). By that point, Fillmore Place was a part of the Williamsburg street grid, and most of the buildings that you see on the block today were constructed and occupied.

1. Hope Street went by a few different names early on. At first, it appears to have been part of Powers Street. In the 1840s, it was labeled North Street on one map, and in 1850, it was labeled North 1st Street.

September 26, 2007

LPC's Industrial Legacy

Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse
Designated by LPC, 2005

With the designation of the Domino Sugar Refinery Processing House, the Landmarks Commission has proven once again that it gets industrial heritage. Sure, they could have gotten a lot more, but its worth highlighting the fact that this is the fourth major industrial site in North Brooklyn to be designated in the past few years. And to the great chagrin of the beauty pageant promoters who believe that landmarking is only about "pretty" buildings, not all of these buildings are pretty. But they are all significant, locally and to the city (some are nationally significant).

Here's the rundown:

1. Hecla Ironworks administration building [pdf link] (designated 2004)
2. Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse (designated 2005)
3. Domino Sugar Refinery, Processing House (designated 2007)
4. Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory Historic District (designated soon?)

Add to that the recent calendaring of DUMBO, and LPC Chair Robert Tierney is right to tout his commission's role in designating industrial properties. There may be other Hecla, Domino and Eberhard buildings that are not landmarks and should be, but lets give credit where its due.

Landmarks has also been busy with some of North Brooklyn's non-industrial sites of late. Witness the designation of the Williamsburg Houses (2003), the original Smith-Gray Building [pdf link] (2005), and the McCarren Park Pool (2007).

And lest Mr. Tierney rest on his laurels, we will point out that there are a lot more highly significant (dare we say beautiful) industrial buildings out there to designate. Not to mention a host of other buildings in our (until recently) neglected corner of Brooklyn. And Williamsburg is still without a single historic district (hopefully not for long).

October 3, 2007

Fillmore Video

Sarah Nelson Wright has made a wonderful video about Fillmore Place, its residents and its very special qualities. (If the embed doesn't work for you, click here.)

Video thumbnail. Click to play

Click To Play

October 11, 2007

Fillmore Place Development

Another Fillmore Friday excerpt from WPA's nomination for the proposed Fillmore Place Historic District. This week, a bit about the developers Clock & Miller, the buildings themselves, and who lived there.

Clock & Miller

Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller were local merchants, real estate developers and prominent citizens of the Village of Williamsburgh. The two appear to have been active in Williamsburgh real estate as early as 18328, and by the 1850s were prominent citizens of the City of Williamsburgh.

Alfred Clock was born in Darien, Connecticut, in 1802. As early as 1832, he was in Williamsburgh investing in real estate. His daughter Eveline married Jeremiah Meserole, thus marrying into one of Williamsburgh’s most prominent families. Together with Miller, Clock Sr. purchased at least one property from Jeremiah’s father, Abraham Meserole.

Although they sold most of the Fillmore Place properties soon after the new street was laid out, Clock & Miller held onto and rented out some properties into the late 1850s. The pair also owned properties at 86 North Second Street (now Metropolitan Avenue) and 189 Grand Street.

Patterns of Development and Ownership

667 Driggs Avenue. Sold by Clock & Miller to attorney/
investory Charles Briggs in 1854. The ground floor
historically housed a store, and was home to Peper's
grocery & liquor store in the 1860s and Gorman's
dry goods store in the 1880s and 1890s. The rear
of the property, on Fillmore Place, contained a stable
(now a separate lot).

