Sunday, August 29, 2010

Manhattan Bridge, DUMBO, Brooklyn

DUMBO, or Directly Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, is resplendent with spectacular views everywhere you look. Walking the pedestrian walkway on the Manhattan Bridge is a very different experience than the Brooklyn Bridge. The walkway is narrow and is alongside the train, which comes every minute or two and is very VERY loud. Approaching the pedestrian stair one passes through the Brooklyn Bridge Park, which, believe it or not, has a beach, albeit rocky, fronting the East River. Hard to imagine swimming there, but it is a neat place to hang out.
The Manhattan Bridge was the last of the East River crossings, built in 1910. was designed by Leon Moisseiff, who later designed the infamous original Tacoma Narrows Bridge that opened and collapsed in 1940. Now get this - since the tracks were on the outer part of the bridge, passing trains caused the structure to tilt and sway. The wobble worsened as trains became longer and heavier. The City failed to maintain the bridge properly, and the tracks were closed for repairs beginning in 1986, blocking the paths of trains that crossed the bridge and reducing the number of trains passing between Manhattan and Brooklyn. Repairs lasted 18 years. Safety aside, the beautiful symmetry of the cables, viewed up close from the walkway, is amazing. This is a colossal structure. The Bridge is featured prominently in director Sergio Leone's gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America.

Crown Heights, Brooklyn

At the turn of the century, Crown Heights was one of the most desirable areas to live in New York City. Many of the mansions built between 1880 and 1920 remain, some in unlikely places. For those old enough to remember, Crown Heights is the scene of street violence between Hasidic Jews and Caribbean immigrants. The riots began on August 19, 1991 after the child of two Guyanese immigrants was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile in the motorcade of a prominent Hasidic rabbi. These tensions have receded over the years. The main thoroughfare through the neighborhood is Eastern Parkway, a tree-lined boulevard designed by Frederick Law Olmsted to complement Prospect Park.

There is an 1889 Victorian "fortress" that extends along much of the block on #920 Park Place (between New York and Brooklyn avenues), formerly the Brooklyn Methodist Church Home. At what was at one time a very prestigious address, St. Marks Ave. has some exceptional mansions, especially the Montrose Morris-designed 1892 eclectic brick and limestone Romanesque Revival mansion (#855-857) with the corner tower capped with a belled cupola. That cupola, phallic as can be, has spectacular surround inset windows, all four members of that block are splendid. A few doors down, opposite the Brooklyn Children's Museum, Russell Sturgis (art and architecture critic) designed the brownstone Romanesque Revival villa (#839) on the corner of St. Marks Ave. and Brooklyn Ave. Some cute whitewashed houses, looking very Dutch are on Prospect Place, next to the museum. The Museum had a $43 million expansion in 2007 and is an anchor to the neighborhood. Perhaps the most interesting mansion is on the corner of Brooklyn Ave. and Dean St., in need of TLC. It was built by the Parfitt Bros. in 1887 for the business man John Truslow. The brownstone design is punctuated by these little whimsical "pop-out" corner gables (see green gables in photo).
Notable former residents include Clyde Davis and Beverly Sills.

President Street, Crown Heights, Brooklyn

I can't think of a more picturesque street in Brooklyn than Presidents Street, between New York and Brooklyn Avenues, which runs along the crest of Crown Heights. One gets the same feeling of chagrin at these stately homes as one does in the manicured streets of the Prospect Park South section of Flatbush (see 11/25/09 blog). The fact that my mother-in-law grew up at #1267 (where a brick patio has usurped the lawn of her childhood) piqued my interest in visiting the area. Most of the architecture is 3-story homes, clad in brick, most of which were presumably single family residences. The American Institute of Architects Guide to New York City describes houses on this block as being "on the scale of an English Renaissance palace."

The area is home to a sometimes tense mix of Caribbean immigrants and Hasidic Jews of the Lubavitch sect. Note the Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe ("FREE") at #1383 (, two lions standing watch on the enclosed porch. Also note the "Road Sage" Mitzvah ("good deed") van sponsored by the Lubavitch Youth Organization ( According to the van, the mileage is good at 613 Mitzvot per gallon.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The Great Lawn, Cheney Bros. National Historic Landmark District, Manchester, Connecticut

The Cheney Bros. National Historic Landmark District includes the 70-acre park-like setting of trees and lawns that is surrounded by 13 large mansions built for the Cheney family is referred to as The Great Lawn and is very unusual in its vision. The photos give a sense of the vastness of the lawn that abuts the stately homes. The Cheneys chose to build their estates locally rather than compete for attention in Newport or the Berkshires, providing for a unique family-in-residence concept that had a positive impact on the Company.

Two early mansions designed by Stanford White have been demolished, but a number of residences designed by Charles Adams Platt (son of Mary Elizabeth Cheney) can be viewed at #40 and #50 Forest Rd. and #20, #139 (

and #151 Hartford Rd. Platt was a leading designer of country estates.

