More Historic Photo Mysteries Solved — Brownstone Revival and New York Apocalypse Edition
Village Preservation has a collection of over 2,000 images in our Historic Image Archive, ranging from the 18th to the early 21st century, most of Lower Manhattan, but with some images across the five boroughs. The majority were donated, and some come with absolutely no information about date or location.
We’ve managed to figure out the location of more than 80% of the images, but some mysteries remain. We regularly put out calls for help, which sometimes lead to answers.
But some nagging mysteries remain unsolved. Tantalizing clues in the images seem like they should lead to something, but sometimes every turn is a dead end.
Two such mysteries plagued us for several years. But now, after many sleepless nights, we’re happy to report those mysteries have been solved. And each one tells an interesting story of our city’s development over the last 200 years, and of the changes it has undergone in the last fifty.
For a variety of reasons the picture above has gnawed at me for years, since we first received it as part of a huge cache of amazing photographs from the artist Carole Teller. First, it’s such a great image of this trio just hanging out on their brownstone stoop somewhere in New York City (all of Carole’s pictures were taken within city limits). Based upon their dress and appearance, it seems to be around 1970. And the causal stoop-sitting scene seems to almost perfectly capture that easygoing “back to the city/brownstone revival” period of life in (some parts of ) New York City in the 1960s and 70s, before hypergentrification took off and streets and buildings with this type of appeal were transformed into something very different.
But there was also an architectural history mystery which plagued me about this image, and which filled me with the need to identify the location, which might otherwise seem like finding a needle in the proverbial haystack — especially since there was no guarantee that this building, wherever it was, had not been demolished or unrecognizably altered during the last fifty years.
Several details allow one to fairly precisely date the house on whose stoop this trio is found. The temple-like brownstone entrance and anthemion-topped fence posts tell us that this house was designed in the Greek Revival style, which was used in New York City residential architecture from the early 1830s through about 1850. But narrowing it down further, the brickwork on the facade is laid in what is called a “flemish bond” pattern, meaning the bricks are placed with their long sides and short sides alternately facing out. Flemish bond brickwork was much more characteristic of Federal-style architecture (ca. 1790-1835), though some early Greek Revival houses in New York continued the pattern until the more common “running bond” pattern (all long sides facing out) became standard for the style. So that meant this was almost certainly an early Greek Revival house, built no later than the mid-1830s.
So that narrowed it down somewhat — rowhouse development such as this had really only reached about as far north as 23rd Street or so in Manhattan, and the oldest neighborhoods in Brooklyn closest to Manhattan (Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Fulton Ferry, etc.) by the mid-1830s. So finding this house was still the proverbial needle in the haystack — several hundred blocks worth in fact — but at least the haystack was now a little smaller.
Scouring the image for more clues, however, I noticed something more peculiar. The building to the left of the Greek Revival house, of which you could only see a small slice, was nevertheless clearly identifiable as a residential building, with architectural detail that appeared to date it to the late 19th or early 20th century. That in and of itself was not so odd. But if you looked closely you could also see leaded glass on the ground floor window, handsome quoins on the edge of the building’s facade, a projecting bay window, and a pretty grand scale to the architectural details. These all indicated that whatever this building was, it was an upscale residential building dating to around the turn of the last century, much as the Greek Revival house must have been built for a relatively prosperous merchant or family.
Bingo! This didn’t solve the mystery, but it did narrow it down considerably. While there are many sections of New York with architecture from the 1830s and ca. 1900, there are actually very, very few places which were considered desirable places to live in both the 1830s AND around the turn of the last century, and these two buildings indicated that both were the case wherever this was. Because of waves of immigration and industrialization which roared through New York City in the 19th century, and the rapid growth of the city and the movement of most of its population progressively farther out from the oldest sections if they had the means to, almost no place in New York was a fashionable urban area in the early 1830s, when the Greek Revival rowhouse was built, AND around the turn of the last century, when the other structure was built. Ah ha!
Pretty much the only places in New York City that were fashionable in the early 1830s and had not become either working class/immigrant neighborhoods or industrial neighborhoods by around 1900 were a very small slice of Greenwich Village along and just off Fifth Avenue north of Washington Square (by the turn of the last century most of the rest of Greenwich Village had become predominantly working-class), and the northern half of Brooklyn Heights. Making this realization even more useful was the fact that both those areas had been landmarked by the time this picture had been taken (Brooklyn Heights in 1965, and Greenwich Village in 1969), so the chances of this structure having been demolished or unrecognizably altered were now markedly reduced.
With this much smaller universe of possibilities, I reached out to Carole Teller the photographer, and using Google Streetview (one of the miracles of the modern era) we went to work trying to find the spot. Carole found it first — the stoop in the image is clearly 11 Cranberry Street, at the northern edge of Brooklyn Heights. Records indicate that house was likely built around 1836, while the handsome later building next door at 9 Cranberry Street seems to date to around 1910.
Interestingly, and as evidence of the changes in New York over the last fifty years, while 11 Cranberry Street as photographed in 1970 appears to be the essence of down-to-earth Brooklyn unpretentiousness, 11 Cranberry Street in more recent years apparently became the most expensive rental in Brooklyn, at one point asking $29,000/month for the 6,300 sq. ft. townhouse.