Clock & Miller began acquiring the Fillmore properties in 1847, and appear to have completed acquisition by 1852. While the development concept (the master plan) and the cutting through of Fillmore Place appear to have been the work of Clock & Miller, there may have been other partners and speculators involved in the development and construction of Fillmore Place. Three other people bought multiple lots from Clock & Miller very early in the course of development. These included John Hamilton (acquired 675 and 677 Driggs in 1853); Absalom Roper (acquired 9, 11 and 27 Fillmore in 1852); and Jacob Sheppard (acquired 12 and 26 Fillmore in 1856 and 1860, respectively). Each of these development partners held onto their properties for a very brief period – at most five years, and usually one to three years. In addition, there appear to have been a number of other development partners or speculators who bought into the project early on and sold their properties with a year or at most two years. These include attorney Charles Briggs (667 Driggs), pilot William Gibson (30 Fillmore) and John O’Rourke (24 Fillmore). Although other developers and possibly builders were involved in the Fillmore Place development, it is clear that all the buildings were designed by the same hand, using the same palette of design details.

There were, of course, many who bought into the project for long-term investment purposes. Most of this latter class of buyers lived in the houses they purchased, for anywhere from 5 to 25 years. Buyers in this class, all of whom bought directly from Clock & Miller, include painter/paper hanger Enos Baker (10 and 24 Fillmore, 7 and 16 years respectively); joiner Thomas Coger (19 Fillmore, 20 years); and coppersmith Charles Heyman (170 Roebling, 31 years).

10 Fillmore Place. Sold by Clock & Miller to Enos
Baker, a painter and paper hanger. Baker, who
also owned 24 Fillmore, lived at number 10 until
the early 1870s.

All of the Fillmore Place buildings were occupied as multi-family residences – what were probably termed at the time flat houses (a class above the tenement, a term that was only coming into widespread usage in the 1850s). The patterns of ownership and occupancy in later years very closely match that of the surrounding area of Williamsburg. In the mid-19th century, most of the owners were English, Irish or German, and worked as artisans or were petty merchants. The residents renting apartments on Fillmore Place at this time were of a similar background, usually artisans, clerks and laborers.

By the late 19th-century there was an increasing representation of Eastern Europeans among the owners and renters. These included Christian and Jewish Poles, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians. The Jewish residents represented the advance wave of Jewish immigrants who moved from the Lower East Side in large numbers beginning in 1903, with the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge. From that point forward, much of the Southside and South Williamsburg came to be predominantly Jewish. Although the Williamsburg Bridge was certainly the catalyst for large number of Jews relocating to North Brooklyn, the influx of Jews certainly predated the construction of the bridge, as witnessed by the owners and residents of some of Fillmore Place buildings. Many of these earlier Jewish residents worked in the garment trades, as furriers, tailors and cutters.

The Christian immigrants from Eastern Europe tended to settle in the Northside, with Grand Street seeming to be the soft dividing line between what was becoming Baltic and Polish Williamsburg to the north and Eastern European Jewish Williamsburg to the south. Through 20th century, Fillmore Place continued to attract Baltic and Polish émigrés. Beginning in the 1930s, Hispanic names begin to appear in the conveyance and directory records, reflecting the influx of Puerto Rican transplants. Over time, Southside Williamsburg would come to be one of the largest centers of Puerto Ricans in New York City, a demographic heavily reflected in Fillmore Place.1

Throughout most of its history, the Fillmore Place houses have been a combination of owner-occupied and rental housing. Some of the houses were owned by absentee landlords and rented out entirely, while most were owner-occupied with portions of the houses rented out. In a few cases, the houses appear to have been entirely owner occupied.

Many of the Fillmore Place property owners owned multiple houses on the block. This was the case in the early years of development, when speculators bought multiple properties from Clock & Miller. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, William Dailey bought up numerous properties. On his death circa 1929, Daily owned at least four houses on Fillmore Place.

1. One of the major impetuses for the movement of Puerto Ricans to New York City was the displacement of tenant farmers on the island that came about as a result of American Sugar and other sugar refining companies buying up large tracts of land and turning them over to sugar cane. Ironically, many of these displaced farmers wound up on the Southside working at the American Sugar’s Kent Avenue refinery, one of the largest sugar refineries in the world.

March 14, 2008

Tropic of Williamsburg

In the latest Brooklyn Paper, Tom Gilbert talks about the restoration of Henry Miller's boyhood home at 662 Driggs Avenue. Although not part of the original Fillmore Place development, this building is within the proposed Fillmore Place Historic District.

