Jan 03, 2024, 06:27AM

Man in the Middagh

Firehouse.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Brooklyn Heights was first widely populated in the 1820s after the institution of the ferry that connected the Fulton Streets in Brooklyn and Manhattan and boasts block after block of handsome brownstone buildings as well as stable mews that have become exclusive cul-de-sacs like Hunts La, and Grace Court Alley. It’s also peppered with wood frame buildings, some of which go back to the neighborhood’s inception. I chose Middagh St. for today’s journey since it has more than the usual share of such houses, which were outlawed (for new construction) by 1852.

Brooklyn Heights, like Bay Ridge, is named for a high hill overlooking Lower New York Bay, especially obvious when looking across the water from Manhattan or standing on the Esplanade (Brooklynites have been calling it the Promenade for decades) and looking down on the waterfront. It runs from Old Fulton St. south to Atlantic Ave. and from the bay to Cadman Plaza West, which used to be Fulton St. It was the very first landmarked neighborhood designated by the new Landmarks Preservation Commission in November 1965.

Middagh runs east to west, from just west of Willow east to Cadman Plaza West. The endpoints used to be Columbia Heights and Fulton St., but are no longer. When walking north in Brooklyn Heights, it’s the first street after the trio of Pineapple, Orange and Cranberry. Before the IRT subway arrived in 1908 Brooklyn Heights was a secluded area in Brooklyn that only the very wealthy could afford (like today). Jealousies and disputes arose among the moneyed gentry. The story goes, as recorded by the WPA Guide to New York, that in the decade prior to the Civil War, a local resident, whose name is given as Miss Middagh, resented her aristocratic neighbors and tore down the street signs bearing the names of the offending families and hastily installed signs bearing the names of her favorite fruit and trees, Pineapple, Orange, Cranberry and Willow. When Brooklyn city authorities restored the original street names, Miss Middagh struck again and changed them back. This tug-of-war eventually resolved itself in the lady’s favor with the streets retaining plant names.

The more likely story is they were simply named by early-19th century landowners the Hicks Brothers, John and Jacob. Each brother bore the middle name Middagh, their mother’s maiden name. There’s a Middagh St. and a Hicks St. in Brooklyn Heights. An 1816 map of Brooklyn Village compiled by Jeremiah Lott, as well as William Hooker’s Pocket Plan of 1827, show the three streets in question as Pineapple, Orange and Cranberry. It’s likely that “Miss Middagh” was apocryphal.

The three “fruit streets” are, for the most part, quiet, shady streets with brick or brownstone town houses. Cranberry St., in particular, offers an iconic view of downtown Manhattan at its western end. Walt Whitman briefly lived on Cranberry as a child and “Leaves of Grass” was first printed in a now-demolished building at Fulton (now Cadman Plaza West) and Cranberry in 1855. The 1989 film Moonstruck had scenes filmed at 19 Cranberry St. at the corner of Hicks.

Looking west from Cadman Plaza West (actually Fulton St.) at Engine 205/Hook & Ladder 118, at #74 Middagh. A famed photograph taken on 9/11 shows H&L 118 making its way across the Brooklyn Bridge to the burning towers, where the company lost six firefighters. The firehouse also battled wildfires in the Hamptons and the devastating St. George Hotel fire in August 1995.

A couple of doors away is one of Brooklyn’s prominent remaining painted ads, this one advertising a long-gone real estate office on Fulton St. and Nostrand Ave. The old-fashioned “To Let Flats” today means “Apartments For Rent.” Why place a prominent ad like this on modest Middagh St.?

The answer is simple. Before the early-1940s, the Brooklyn Bridge carried elevated trains between Brooklyn and Manhattan at a terminal near City Hall. From an elevated train shed on the east side of Fulton St., els and trolleys converged, and then fanned out across Brooklyn to far-flung terminals in Coney Island, East New York, Bay Ridge, Canarsie and many other locales. Brooklyn’s Fulton Street El, Myrtle Avenue El, Lexington Avenue El, and 5th Avenue El all began their Brooklyn runs here. By the early-40s, many Brooklyn els were on their way to extinction, as well as the trolleys; today, the Brooklyn Bridge is the carrier of automobiles as well as pedestrians and bicyclists, who till recently shared a boardwalk running through the center of the span until the Department of Transportation designated a traffic lane for bicycles. An ad on Middagh St. facing the el platform would be seen by thousands daily.

