24 September 2007

New York's Most Unheeded Business Leader


What would the New York real estate community make of Alfred Tredway White, and his motto of "Philanthropy plus 5%," today? Run that crank outa town on a rail, I should think? Philanthropy in housing?! A measly 5%?! That's just not American.

Alfred T. White lived in Brooklyn from 1846 to 1921 and spent most of those years dedicating himself to the borough and its poor. He discovered said poor in 1869 when the pastor at Brooklyn's First Unitarian Church asked him to take charge of the church's settlement school program. He visited the settlement children in their homes and found out they didn't live as well as he; White was born into a wealthy merchant family.

He used the money from the family business to go about changing things. Why should tenements be dank, airless death chambers, he wondered. "Well it is to build hospitals for the cure of disease," he said, "but better to build homes which will prevent it." And so he built the Home Buildings and then the Tower Buildings on Hicks Street in present-day Cobble Hill. Anyone who's seen these complexes know that they are not just amazing tenements, but amazing building that anyone would want to live in. The red brick, the exterior spiral staircases, the countess wrought-iron balconies, the large inner courtyards. And cheap rents for the workers. That "5%" meant White refuse to profit by more than that percentage of the cost.

Further into the block, White build the Warren Place Workingmen's Cottages, utterly charming, narrow, two-story huts built of varrying colors of brick. Though he hardly intended them as such, the collection of buildings now ranks as perhaps the most delightful mews in the city, the houses going for a million or more.

White also built the Riverside Apartments, which had its own park, playground, bathhouse and music pavilion, on Columbia Place in Brooklyn Heights. And check out this astounding fact: None of his buildings occupied more than 52 percent of its lot. Can you imagine such a thing happening today, when volume is the name of the game?

To make sure the poor had access to greenery, he also forced the Brooklyn Botanic Garden into being, providing the necessary cash whenever the park experienced a shortfall. There is a quiet, relatively unvisited monument to White on a small hill in the center of the garden.

White died at 75, while skating across Forest Lake in Ramapo Hills, New York. He broke through some thin ice and drowned. For all the good he did, he seems fairly forgotten as a civic leader and role model today. How forgotten? He doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry. Robert Scarano does, but not White. Bruce Ratner, but not White.

Their likely slogan? "Misanthropy, plus 1,000%."

3 comments:

hank said...

who says you cant build aesthetically pleasing afforable housing?

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Nobody, Hank. But can you show me any aesthetically pleasing affordable housing that has been built in NYC in the last few decades? Developers build the cheap ugly stuff, because they make more money that stuff.

tlaf said...

You and the readers of this piece will be glad to learn that a new book on A. T. White is in the making. Entitled BROOKLYN'S BETTER SELF (a phrase once used of ATW), it features a number of essays, most focusing on the buildings and his settlement work. It will be edited by Wendy Walker, designed by Maddy Rosenberg, and published by PROTEOTYPES, the publishing arm of Proteus Gowanus Gallery at 543 Union St., in conjunction with the Brooklyn Historical Society.