September 1, 2008

Fillmore Fire

22 Fillmore fire.jpg
22 Fillmore Place, August 2008.

This is old news by now, but over the summer (in June?) there was a pretty sizable fire at 22 Fillmore Place. The fire gutted the third floor; the cornice and brownstone at the third-story lintels were pretty heavily damaged.

Luckily, no one was injured and the damage was contained.

22 Fillmore Place is one of twenty two row houses constructed in the early 1850s by Alfred Clock and Ephraim Miller. Eighteen of those row houses survive today, and they form the core of a proposed Fillmore Place Historic District. WPA requested that the Fillmore Place Historic District be designated an official New York Historic District in September 2007. The Landmarks Preservation Commission is reviewing this request and is expected to act on it in the near future.

January 9, 2009

Fillmore Place Starts Landmarking Process


Fillmore Place, looking east towards Roebling Street.

Fillmore Place is about to take the first step to becoming Williamsburg's first Historic District!

Next Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a hearing calendar the proposed Fillmore Place Historic District for a public hearing. This first step is largely a formality, and does not entail any public testimony (which is why its listed as a five-minute item on the LPC Calendar [warning - pdf link]. The next step in the process will be the public hearing itself, at which LPC staff will present a complete report on the proposed district and members of the public will be allowed to testify about the proposed designation.

This is one of the designations that WPA has been advocating for, and we are pleased to see it finally moving forward. Councilmember Diana Reyna has been instrumental in helping to move this towards fruition.

January 14, 2009

Fillmore Place on LPC Calendar

Fillmore Place was officially added to the Landmarks Commission's calendar for future action.

January 22, 2009

A One-Block Landmark in Williamsburg

Following on the calendaring of the Fillmore Place historic district last week, there have been a couple of articles in the local press, including the Brooklyn Paper.

January 27, 2009

Fillmore Place is Having its Moment, Again

Manhattan User's Guide, in its always thoughtful way, profiles Fillmore Place.

March 8, 2009

24 March: Fillmore Place Designation Hearing


Mark your calendar - on 24 March the Landmarks Preservation Commission will hold a public hearing on the proposed designation of the Fillmore Place Historic District. We will post the exact time when it is available - stay tuned.

March 19, 2009

Big Day at Landmarks


Tuesday March 24 is a big day for the Eastern District at the Landmarks Commission. That afternoon, the Commission will be holding a public hearing on the designation of the Fillmore Place Historic District (pictured) in Williamsburg and on the designation of the Ulmer Brewery as an individual landmark. A related bonus hearing will be held on the Ridgewood Theater (sections of Ridgewood were historically part of the Town of Bushwick, so we'll lay a tenuous claim to the theater as part of the Eastern District).

The scheduled hearing times are as follows:

Ridgewood Theatre - 11:25
Ulmer Brewery - 1:30
Fillmore Place - 1:45

May 2, 2009

"Ideal Street"

Today's Times has an article on Henry Miller and Fillmore Place. On May 12, the Landmarks Commission is expected to formally designated Fillmore Place and Miller's childhood home (which is on Driggs, not Fillmore as the photo caption in the article says).

May 13, 2009

Fillmore Place Landmarked

The Fillmore Place Historic District

Its official* - after a vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission this afternoon, Fillmore Place is Williamsburg's first historic district!

*Subject to the approval of the City Council and Mayor.

July 3, 2009

City Planning Approves Fillmore Designation

Good news from Brooklyn11211 - at its meeting this past Wednesday, the City Planning Commission voted to approve the Fillmore Place landmark designation. That is the last step before the City Council, which hopefully will approve the designation this month.

City Planning also voted to approve the Greenpoint/Williamsburg Contextual Rezoning. Similar to the Grand Street rezoning that was approved last year, this new rezoning will limit building heights and provide other safeguards against abusive development.

Eberhard Faber