ForgottenTour 33, Gravesend, Brooklyn

by maggiemel

ForgottenFans at Lady Moody House, Gravesend Neck Road, Gravesend, Brooklyn

April 20, 2008: With a turnout that rivalled FNY’s most-attended tour, Brooklyn Between the Bridges in October 2003, over 50 ForgottenFans turned out on an overcast day with drizzle expected (after an extraordinary run of good weather for early ForgottenTours, clouds and rain have become an inevitability the last couple of years).

Since Forgotten New York got started in 1999 we’ve seen the Bowery shed most of its skid-row atmosphere, jettison CBGB, and even raze the last of its remnants of its 19th-Century groggery era (goodbye McGurk’s Suicide Hall). We’ve seen Williamsburg in constant transformation, from a sparsely populated mostly industrial-warehouse district to a hipster hangout to a high-rise haven in the big-money Bloomberg era. We’ve seen landmarks and should-be landmarks torn down.

So, it’s good to revisit a neighborhood (whoever invented the contraction “nabe” should be locked in a room with Miley Cyrus CDs turned up to 11) in which virtually nothing ever changes. Of course, some of Gravesend’s older buildings have fallen since I first reviewed the area in 1999 but by and large, it remains essentially the same…

The tour began at Avenue U and McDonald Avenue. The neon sign for “Harold’s For Prescriptions” has been there for decades and were it not for the cars, this photo could be from 1948, not 2008. Photo: Steve Garza. Unlike most ForgottenPages, which are photographed by your webmaster as a rule, I’m too busy mumbling into a bullhorn to snap photos, so I depend on the kindnesses of ForgottenFans for pictures, and just as well, since many are more accomplished shutterbugs than I am. Rather than type a different name for each photo, here’s a simple key to who shot what: Steve Garza: SG; Joe DeMarco: JD; Bob Mulero: BM; Tim Skoldberg: TS.

The original town of Gravesend was first settled in 1643, making it not only the oldest settlement in Brooklyn, but the oldest in Long Island, and the original town’s square shape has never been compromised as Brooklyn grew up around it. Dutch provincial governor of New Netherland William Kieft donated a small tract of land in what became Gravesend to a British immigrant, Lady Deborah Moody, and her son, Sir Henry, in 1643.

Amazingly the square town plan of Gravesend has survived the imposition of Brooklyn’s street grid surrounding it, much as Jersey City’s Bergen Square has.

Note the street that bisects the square vertically, McDonald Avenue. It has long been an important street in southern Brooklyn: a look at a Brooklyn atlas shows that it’s the divider between two street plans, that of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, which runs from NW to SE, and that of Midwood and Flatbush, which runs more directly N-S and E-W.

You could say, then, that in many ways, the simple square street plan of Gravesend, and the position of McDonald Avenue, determined the geography of all of western Brooklyn.

McDonald Avenue had a steam railroad, built by Andrew Culver, traveling on it beginning in 1875. Subway and railroad historian Joe Brennan:

The railroad was opened in 1875, as the third railroad to Coney Island. As per its name, Prospect Park and Coney Island, it ran from 9th Aveand 20th St, near Prospect Park, almost straight south to Coney Island. As you said it was known as the Culver road, after the entrepeneur behind it. Andrew Culver was the first to offer a complete resort at Coney Island. He bought land around modern West 8th St, on which he put up a hotel, restaurants, amusements, pavilions, bathhouses, the complete works, and to get people there he built a railroad and the famous Iron Pier with a boat line. You were supposed to go onhis railroad and spend your money entirely at his facilities. When the city wanted to open Surf Ave around 1890, the first east-west road on Coney Island, Culver objected strenuously– people could get out to other properties too easily! The main line from 9th/20th was converted to trolley around 1899 and operated until 1956, for a total of 81 years. Even as trolley it continued to be in private right of way in the middle of Gravesend Ave, not in pavement.

The story of the branch from Kensington (Ditmas Ave) over to 9th Ave is out of scope for Gravesend, but anyway it was added in 1890 and probably had passenger service only to 1918, when the el trains that were then using it were re-routed onto the new elevated structure directly above.

