If we’ve learned anything from the 2020 election cycle, it’s that Georgians do not pronounce the “L” in the state’s DeKalb County. Brooklynites, however, don’t like to let a perfectly good letter go to waste (unless there’s an “r” at the end of a word). Both the county and DeKalb Avenue are no doubt named for Baron Johan DeKalb (1721-1780) an Alsatian German soldier of fortune attracted to the American Revolution, serving with George Washington at Valley Forge and leading several regiments in the South, perishing while a prisoner of war after the Battle of Camden, South Carolina. For all I know, the Baron didn’t say the “L” either (German speakers: set me straight in Comments).
I’ve walked western DeKalb Avenue, which forms the southern end of Fort Greene Park, several times, but somehow, the offices of the Benziger Brothers at #94 DeKalb at Rockwell Place have escaped me. It’s exactly the type of solid, red brick building I have always admired, and I remember the Benziger name on a couple of levels.
According to the Indispensable Walter Grutchfield, the Benziger name is in NYC because of Charles and Nicholas Benziger, German Catholics who immigrated to the States from Switzerland in the early 1800s. They published religious books and printed color religious pictures for funerals, weddings and other worship activities. Nicholas Benziger opened offices in NYC in 1853. It was Nicholas’ son, Louis, who made Benziger Brothers the largest publisher of Catholic books in the country in the 1890s, and he lived for many years in New Brighton, Staten Island.
Benziger Brothers occupied a number of offices in Manhattan until the company was acquired by Crowell Collier Macmillan in 1968. However, there’s still a sizable Benziger presence around town. The Brooklyn factory, shown above, was built in 1895 and remained in service until 1961; it has been subdivided into apartments.
Louis Benziger and his family lived in New Brighton, Staten Island, and a major east-west avenue in that part of town is named for the family.
When I was a kid I owned a copy of the Lives of The Saints compilation by Rev. Alban Butler on the Benzinger Brothers imprint. The description of what happens to the corpus after death in one of the passages still brings chills today. Unfortunately, my copy has also gone the way of all flesh.
In Sugar Hill in East Harlem, at West 150th Street and Edgecombe Avenue, Nicholas C. Benziger, a son of the original Nicholas Benziger, built this many-gabled mansion at #345 Edgecombe designed by German born architect William Schickel. After the Benzigers sold the house, it became a sanitarium and hospital, housing dangerous and disruptive patients, and after that a hotel in what was a dodgy part of town. In the 1990s, the Benziger house was renovated top to bottom and now houses the chronically homeless.