WRITING ON THE WALL. Street signs on buildings.

by Kevin Walsh

Long before the “humpbacked” street signs showing cross streets were installed on cast-iron lamps in the 1910s…long before porcelain, enamel and aluminum embossed signs appeared in the 1950s…and long before color-coded vinyl and aluminum signs appeared around 1964 (the green and white successors of which still dominate around town) … there were street signs chieseled onto building corners. Still popular in Europe, these signs domianted street identification for almost a century.

TITLE CARD: Humboldt and Maujer Streets, Williamsburg. The chiseler took extra care here …note the raised capitals in each word. Humboldt Street was named for explorer/scientist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) who is also memorialized in bronze at Central Park West and W. 77th Street. Maujer Street remembers Daniel Maujer (1809-1882), a prominent local lawyer. How do Brooklynites pronounce this name?

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These two signs appear on opposite corners from each other. We know the one on the left is the “newer” one, since Macomb Street in Park Slope was renamed Garfield Place in 1883 to commemorate President James Garfield (1831-1881), who had been assassinated by a disgruntled lawyer and speechwriter, Charles Guiteau, who had aided Garfield in the 1880 Presidential election but had been passed over for an ambassadorship. Garfield lingered for weeks after he was shot, but succumbed to an infection aided by the unhygienic medical practices of the era.

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These ancient building signs are also very instrumental in illustrating former street names. The sign at left depicts a Fulton Avenue were it meets Albany Avenue, while the center photo shows a “Wyckoff Street” where it meets Washington Avenue. Both of these signs can be found in Bedford Stuyvesant (though Clinton Hill has laid claim to Washington Avenue).

As we see from a portion of the M. Dripps Brooklyn atlas from 1858 Fulton Avenue was indeed called Fulton Avenue at the time, while today’s St. Mark’s Avenue has replaced Wyckoff Street.Brooklyn Genealogy

In the early 1870s, Brooklyn street names in this neighborhood underwent a reshuffling due to the construction of Eastern Parkway, which replaced DeGraw and Sackett Streets. Older street names shown here are still preserved in short sections west of 5th Avenue in Cobble Hill.

There have been Wyckoffs in the NYC area since 1637, when Pieter Claesen Wyckoff arrived from Albany as an indentured servant. He later made good, and his house in East Flatbush is still there. Brooklyn-Queens also has a Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood, and Williamburg’s Ten Eyck (The Oaks) Street was once called Wyckoff Street.

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Bond and Pacific in Cobble Hill. At right, Nevins and Pacific. Atlantic Avenue and Pacific Streets were not directly named for the oceans, but rather for stores, or warehouses, that contained foodstuffs unloaded on the Brooklyn docks to which they led. Streets in the area, like Hoyt, Nevins and Bond, took their names from landowners through which the streets were built in the early 1800s.

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A pair on Brooklyn’s Broadway. Hard to see in the photo but the sign at left reads “Tenth Street,” reflecting Williamsburg’s old street plan: numbered streets running from SW to NE, crisscrossed by the familiar “North” and South” numbered streets still in place today. This led to some awkward intersections like 4th and North 4th, 4th and South 4th, etc., etc., so by the late 1880s, 1st through 12th Streets had acquired names: Kent Avenue, Wythe Avenue, Berry Street, a northern extension of Bedford Avenue, Driggs Avenue, Roebling Street, Havemeyer Street, Marcy Avenue, and Rodney, Keap, Hooper and Hewes.

At right, a sign showing Brooklyn’s Wall Street, a one block affair between Broadway and Bushwick Avenue a couple of blocks north of Myrtle Avenue. It was renamed Arion Place sometime after 1887 for a building still found on the street housing the Arion Mannerchör, Bushwick’s foremost German singing society. It later became a mansion and catering hall, but these days, it’s a handyman project. The building is rich in detail of its musical past with German initials at the very top and lyre-shaped ironwork on the fire escapes.

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Two from Clinton Hill or western Bedford-Stuyvesant, depending on your preference. Franklin and Madison are named for two Founding Fathers. “Classon” is more problematic as it may have arisen from the Dutch “Clae’s” son or Claesen (“Claes” being a pet name for Nicholas). Greene Avenue runs all the way to Ridgewood and takes its name from General Nathaniel Greene (1742-1786), who served under Washington during the entire Revolutionary War, winning several key battles (in his thirties!) . Fort Greene, the former fort and present neighborhood, is also named for him.