McDonald Avenue was called Gravesend Avenue until 1933, when it was renamed for a now-forgotten Brooklyn alderman who had died suddenly, having choked on a chicken bone. The city no longer does direct renamings like this, and instead now prefers to place a second sign under the original name.

The first stop on ForgottenTour 33 was the Samuel Hubbard House, on 2138 McDonald Avenue between Avenues S and T on the west side. It was built about 1750, most likely by the Johnson family (an extinct lane in Gravesend was called Johnson’s Lane). The two-story wing, at the left side of the picture, was added in 1925. SG

When I first went past the Hubbard house in 1999, it was pretty much in ruin. Fortunately it was purchased by John Antonides (speaking to tourgoers above) who rebuilt and restored the building. Its previous resident, who was a woman in the Hubbard family, had spent most of her life in the house for a total of over 90 years. At right, Joe DeMarco records Antonides’ remarks on video (see bottom of page). BM

RIGHT: During the Giuliani administration, a rash of false alarms prompted the FDNY to decommission many fire alarms around town, including this one at Avenue T and Lake Street. Residents now use them as garbage cans. BM

LEFT: Dwarf lamppost on McDonald Avenue. BM

A pair of ancient Gravesend houses can be found on Village Road North, south of Avenue U and west of McDonald Avenue. JD

At 32 Village Road North is the Charles Ryder home, reportedly built around 1788. It was originally located at McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road, and served as a school when President George Washington visited it in 1789. JD

At 38 Village Road North is the Ryder-Van Cleef House, originally located at 22 Village Road North. It was moved in 1928 to make way for a playground that is still there. The house was built about 1840 by Lawrence Ryder and was owned later by his son-in-law John Van Cleef. TS

Gravesend Neck Road and the Ryder-Van Cleef House. “Neck Road” as it’s called, is along with Kings Highway and Flatbush Avenue one of Brooklyn’s oldest roads, having been here since the colonial era and likely built over an Indian trail. It runs from Van Sicklen Street southeast and northeast, crossing Avenue V twice and ending at Avenue U and Haring Street, though it once continued on to about Gerritsen Avenue.

Gravesend is likely named for the British seacoast town, Gravesend, which derived from “end of the grove”; the less likely derivation is from the Dutch s’Gravenzande, “Count’s beach.” The “neck” Gravesend Neck Road goes to was in what’s now northern Sheepshead Bay and was likely a narrow strip, or “neck” of dry land amid marshier territory. SG

Webmaster leading tourgoers across Gravesend Neck Road. (The photo reminds me of the final scene in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.) No one died today though. The school is PS 95. SG

This distinctive peaked building on Van Sicklen Street north of Gravesend Neck Road is undergoing a welcome restoration, with 1890s-era style fish-scale treatments replacing the plainer aluminum siding that had been there for many years.

A local neighbor (see video below) told us that the house belonged to the final mayor of Brooklyn (Brooklyn narrowly voted to join the Bronx, Staten Island and Queens in forming Greater New York in 1898).

According to The Encyclopedia of New York City,Frederick W. Wurster was the final mayor of Brooklyn before consolidation. TS

The handsome brick church, the first address on Gravesend Neck Road at the SE corner of Van Sicklen Street, was once home to the Reformed Dutch Church of Gravesend, with the original church built a block away at Gravesend Avenue in 1833. A new church was dedicated here at 14 Gravesend Neck Road in 1900, but changing demographics, with more Roman Catholics from southern Europe moving into Gravesend, crimped the Reformed Church’s patronage, and services were discontinued in 1914.

A new church was founded on the site using the same building in the 1920s by Italian Pentecostals. In 1937, the church hired architect R.T. Schaeffer to construct a new building, the one seen here today. According to local legend, Belgian blocks from surrounding streets were used for the church walls.

After the Coney Island Pentecostal Church moved out in 1979 to a larger building on Neck Road and East 1st Street, the First Korean Church of Brooklyn moved in, and maintains the building today. TS

Corso Court (upper left, right, and lower left) and Lama Court (below right) are two small alleys off Van Sicklen Street south of Gravesend Neck Road. Corso Court, with its handsome row houses, was built in the 1930s or 40s on the site of the Stillwell-Lake House, constructed in 1800. The court still has an old 1940s-50s era enamel street sign, in Brooklyn black with white raised lettering, as well as an old “Department of Traffic” dead-end sign. The agency is now called the Department of Transportation. Both Corso and Lama Courts are probably named for developers. BM

ForgottenFans gather at the Lady Moody House, 27 Gravesend Neck Road. BM, JD

Deborah Moody was characterized in the Britain of the early 1600s as a “dangerous woman.”

