RECONSTITUTING GERITTSEN MILL

 

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I have been working with one of my students here at Cornell, Kaustubh Laddha, to create a 3D digital model of the long-vanished Gerritsen tide mill in southern Brooklyn.  Built in the late 17th century on the banks of the Strome Kill (Gerritsen Creek in Marine Park), the mill was powered by seawater penned at high tide behind a rock dam and released as needed past the drive wheel.  It was one of the earliest industrial buildings in New York State, and operated well into the 1890s.  According to some accounts it was used by Washington’s troops during the Revolution and commandeered by British regulars under Lord Cornwallis during the Battle of Brooklyn.

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Tragically, this extraordinary landmark was destroyed by an arsonist on the night of September 4, 1935.  It nearly made it to safety, as the mill was being restored at the time by Parks Department architects Aymar Embury II and H. B. Guillan.  We are using their plans and sections to construct the model.  Though nothing remains of the mill itself, the tidal dam can still be seen at low tide just below Burnett Street at Avenue V.  It is clearly visible on GoogleEarth or in the photo below that I took from my UAV last year.  I will post images of our completed model when its done.

 

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LONG BEFORE METROTECH

00093_mn_14allbrex20078-t96ddr-999x1024PHOTO: JOHN TAMBASCO

This photo of downtown Brooklyn was taken c. 1955 looking northeast from Pearl Street to the stub of the old Myrtle Avenue elevated at Jay Street—future site of NYU-Poly (now NYU Tandon School of Engineering).  The land in foreground has just been cleared as part of the vast Brooklyn Civic Center urban renewal project.  The shadow on ground to the right is being cast by one of the few survivors—375 Pearl Street, an art-deco gem that was built for Brooklyn Law School and is today the Brooklyn Friends School (photographer was standing about here).

The large building on the right is now NYU’s Rogers Hall.  It was built by the American Safety Razor Company, a cornerstone of industrial Brooklyn and one of the city’s largest employers.  The company relocated to Virginia in 1954 after repeated labor strikes and threats of condemnation for the Civic Center.  It was one of scores of manufacturers to leave town during the Wagner years (1954-1965), a period in which New York City lost a staggering 200,000 jobs.

One MetroTech Center now occupies the block on Jay Street to the right of this view.  The arrow in the ad on the side of the building (meant for riders on the vanished el) points down to about where the entrance to the Jay Street-Metrotech subway station (A, C, F trains) is today.  The parked cars at left are on Myrtle Avenue, where a pedestrian walkway now runs between Adams and Jay Streets by the Marriott hotel.  The two industrial buildings in the photo are extant, as may be seen in Google Streetview here.  This slide photo was taken by John Tambasco using a Rolleiflex Automat K4A (Collection of Thomas J. Campanella).

A HOMECOMING FOR CHLOE AND MARIE

Marie H. Tilyou (1897-1977) was the daughter of the legendary Coney Island showman, George C. Tilyou, founder of Steeplechase Park.  She showed an early talent for drawing, winning gold and silver prizes for paintings as a student at Adelphi College in 1915-1916.  Encouraged by Reginald Marsh, who later painted scenes of Steeplechase, she studied painting with George Luks (1867-1933), one of Ashcan School artists who rejected the academic formalism of the American Renaissance and chose to paint instead scenes of quotidian life on the streets of New York City.

Luks was a colorful character himself.  He was born in Williamsport and studied briefly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and in Europe, later working as an illustrator for the Philadelphia Press and the New York World.  In Philadelphia he became part of an small group of artists–including William Glackens and John Sloan–mentored by Robert Henri, all of whom later moved to New York City and formed the core of the urban-realist Ashcan School.  A Falstaffian figure, “Lusty Luks” claimed to be a prizefighter and football player.  He drank copious amounts of beer, and was said to have covered the Spanish American War from a barstool in Havana.  Luks ended his days in a manner tragically fitting for a chronicler of the streets–he died in a doorway after being beaten in a barroom brawl.

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This work by Tilyou, titled “Chloe,” is strongly evocative of both the style of the Ashcan School and its penchant for depicting ordinary folk subjects.  The painting was evidently part of a group show decades ago at the Brooklyn Museum, exactly when I am not yet sure.  The identity of the subject, perhaps a West Indian market girl, is equally a mystery.  Works of any kind by Marie Tilyou are exceedingly rare; my extensive searches on the Internet have revealed no traces of any other painting or drawing by her.  I recently acquired “Chloe” from Timothy Cobb in Milwaukee.  I am glad she and her portraitist are back home after so many years.

Unfortunately, Marie Tilyou never pursued her budding art career.  Instead she took over the helm of the family business, working closely with my uncle, Jimmy Onorato, on the daily management and operation of Steeplechase Park.  She lived in an extraordinary apartment at 35 Prospect Park West, an Emery Roth building erected in 1929 on the site of George C. Tilyou’s old Romanesque mansion.

Marie Tilyou later raised the ire of many in Brooklyn when she decided to permanently close the park in 1964.  She sold the grounds to Fred C. Trump, father of “The Donald” and a real-estate mogul in his own right.  Trump erected some 27,000 homes throughout Queens and Brooklyn during his career.  In the 1960s he set his sights on Coney Island, opening 3,800-apartment Trump Village in 1963 and acquiring the Tilyou property two years later.

In an effort to ward off an attempt by the city to landmark the Victorian glass-and-steel Pavilion of Fun, Trump hosted a “V.I.P. Farewell Ceremony” on September 21, 1966.  At it, bikini-clad models led guests in heaving bricks through the windows of the historic structure.  A few weeks later Trump razed the entire building, an act of vandalism that—along with the demolition of Ebbet’s Field and the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard—seemed to herald the end of Brooklyn’s golden age.  Only the parachute jump remained, today a beloved a symbol of Brooklyn–our Eiffel Tower.  The Steeplechase site remained empty and windswept until a stadium for the Brooklyn Cyclones opened on in 2001, bringing laughter back to this storied stretch of sand.

UNDER THE ELEVATED

I wrote the lead essay in the latest publication from the Design Trust for Public Space, Under the Elevated: Reclaiming Space, Connecting Communities, the result of a two-year collaborative study that began with a Cornell AAP/NYC studio led by Bob Balder.  My piece, “The Spatial Ecology of the New York Elevated,” can be downloaded here; the beautifully illustrated book is available for purchase in hardcopy or PDF from the Trust.