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A pair of signs on Reid Avenue and Decatur Street (left) and McDonough (right). Since 1985 Reid has been shoved into a subordinate role on the north-south Bedford Stuyvesant thoroughfare; that year it was renamed for Malcolm X, the civil rights leader assassinated on February 21, 1965. The avenue was built over the road that went past the property of Philip Reid, an alderman in Brooklyn’s 9th Ward. In the 1980s, the road was curved to connect it with busy Utica Avenue, which runs from Bedford-Stuyvesant south to Marine Park.

A succession of Brooklyn avenues running north-south are named for cities in New York State, with New York Avenue the westernmost, followed by Brooklyn, Kingston, Albany, Troy, Schenectady, Utica, Rochester and Buffalo (surprisingly, Rome is omitted.)

Stephen Decatur (1779-1820) was a naval military hero who excelled in undeclared naval conflicts with France, the Barbary wars and the War of 1812. He was killed in a duel by a commodore who was enraged by comments Decatur had made regarding the commodore’s actions during a warship’s boarding by the British in 1807. He is credited with the invention of the phrase “my country right or wrong.”

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The “Guggenheimer Ordinance” was passed by the NYC Assembly in 1901, requiring corner property owners to place signs on their dwellings made of “five-inch porcelain letters set on a blue ground.” Though the mandate was widely opposed, you can still see plenty of signs around town fitting that description.

Isaac Chauncey oversaw the Brooklyn Navy Yard for several years in the early 1800s and also served in the War of 1812. Chauncey Street was mentioned as the street in Bensonhurst where Ralph and Alice Kramden lived in Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, though the actual Chauncy Stret runs through Bedford-Stuyvesant and Ridgewood. William Howard (1725-1777) was the proprietor of the Rising Sun Tavern, so named for eastward travelers along the Jamaica Turnpike where it met Cripplebush Road (now the approximate intersection of Atlantic Avenue and Bedford Avenue. The tavern, later called Howard House, was later relocated several blocks to the east at Alabama Avenue, and disappeared several decades ago.

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The Guggenheimer Ordinance was carried out even where it might not have been necessary, like here at Jefferson Street and Central Avenue in Ridgewood. The third President is represented in Brooklyn by Jefferson Street, Ridgewood, and Jefferson Avenue, Bedford Stuyvesant, Bushwick and Ridgewood. The two are sufficiently close so that Bushwick, Evergreen, Central, Wilson, Knickerbocker, Irving, Wyckoff and Cypress Avenues intersect both of them.

According to legend, Liberty Avenue was not named in a patriotic theme, but merely because it cost nothing to roll on it, unlike Jamaica Turnpike; today’s Jamaica Avenue wasn’t a free road, not giving up its “pikes” until nearly the 20th Century. Over the years Liberty Avenue absorbed other roads and now extends out to Hollis, Queens. Essex Street, one of East New York’s north-south streets, is formerly Eldert Avenue, and perhaps, feeling that a plethora of Elderts was too much, the borough effected a name change, there aready being an Eldert Lane at the Brooklyn-Queens line and an Eldert Street in Ridgewood.

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A pair in Bedford-Stuyvesant and Williamsburg. Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette served in both the American and French Revolutions, serving at the battles of Brandywine and Rhode Island as well as in the French National Guard — generally in support of the monarch, which got him in hot water with the Jacobins. He became a close friend of George Washington’s and co-wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a sort of French Bill of Rights, with Thomas Jefferson. Hundreds of place names in America are named for him:Lafayette or Fayette. Ironically the USA was to face several military and diplomatic dustups with France following its independence, such as the XYZ Affair and the Quasi War of 1798.

New Yorker Daniel Tompkins (1774-1825) was NY State Governor and later Vice President, serving under James Monroe. He established Tompkinsville, Staten Island, in 1815.

My research is silent on the genesis of the Montrose Avenue moniker, but it wasn’t Sammy Hagar’s old band.

1 comment

The History of NYC’s Street Signs | Untapped Cities May 12, 2013 - 8:54 pm

[…] “rationalize [New York] City’s built environment.” Other early street signs in New York were hand-chiseled onto the corners of buildings, like in Paris. In Paris, historic preservation sensibilities have […]

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