Moody was christened Deborah Dunch in London in 1586. She came from a wealthy family with both political and religious connections, but also one that believed strongly in civil liberties and religious non-conformity. She married Henry Moody, a well-connected landholder who was later given a knighthood, and thus she became Dame Deborah, or Lady Deborah. Her husband died in 1629, when she was about 33.

These were days of great religious turmoil in England, and Moody was attracted to Anabaptism, a Protestant sect that rejected infant baptism in the belief that baptism should be administered only to adult believers. Unable to live in the oppressive religious climate in England, she sailed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639.

Moody found the Puritan New England community just as oppressive, for her Anabaptist views were, to them, a “damnable heresy.” In July, 1643, the governor, John Winthrop, wrote in his journal:

The lady Moodye, a wise and anciently religious woman, being taken with the error of denying baptism to infants, was dealt withal by many of the elders and others, and admonished by the Church of Salem (whereof she was a member), but persisting still, and to avoid further trouble, etc., she removed to the Dutch against the advice of her friends. Many others, infected with anabaptism, removed thither also. She was after excommunicated. 

New York Newsday

Surprisingly, given Director-General Peter Stuyvesant’s later intolerance for worshippers not of the Dutch church, Moody found relief with his predecessor, William Kieft, who allowed her to settle in this small plot in the New World in 1643. After some trouble with Indian attacks, Gravesend was laid out, in its now-familar square plan, in 1645.

The inhabited part of the town consisted of four squares of a little more than four acres each, with two main roadways bisecting north-south and east-west (today’s McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road). Each of the four sections had 10 house lots surrounding a one-acre commons. Outside of the village itself were the individual, triangular pieces of 100-acre farms, called boweries, radiating out from the center like spokes from a wheel.

In 1652 war broke out across the Atlantic Ocean between the English and the Dutch. The result was increased tension in New Netherlands between the Dutch rulers and the English towns in western Long Island. That was aggravated in 1657, when the first Quakers came to New Netherlands, a move that infuriated the new director general, Peter Stuyvesant. In one of her last acts of dissension, Moody invited them to Gravesend, and the first Quaker meeting in the colonies was held in her house that year.

Seven years later, the entire Dutch colony would come under English rule, but Lady Moody would not live to see it. She died about 1659, at age 73. It was a quiet ending for the life of a woman whom the historian Flick called “The Grand Dame of Gravesend.” 

New York Newsday


Daffoldils at the Lady Moody House. SG

There’s a debate going on about whether the Moody house actually was the home of Lady Deborah Moody. If it was, it would make the house one of New York City’s oldest, since she died in 1659. Brooklyn historical records have Sir Henry Moody, Deborah’s son, selling the property on which the house stands in 1659 to Jan Jansen ver Ryn. It passed through various hands before winding up with the Van Sicklen brothers, John and Abraham, who may also have built the house in 1770. Whether the house was built in the 1650s or 1770s…this is one old house.

Two ancient cemeteries, the Van Sicklen family cemetery and Old Gravesend Cemetery, are located on Neck Road facing the Moody house.

The Old Gravesend Cemetery, across the street on Neck Road from the Moody house dates to 1643, the first year of the settlement. Lady Moody, according to legend, is buried in an unmarked grave somewhere within, although the oldest stone in the cemetery is dated 1676 and no stone has been found bearing her name.

As an aside, Gravesend Cemetery is the only site that still boasts a 1930s-era State Education Department plaque. There are additional ones remaining at Prospect Cemetery and the Flushing Quaker Meetinghouse. A brick sidewalk has fronted the cemeteries for many years. SG, JD, BM

The tour walked briefly west down Avenue U en route to the next stop. There were a few interesting sights along the way.

