Thursday, December 27, 2012

Christmas is my Birthday

So no "Big Old House" this week. However, got a great one on deck for next week - huge, obscure and elaborate - just my kind of place. I hope all have had/are having an excellent holiday, and thank you for reading my blog.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Brooklyn, Big Time

Many's the Manhattan provincial who goes to Brooklyn and is astonished by what he sees. Time passes, he returns and is astonished all over again. Streetscapes like the one above, at the corner of President and 8th in Park Slope, conjure images of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue in its glory days. (Well, almost). The next block over, between President and Carroll, is grander yet. The turreted brownstone mansion in the image below was designed in 1888 by the famous C.P.H. Gilbert for chewing gum king, Thomas Adams. The pale limestone palazzo on the left was built in 1912 for a tugboat mogul named John Tracy (1855-1931).
As you can see, the Tracy house isn't the only big one in Park Slope, a neighborhood much favored by Brooklyn's haute bourgeoisie in the decades on either side of 1900.
In 1881, John Tracy and his brothers, Michael and Thomas, organized the M & J Tracy Transportation Company, a tugboat and lighterage firm that made the family rich. Tracy, a devoutly Catholic 57-year-old bachelor living with two unmarried sisters, hired Frank J. Helmle (1869-1939), a partner in the firm of Huberty & Helmle, to build his Park Slope mansion. Helmle was a famous guy, but not for building mansions.
During a long career with a succession of partners, Helmle designed a slew of Brooklyn banks and churches, the Bossert Hotel in the Heights, loft buildings in the West 30s, the Venetian-style Prospect Park boathouse and, while Superintendent of Public Buildings in Brooklyn, a whopping 42 firehouses. In 1921, together with his last partner, Harvey Corbett, Helmle completed his most iconic project, the Bush Terminal Sales Building, an elegantly slender tower at 130 West 42nd St. which survived Time Square's late 20th century descent into grottiness and is happily still with us.
I didn't see many big houses in Helmle's opus, of which the above is only a fraction. In fact, I didn't see any. Helmle was no designer of society mansions, but neither was Tracy a socialite. I wouldn't be surprised if Tracy admired one of Helmle's banks and decided he wanted a house just like it.
If a man's house is the greatest symbol of who he is, there's a big message in this front door. Besides prominence in the business community, Tracy was among the most important - read that "generous" - Catholic laymen in Brooklyn. He was a major donor to Catholic hospitals, institutions, a seminary in Huntington, and the Knights of Columbus. Four months before his death he was elevated to a papal knighthood.
Let's step inside and have a look at the man's house.
105 Eighth Avenue was recently vacated by the Park Slope Montessori School, which occupied it for 43 years. Hard use by troops of children and decades of expedient alterations have been offset, however, by the survival of a remarkable amount of original detail. The first floor has three principal rooms, the first being the grand hall in the images below.
Obviously in the image below there used to be a wall between the hall and the drawing room, probably with french doors in an elaborate surround. Institutions and individuals alike seem unable at times to resist picking out architectural elements in contrasting colors. This is rarely a good idea.
I don't imagine the fire dogs were original to this room, but I'll bet they came from someplace else in the house.
The curved back wall of the drawing room, visible on the right in the image above, was originally lined with windows, either leaded and/or stained glass. When Montessori came along, they tore out the original servants' stair and constructed a fire stair within a cinderblock tower attached to the back of the house. One of the walls of that tower abuts the drawing room. That's what you're looking at in the image below.
A corridor, paneled in the same flame mahogany as the hall, leads to the dining room.
Apart from the fluorescent lights, the dining room seems hardly to have changed. Let's hope the amazing light fixtures, here and in the rest of the house, survive a coming change of ownership.
Time to head upstairs.
Unmarried brothers and sisters lived together in big houses for companionship as frequently as they did in small houses to save money. Coal magnate Edward Berwind and his sister Julia come to mind, rattling around their Trumbauer designed palace in Newport, as do Augustus Stuyvesant and his sister Ann, living in lonely magnificence in their chateau on Fifth and 79th. There is to the arrangement an element of what might have been but wasn't. Three rooms extend across the front of 105, a sort of library (there isn't one anywhere else) in the middle, flanked by bedrooms with en suite baths on either side. My guess is the sisters Katherine and Helen had these rooms.
If this was indeed a library, they weren't big readers.
The wall has been removed between the library - or sitting room, or boudoir, or whatever it was - and one of the bedrooms.
The bathroom is still mostly intact, but I doubt those lovely old tiles have much of a future.
The other bedroom has different woodwork and only a fragment of its original bathroom. Speaking of fragments, a bit of old wallpaper turns out to have been hiding behind a recently removed blackboard.
Past the dumbwaiter in the hall is what I assume was John Tracy's suite, located at the back of the house. The walls of his former dressing room, closet and bath, their footprints obvious on the floor, have been mostly removed to enlarge the space for classroom use.
The principal feature of the third floor is a billiard room.
An adjacent two-room suite with bath was presumably for guests.
On the other side of the third floor landing is a warren of servants rooms, where about 15% of the original partitioning has been removed.
We can take the main stair to the ground floor, however, since the original service stair is gone, we must switch to the fire stair to get to the basement
Fragments of big old house service details survive here and there, but not to any extent. There is some disagreement over the location of the original kitchen, but I would be very surprised if it and a servant hall were located anywhere other that in the large and now featureless room at the back of the house.
Following John Tracy's death in 1931, his spinster sisters carried on alone at 105. Meanwhile, their nephew William J. Tracy ran the family firm. In 1940, Katherine Tracy died, leaving almost $400,000 to various Catholic charities, and her sister Helen by herself on Eighth Avenue. After Helen died, the Knights of Columbus moved in, eventually selling the building to the Montessori School of Park Slope in 1969. M & J Tracy survived until 1983. The photo below, courtesy of Will Van Dorp of, shows the William J. Tracy, 6th place finisher in the Hudson River Tugboat Race of 1952. She was one of 4 new tugs acquired by the firm in the early '50s, the others being the Katherine Tracy, the Helen Tracy and the Thomas Tracy. M & J may be gone, but the William J, now called the Sharon Elizabeth, is still in service in New York harbor. 105 Eighth was listed last October for $25 million, and reduced at the beginning of this month to $18 million. The property is represented by Marc Wisotsky and Jackie Lew of Halstead Property LLC; the link is