With that mystery solved, I turned my attention to another puzzling picture that had long plagued me. Like the one of 11 Cranberry Street, it was also taken by Carole Teller, and similarly seemed to perfectly capture a particular moment in New York City history, but in this case a much less genial one.
The above image seemed to me to in many ways capture the post-apocalyptic look that much of New York had taken on in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Having grown up during that time period (I was born in 1969) in the Bronx, it was a phase of New York’s life I knew well. And everything about this picture seemed to embody it — from the weeded, overgrown lots on either side of the aging buildings in the center of the photo, to the faded, anachronistic signs for Tetley’s Tea and (what appears to be) Kriberger Real Estate and Fire Insurance, to the crumbling shadow of the wall of the no longer extant building on the side of the building pictured, to the rubber tubing hanging lifelessly off the branches of the semi-bare trees. Adding to the ominousness of the image is the brooding sky, and the “school crossing” sign in what appears to be an almost deserted stretch of the city, making it seem relatively recently depopulated.
Of course forty years ago many areas of New York had this hollowed-out look — from the Lower East Side to Upper Manhattan, to huge swaths of Brooklyn and the Bronx, to even the far western reaches of neighborhoods like Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. Finding this lonely pair of barely-standing survivors, which might no longer exist today, seemed like a fool’s errand. I had thought it might be somewhere around the intersection of the Bowery and Houston Street, where for many years a contested and never-executed urban renewal plan left several semi-abandoned buildings standing surrounded by vast empty lots. But other images of those streets from the time just didn’t align with what was pictured here.
One thing did however call out to me from the photo as a clue that semeed like it should help lead to the answer to the mystery of the location. If you look in the background at the far left of the image, you can see what seems like a tall windowless concrete tower sticking up in the distance, seemingly somewhere further down on the street upon which these little 2- and 3-story structures sat. This was an unusual structure, and I wracked my brains (and scoured google streetview) for a variety of places where it could have been, that would have been in visual proximity in the 1970s or 80s to early-to-mid 19th century structures like the ones pictured here and abandoned lots. None, however, lead me to the answer.
But then Carole Teller, the photographer, had a revelation. She remembered that the reason why she was walking through this semi-abandoned, seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape where she took this picture was because it was during the 1980 New York City Transit Strike, when for ten days in early April there was no bus or subway service in New York City, and she had to walk to her job teaching art at P.S. 54 on Sanford Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant from her home in the East Village. This was a HUGE assist.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what Carole’s likely route from her home in Village View Houses was.
As with the prior mystery, while this was still finding the proverbial needle in the haystack, it was now a much smaller haystack to search through. I decided to start on Myrtle Avenue (where we had previously found the answer to another photo mystery), which covered the longest stretch of her journey, working my way backwards from Sanford Street where her school was.
It was a fortuitously lucky approach. Just a few blocks down from Sanford Street, using Google Streetview, I noticed a structure which I had actually walked by many times in recent years which, from several blocks away at least, had a rooftop element which appeared very similar to the strange concrete structure in the left on the 1980 Carole Teller photo.
689 Myrtle Avenue at Spencer Street is an old loft now known as “The Chocolate Factory,” which has since been converted to upscale apartments (my guess is this was not the case when Carole took the picture in 1980). Even better, Myrtle Avenue was lined with just the kind of three-story 19th century houses that appear in Carole’s photo.
It was pretty clear we had identified our location, and the picture was taken from several blocks away on Myrtle Avenue. My colleague Harry Bubbins was able to spot what he thought might have actually been the Tetley Tea building in the picture — 741 Myrtle Avenue near Nostrand Avenue.
You could see the little 2-story buildings just down the block. But sadly, only one of the two 3-story structures survived, and I was not sure if 741 was the Tetley Tea building or its neighbor to the left in the image. My initial suspicion was it was NOT the Tetley Tea building, but its neighbor, since it had a fire escape, which the Tetley Tea building did not and its neighbor did. But Harry noticed a few important details on 741 that did line up.
The roofline of 741 Myrtle bore a remarkable similarity to that of the Tetley Tea building, and it had quoins along the right side of its 2nd and 3rd floor facade, which the other building did not appear to. Clinching it for me was when I noticed that 741 Myrtle had a somewhat unusual diagonally recessed storefront entryway covered in a fake stone veneer. While neither of these are unique, if you look very closely at the Tetley Tea building in the 1980 photo, you can actually just make out the diagonally recessed storefront, and the artificial stone veneer as well. Further adding to the proof, Harry dug up the 1940s tax photos of the building, which clearly showed that these two buildings were originally mirror-image twins, with 741 having the quoins only on the right side of the facade, and the (now-demolished) building to its left having them only on the left side of its facade.
Proof positive that the surviving building at 741 Myrtle Avenue is the Tetley Tea building in Carole’s 1980 image. And if you’ve been by that stretch of Myrtle Avenue any time in the last several years, you would certainly hardly recognize it from the eerily quiet, bombed-out look of the 1980 photo. This stretch on the border of Bedford Stuyvesant and Williamsburg has been a hotbed of development activity in recent years, with the only apocalypse now of concern was the talk of the potential shutdown of the nearby L-train for a year and a half for repairs. Yet another apocalypse averted!
You can check out more of our historic image archive, and purchase prints, here. To see the Carole Teller collection, click here. You can search the archive by map here, and check out those still found in the “location unknown” box, and let us know if you have any hints about the ones we still have not been able to identify.