Pasta shop. Italian Americans are still among the major demographic components in Gravesend, though Russians, Koreans and Chinese have been moving in. SG

“Reader and advisor,” Avenue U. SG

One of NYC’s odd “animal cannibal” signs, Avenue U and West 7th Street. Many deli or restaurant signs feature pigs holding sausages, or chickens wearing chef hats, which have long struck your webmaster as rather strange.

I’m also quite sure that if you asked the proprietors about the irony of the signs you would be met with extremely quizzical expressions. BM

OK, Name That Car fans… JD

It’s a 1965 Caddy Coupe De Ville (or a 1967 or 1969)

Photos of Avenue U in the late 1910s and early 1920s show this BMT station building here on Avenue U between West 7th and 8th Streets, and 93 years (as of 2008) after the old NY & Sea Beach Railroad was placed in an open cut and electrified, the house is still here, with peeling paint and graffiti, but still with distinctive terra cotta BMT diamonds. TS

The tour turned southeast at 86th Street, the lengthiest numbered street (not Avenue) in Brooklyn, which runs from Shore Road in Bay Ridge all the way to McDonald Avenue and Avenue X in Gravesend. East of Stillwell Avenue, 86th runs diagonally against the street grid, creating a number of traffic tirangles. Two of them are named for two great Italian historic figures, Antonio Meucci and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

LEFT: Meucci Triangle, Avenue U, West 12th Street, 86th Street, named for the inventor of the telephone. It was Meucci, in 1849, who invented the first device that transmitted sound over copper wire from one location to another. Alexander Graham Bell, who prefected the device for voice transmission, obtained the patent for the device before Meucci, who could not afford one at the time. He was finally recognized for the invention by the US Congress in 2002.

RIGHT: Beaux-Arts pumping station, 86th Street and Avenue V. Southern Brooklyn and especially Gravesend is quite marshy and was shot through by streams before and after the colonial era. As it became more built up, much of the water needed to be removed; this pumping station appears to have been constructed in the very early 1900s. BM

Lake Place was once a main route between the original town of Gravesend and the town mill at Gravesend Bay, about 1 mile to the west. It now exists in two sections, one between 86th Street and West 8th Street (at the BMT subway cut) and another from West 7th to Van Sicklen.

The section east of the Sea Beach was privatized in the early 2000s, with the western section remaining open. Virtually no one living near it recognizes it as one of America’s oldest thoroughfares. BM

Marlboro Mini Mart, 86th Street and West 8th. The Marlboro Houses were built in 1958, replacing a section of Gravesend by the same name; a Morpeesah Indian village occupied the land in the pre-colonial era. The tour received quizzical glances from locals along 86th Street; your webmaster handed out ForgottenCards and hopefully, made a couple of converts. SG

Poultry market and Sea Beach line tracks near Coney Island Yards, West 7th Street and Boynton Place south of 86th Street. TS

Brooklyn’s street names honor many forgotten legends. Boynton Place for example honors Eben Moody Boynton, an entrepreneur and inventor who came up with a narrow-gauge railroad that would run on tracks below and above it; the test track for his innovation is believed to be the modern roadbed of Boynton Place itself. The full story as well as a rendering of the Boynton “bicycle railway” engine can be found on FNY’s Shell Road-West Brighton page. Boynton, who vociferously promoted his unusual railroad for three decades, was eventually considered a crank by the Interstate Commerce Commission.

Housing on one-block Boynton Place is one and two-family homes, gradually giving way to Fedders excrescences, but this turn-of-the-20th Century house deserves a mention due to its extra-long lawn, which may well have originally been part of a farm. Southern Brooklyn was used for vegetable truck farms well into the 20th Century; see Marc Linder and Lawrence Zacharias’ excellent Of Cabbages and Kings County for an exploration of the former farms of Brooklyn. JD

We’ve seen examples of old signage previously on the tour at Corso Court, but here’s another on the Culver El stanchion at Shell Road and Avenue X at Concetta’s Restaurant.

It’s a previous-generation One Way sign, the second of the three designs that have been used in NYC over the decades. The first was a white, arrow-shaped sign; this one, a straighter white sign, and the gthird, seen below it, a large black sign with the white arrow within. JD

R-32 and R-46 cars await overhaul in Coney Island Yard. TS

Here’s a photo of R-32 Car No. 3483 in action in 1973. The R-32s are the oldest cars currently (2008) in service; the first ones rolled in 1964.

