Note: The text of this piece originally appeared on our website in two parts, one in February 2014 and the other in May 2015. The two parts have been combined and updated to reflect the recent demolition of the subject houses.
In 1898, the view of Eighth Avenue from Methodist Hospital, also known then as Seney Hospital, was of vacant land from Sixth Street to Fifth Street except for five row-houses. The only lights at night, along that stretch, would have been those lighting the homes of the first residents of 502 to 512 Eighth Avenue.
The five row-houses on Eighth Avenue between Fifth and Sixth Streets were among the Hospital’s very earliest neighbors. By any standard, they were historic. They were the first and only buildings erected on land that was deeded to the earliest Dutch settlers and had stood for at least 117 years.
The site had been part of a larger tract passed through the hands of prominent early Dutch settlers to later settlers.
In 1835, the tract was sold by the Polhemus family to the Van Wycks. In 1851, the land, still wooded and still ungridded, was sold by the Van Wycks to the Loders.
In the early 1860’s, Edwin Litchfield acquired the tract from Loder and in the mid-1860’s, Litchfield sold one 100-foot-wide lot to James Ogden. This is the lot on which our five houses stood.
By 1866, the land was gridded, though not all streets were in place. James Ogden did not build on his piece of land. He left a third to each of his three sons, Herman, Mortimer and William.
Herman and Mortimer each received half of the land fronting Eighth Avenue. William’s piece fronted on Fifth Street and ran behind his brothers’ plots, stretching across the back of their lots towards Sixth Street.
In January of 1892, Herman Ogden sold his 40-foot lot to Henry B. Lyons. In February, of that same year, Mortimer sold his to Daniel Buckley. One month later, Buckley bought the piece that had been Herman’s from Lyons and reunited the lots fronting Eighth Avenue, acquiring enough space for construction of five row-houses.
In July of that same year, William sold his lot going down Fifth Street to a Mr. Conway, who in turn resold it in March of 1893.
In scanning the records of the rapid exchange of deeds in 1892, one gets a sense of the excitement and optimism that Daniel Buckley felt about investing here, even though, as he looked around him, much of the surrounding land was still vacant.
By 1898, 502-512 appear on a map of the neighborhood, standing alone between Fifth and Sixth Streets on Eighth Avenue. Mr. Buckley, who built these homes, lived with his wife Rose at 504 Eighth Avenue. Buckley also built houses adjacent to the hospital on Seventh Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenue.
The earliest occupants of these homes were among an elite who wanted to be in a neighborhood that offered elegant housing in proximity to Manhattan. An early real estate offering described the advantages of life in the area:
The location in the finest residence section of Brooklyn offers every opportunity for reaching Manhattan quickly and without change by both surface cars (trolleys) and the Fifth Avenue Elevated Railroad which pass directly through the best business sections of Brooklyn on their way to the bridges and numerous ferries. It is self-evident that these residences have a great future and an increasing value by virtue of the location….their improvements and conveniences are equaled only by the very best class of Manhattan residences.
In fact this ebullient prediction proved correct. Those lovely old houses stood for over a century, in spite of several recessions, a couple of depressions and two World Wars.
Numbers 502, 504, 506, 510 and 512 on Eighth Avenue (there appears never to have been a 508 for some reason) stood apart from the others owned by the hospital. They were designed to attract an up-and-coming group of people who were to play a prominent role in the development of Brooklyn as it merged with the other boroughs to form Greater New York City. Among them was Charles J. Obermayer who made his home at 502 Eighth Avenue. In 1901, he listed his occupation as “real estate”. By 1905, he was president of The Greater New York Savings Bank, its name inspired by the merging of Brooklyn with the boroughs.
The Obermayers apparently enjoyed their role in the social life of Brooklyn at the time as evidenced by the following notation from the Brooklyn Standard Union:
Mrs. Charles J. Obermayer portrayed La Tosca in a benefit for the Children’s Hospital Fund. The benefit featured: Young Men and Women in Tableaux of Characters from Operas and Novels”.
The Obermayer family was succeeded at 502 by a young physician, Ralph M. Beach attracted to Methodist Hospital by its emphasis on obstetrics. In Methodist’s notation in Wikipedia it cites obstetrics as one of it’s “growth” fields in the 1920’s. Dr. Beach, listed in the Social Register, raised his family at 502 and no doubt enjoyed the convenience of his proximity to the hospital when called to attend a 2 a.m. birth.
In 1910, Leslie Waldorf, who dealt in real estate, lived at 510 Eighth Avenue. His family included his daughter and son-in-law who listed his occupation as “promoter of wireless telephones”; certainly an insight into the entrepreneurial spirit of the times.
In 1940, Pedro Rincones, Consul General from Venezuela, and his family lived at 506 Eighth Avenue.
The information on these houses that appears in this summary is based mostly on examination of land and census records. More comprehensive research would undoubtedly yield more information of historic interest.
By preserving historic buildings, we can still be in touch with the life and the people of an earlier time in a way that we cannot in any other way. It is history written in stone and we owe it to the future to preserve it.
In fact, over the last several decades people have worked to do just that. The history of these houses and their intrinsic elegance has resulted in a renaissance in the neighborhood of Park Slope which has benefited its residents, its businesses and its institutions, among them Methodist Hospital.
Now, they are just a memory.