This massive factory building was constructed by Mason, Au and Mangenheimer Candy in 1885 at #20 Henry St., at the NW corner of Middagh. According to advertisement researcher Walter Grutchfield, the company was in business here until 1949. The company was founded by confectioners Joseph Mason and Ernest von Au in 1864. The painted signs on the building are misleading since there was no such candy as “Peaks Mason Mints”; there were Mason Peaks and Mason Mints. Mason Peaks was a coconut-chocolate combination (like Mounds) while Mason Mints was a chocolate-covered mint patty (like today’s Peppermint Pattie). Mason also made Dots, a fruit-flavored gumdrop, and Crows, a licorice-flavored gumdrop. Both are still distributed by Tootsie Roll, which acquired Mason in 1972.

In 2012, Canyon-Johnson Urban Fund, a development group including former Los Angeles Lakers superstar Magic Johnson, completed the conversion of the building into luxury residences, with some “affordable” also included. In a nice touch, the painted ads weren’t only retained, but renovated to their current splendor.

On a block with handsomely-maintained frame buildings, #24 Middagh, on the corner of Willow, stands out. The dormered #24 Middagh sits on the southwest corner of Willow St. It’s light gray with maroon door and window shutters. It was constructed in a Federal-style in 1824 or 1829, depending on which source you use, with Ionic pilasters and leaded glass above the front entrance. It still has a “back house” for carriages in its rear yard.

When NYC traffic czar Robert Moses was planning the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in the 1940s, he initially thought Brooklyn Heights was a slum (it had pockets of poverty) and wanted to run the BQE up Hicks St. right through the spine of the neighborhood. Residents and local community boards demanded him to reroute it along the waterfront, and so it was built as a triple-decker arrangement, with the Esplanade on top, northbound traffic on the second tier and southbound on the third tier. It was rare to get Moses to change his mind in those days.

Probably the most interesting house on Middagh from a historical and artistic viewpoint, #7, no longer exists; it was eradicated in favor of the BQE in the late-1940s.

Brooklyn Heights’ lanes have been a mecca for the lions of literature for much of the 20th century and on into the 21st; it began in the pre-Civil War period when Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published on Fulton St. At one time or another Whitman, W. H. Auden, Truman Capote, Hart Crane, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Henry Miller, Carson McCullers, Thomas Wolfe, and for two years H.P. Lovecraft, have all lived in Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill, attracted by their quiet atmosphere and the contingent of literati.

#7 Middagh was home to a lively group of mid-20th century literary figures. In 1940, George Davis, literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, rented the townhouse with McCullers for the price of $75, which was in line with the pricing of the era, and subsequently allowed friends Auden, Paul Bowles, British composer Benjamin Britten, and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who was working on her own novel, The G-String Murders to move in.

The Harry Chapin Playground was named for the popular folksinger, who reached #1 in 1975 with “Cats in the Cradle.” The singer was proudest of his humanitarian work, participating in the creation of the Presidential Commission on World Hunger in 1977. Chapin lived in Brooklyn Heights as a boy, performing in the Brooklyn Boys Choir and graduating from Brooklyn Tech in 1960. Before his singing career took off, he was a documentary filmmaker; Legendary Champions, featuring footage of former boxing champions, was nominated for an Oscar in 1968. Chapin was killed in a car crash at 38 on the Long Island Expressway on the way to a concert in 1981.

The park at Middagh St.’s former intersection with Columbia Heights was named for Dr. E.R. Squibb (1819-1900), a pharmacologist whose lab was located nearby. Squibb became a major commercial manufacturer; its slogan was “the priceless ingredient in every product is the honor and integrity of its maker.” The company merged with competitor Bristol-Meyers in 1989.

Squibb constructed a large manufacturing plant at 25-30 Columbia Heights in the mid-1920s until most of the company’s plants were relocated to New Brunswick beginning in the 1960s. Subsequently the plant was purchased by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and became The Watchtower, recognizable by the large red neon sign overlooking the East River. The Witnesses owned a lot of property in Brooklyn Heights in the late-20th century including the Hotel Bossert on Montague St.

When the new Brooklyn Bridge Park was under piecemeal construction engineers were faced with a challenge: how to get foot traffic from Columbia Heights across the Furman St. gulch to the new park. The new Squibb Park Bridge was conceived and completed in late-2012. The original bridge was engineered to have a bit of give and “sway” just a little. I walked it several times without incident, but many parkgoers reported some queasiness. It reminded me a little of the Capilano Suspension Bridge (constructed in 1889 and renovated in 1956) over the same-named river north of Vancouver, BC. That bridge, though, connects two cliffs and has no supporting piers or pillars, as does the Squibb Bridge.

Kevin Walsh is the webmaster of the award-winning website Forgotten NY, and the author of the books Forgotten New York (HarperCollins, 2006) and also, with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, Forgotten Queens (Arcadia, 2013)


Register or Login to leave a comment