The tour continued south on Shell Road and now passed the massive Coney Island Shops, the largest subway car repair facility in the city. It occupies 75 acres and was opened in 1926. The Transit Museum offers tours of the facility on occasion, because it’s here that the vintage cars on display in the museum are serviced for when they go on occasional fantrip runs.

5655 was a Low-Voltage car generally in use on the Third Avenue El in the Bronx up until the final demise of the line in 1973. TS

Shell Lanes, on Bouck Court, a street named for William C. Bouck (1786-1859) governor of NY State from 1843-1845. The street is near the old Gravesend Ship Canal, which formerly connected Coney Island Creek with Sheepshead Bay; it was landfilled by the 1930s. Bouck was the state canals commissioner for almost 20 years. Note the new-style bus stop shelter; the glass is catnip for vandals. TS

The Culver El actually passes over the Belt Parkway, and there was some engineering involved with that; the railroad was raised to allow the Belt to pass under. Photo right shows the el (right) above the parkway.

Joe Brennan: […]

Just south of the yard entrance [the Culver’s supports change] from plate girders to lattice girders. The city-owned structure ended there, and was continued by privately-owned structure evidently designed by different engineers. I liked seeing how they raised it up to get the Belt Parkway under it. JD

Viscous Coney Island Creek was once an actual canal, and earlier a strait, connecting with Sheepshead Bay; Coney, now technically a peninsula, was actually once an island. There’s plenty of talk these days about cleaning up Gowanus Canal and creating a San-Antonio-style Riverwalk beside it. No such option is currently imagined for Coney Island Creek, however. West of here is the remains of the Yellow Submarine, a vessel launched in 1969 by entrepreneur Jerry Bianco to search for the remains of the Andrea Doria. The submarine sank upon launch and has been floating about in the creek ever since. JD; shopping carts, Frank Lynch

Now’s as good a time as any to show you Joe DeMarco’s video of the proceedings, which starts with your webmaster’s stumbling intro. I was blessed with a face for radio and an oratory style that does not approach Barack Obama’s, but stick with it and you’ll also see local gaffer Vincent Polichetti discussing the Van Sicklen Street Brooklyn mayor’s residence, John Antonides discussing the Hubbard House, and Mike Olshan on Coney Island Creek…

At the Belt Parkway the Culver continues south along West 6th Street (the Neptune Avenue, formerly the Van Sicklen el station, is in the distance). Shell Road makes a bend west and south again, ending at Neptune Avenue. The Warbasse Houses and Trump Village are in the distance. SG

In the summer of 2004, workmen were busy ripping out the trolley and railroad legacy of McDonald Avenue; though trolley service had ended in the Fifties, freight service of the South Brooklyn Railway occasionally plied the tracks on the way to the Coney Island yards until 1978. The tracks had lain fallow since; after being paved over in the 1980s, they were finally yanked out about 20 years later. The tracks carried the McDonald Avenue route, #50. A short stretch of track is still detectable, though, at Shell Road where it meets West 6thStreet alongside the Culver el (F train). JD

In 1968 when I was eleven years old, I took one of my first extended bike rides to this very area. They were in the process of bulldozing the local streets in this area to make room for high rise apartments. Cutting horizontally across these tracks was a street called Triton Avenue, and it still had a couple of old cast-iron streetlamps along its length. In classic myth, Triton was the son of Poseidon and his wife, Amphitrite. Triton, depicted as a merman, blew on a conch shell to rile or calm the waves.

Triton Avenue is now in a parking lot at Brightwater Towers, built in the 1970s.

When I walked Shell Road in 2005 to research the Shell Road FNY page, to my astonishment I found two ancient street signs still marking Triton Avenue:

I led the tour to this residence on Shell Road (the only one, actually, on the entire road) only to find that the pole, and the signs, had been removed by the Department of Transportation; I strongly suspect that the DOT reads this site and eliminates anomalies. A minor disappointment on an otherwise excellent tour. SG

Former Bonomo Turkish Taffy factory, now furniture store, West 8th Street south of Neptune Avenue. TS

Tourgoers then retired to Nathan’s, which, after a half-hour wait on line, offered rest after about a 3-hour tour and the best dogs and fries in the business.