Silk Mills, Cheney Bros. National Historic Landmark District, Manchester, Connecticut

The Cheney Bros. Company in Manchester, Connecticut, was the largest manufacturer of silk during the 2nd industrial revolution from 1860-1890. The mills still standing were built between 1872-1917. Attempts to grow mulberry trees to nurture silkworms failed, so silk cocoons were imported from the Orient. In the 1920s, the worker head count was at 4,670. Operations ceased in 1984 with the closing of the velvet mill. The Cheney Brothers National Historic Landmark District was established in 1978. The extensive Mill campus has been entirely transformed into a very successful adaptive rehabilitation program in the form of apartments. Work began by a visionary developer in the 1970s. The end result is little short of breathtaking and reminds one immediately of a similar program in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, the celebrated inventor of the Segway Scooter, Dean Kamen, has invested millions in the restoration of the Amoskeag Millyard, including the Pandora Mill clock tower.
Cheney Hall was originally built in 1867 as a meeting facility for the Company, but now hosts theater ( It is a French 2nd Empire design.
Perhaps one of the most interesting outbuildings is the 3-story Silk Vault (unrestored) opposite the Weaver Mill. Note the massive vault doors, built to prevent theft as had occurred in 1919. A gang of silk thieves from New Jersey had perpetrated a plot for a silk heist and murdered the security supervisor. In 1999, the Manchester Historical Society ( acquired the Machine Shop on Pine St.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Royal Arcanum, Norfolk, Connecticut

Nestled in the Litchfield Hills, Norfolk is as picture-perfect a hamlet as one could possibly imagine. Because of the arrival of the Connecticut Western Railroad in 1871 (original station pictured) originating in Hartford and continuing west to Millerton in New York (ceasing operations in 1938), this region was opened up to the wealthy for Summer "cottages" (in the Berkshires parlance), where we can still witness extraordinary architecture, much of it attributable to Alfredo S.G. Taylor (New York firm Taylor & Levi). Most spectacular of the commercial buildings are Taylor's Romanesque Revival Royal Arcanum building (1904), adjacent to the arts-and-crafts style Village Hall (1888), now restored as Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, and the Norfolk Library (1888), a Romanesque Revival structure by George Keller. At the southern tip of the Village Green is Batell Fountain (see photo), carved in granite, designed by Stanford White with bronze-work attributed to Augustus Saint-Gaudens (
Mark Twain was a sometime summer visitor to Norfolk, and a stained glass window at the Church of the Transfiguration (Episcopal) commemorates his wife, Olivia Langdon Clemens.

Whitehouse, Norfolk, Connecticut

Norfolk is well known as the site of the Yale Summer School of Music – Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, which hosts an annual chamber music concert series in "the Music Shed," a performance hall located on the Ellen Battell Stoeckel estate. This estate is magificently sited adjacent to the Village Green. The main house is known as "Whitehouse." Battell's wife was instrumental in establishing Norfolk as a "mini" Lenox for wealthy New York summer residents as a result of the Connecticut Western Railroad connection completed in 1871. The town of Norfolk owes much to the Battell family, which made a large fortune in the early 19th century from cheese, trading and speculation in Western lands. Notable members of this family include Joseph Battell, the merchant who founded the fortune and built Whitehouse; Robbins Battell, who was largely responsible for positioning Norfolk as a summer resort and Ellen Battell Stoeckel, whose charitable trust provides the campus for, and helps underwrite, the Yale Summer School of Music – Norfolk Chamber Music Festival (

Sunday, August 1, 2010

New Britain, Connecticut

New Britain is nicknamed "Hardware City" because it is home of Stanley Works. A Gothic Victorian mansion (in blue) was constructed in 1859 for Timothy Wadsworth Stanley and is shoehorned into Hillside Place, nestled into the hillside bordering Olmsted's Walnut Hill Park. Stanley was a founding director of the Stanley Rule and Level Company in the 1850s. I got a chance to visit the shop floor years ago on a tour with the Hartford chapter of the MIT Club. The house rests upon a solid brownstone foundation.
Nearby is the Gothic Victorian State Normal School (note inscription "S.N.S.A.D.1882"), now condominiums. A normal school was a school created to train high school graduates to be teachers. Founded in 1849, it was the 6th Normal School in the U.S., ultimately becoming Central Connecticut Sate University. Its original purpose was to establish teaching standards or norms, hence its name. Generally, Normal Schools were later called Teachers Colleges. The building features a 120 foot bell tower. The brickwork is amazing. Returning to High Street, there is a curious brick house with heavy brownstone mouldings, in the English Tudor Style. constructed in 1878, known as the Eastman House. The bright red doors and window sashes are striking.
Last, but not least is the 1891 Victorian Cadwell House. William Cadwell was New Britain's most famous architect. The massive turrets are spectacular, all three with very different geometries.