27 June 2011


This is the eleventh post of "The Union Street Project," in which I unearth the history of every building along the once bustling Brooklyn commercial strips of Union Street between Hicks and Van Brunt, and Columbia Street between Sackett and Carroll.

I always thought 142 Union Street was a fairly recent addition to the block. The squat, two-story, red-brick, faux castle just didn't have the look of antiquity about it. Perhaps it was an unfortunate creation of the 1970s.

Not so. The below 1920s photo shows the structure had the same silly, grandiose look back then. In fact, the facade is remarkably untouched!

I've long been told that what is now Nancy's Unisex Salon was once a bakery. And the photo bears this out. I can't see the name of the bakery in the picture, but the stacks of fresh Italian loaves are clearly visible. The family that ran the bakery lived upstairs. (I may seem to say "market" in the window, but that's actually a reflection of the awning for the Union Center Meat Market across the street.) City records show the building was owned by one Caroline Mangaro in the 1930s, and was built by built by the firm of Burke & Olsen.  The photo also gives us a glimpse of what the block looked like when pushcarts lines the sidewalks. This one sold fruit.

About Burke & Olsen. They were an architectural firm located somewhere in the area. I see their name here and there, and I believe they're responsible for a lot of the buildings around the intersection of Union and Columbia. The name, of course, strongly attests to the Irish and Scandinavian settlements that once thrived in this area.

One oddity about the block of Union Street between Hicks and Columbia: there is no 140 Union Street. The numbers skip from 142 to 138, as can be glimpsed in the photo above. No idea why this is, but it's always been thus.



upstate Johnny G said...

Hey Brooks,
Another great photo comparison! Thanks! Really brings back a sense of what the neighborhood was like and how sometimes vestiges of the past survive to surprise us today.

The old photo is very interesting. First, I notice the small child behind the cart, who must be standing on a crate or two to get to that height, because his head his at the same level as those of the men in the photo, yet the kid seems to be only 3 or 4 years old. As for the men, the guy standing in the bakery doorway is nicely dressed - suit, tie, white shirt, and hat. There are also some very blurry images of other people - people who were walking through the scene when the shutter clicked. On the extreme right there seems to be a man in a dark coat wearing a brimmed, flat-top hat. Hasidim, perhaps? Then there are, I think, two more people between the child and the man in the doorway.

I think I can read the letters "BA" on the window above the loaves....can't make out the rest, but it might be Bakery.ndow.

About that rack of loaves.....at first I thought they were being displayed in the window but then I noticed that they seem to be in front of the window frame, not behind it, so now I'm thinking that the bakery decided to vend their wares outside with the pushcart vendors.

Now about that window set-up. Looks like each half of the window is made up of two panes, and on each side one pane has a substantial frame. Looking at the left side of the window, it looks to me as though that framed portion can be slid open, and that in the photo it has been slid to our left about 18 inches, creating an open window behind the loaves.Perhaps the purpose of such windows was to vent some of the heat a bread bakery could generate?

Looking at the cart, I think I can see a curb just behind the wheels, and a fairly narrow sidewalk, just like today. That would put the pushcart in the street, but if the sidewalk had been wider the cart could have been there, for sure.

The only people who are at all in focus are the kid and the guy at the left of the pushcart, who I assume was the cart's owner. He's looking into the camera and smiling. Film must have been slow and a slow shutter speed must have been used, given that so many of the people in the photo are blurred, but this man evidently struck a pose when he realized a photo was going to be taken, and perhaps the kid is his and he put him up on a crate so he could get in the shot.

And speaking of the shot, I wonder why this photo was taken. It's not a very good illustration of either the bakery or the pushcart but since it seems to have been carefully composed to include the very top of the building I'm thinking the building itself may have been the intended subject, perhaps a photo taken to help advertise the property for sale. The film plane must have been almost parallel to facade, because the building has just a bit of that "falling back" look that ordinary cameras give you when you tilt the camera slightly upwards to shoot a tall subject. A wide angle lens can help quite a bit in this regard, but the real solution in the pre-Photoshop days was a view camera, with it's ability to shift the lens as needed to control perspective. This makes me think this was no casual snapshot by a passerby, and reinforces my feeling that the building was the subject. At the bottom of the frame it looks as if I can see the top of a placard with some letters on it, mounted on a post with a pyramidal top. Perhaps this was a sign that identified the building or address and was meant to be in the extreme foreground of the shot but got cut off in the printing process.

Then of course, I could be way way off base with all of this -- but it was sure fun examining the photo and playing detective. Thanks, Brooks, for brightening what was shaping up to be a depressing morning for me!

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks, Johnny. My pleasure.
The photo is a tax photo, taken by the City. They took one of every building in the city back in the 1920s.