19 November 2009

Heilbut and Kleefeld!

It is accomplished, Ladies and Gentleman.

On Thursday afternoon, there was a lunchtime summit at Brooks 1890 Restaurant to determine if the research efforts of Lost City reader Ian Schoenherr had indeed uncovered the true origins of the old building the eatery has long called home. In attendance were myself, Schoenherr, and artist Sharon Florin, a local artist who has painted the restaurant building, as well as many other Long Island City landmarks.

Much had been pretty solidly confirmed by articles Ian had dug up in the archives of the New York Times, the Brooklyn Eagle, and other newspapers. The address used to function as Long Island City's City Hall in the late 19th century (when it was not yet part of New York), where the local wily officials, like slippery James Gleason, conducted city business. In 1910, it was purchased by Mssrs. Martin Heilbut and Herman Kleefeld, real estate men. During the next decade, it was referred to by several names, including Kleefeld Hall, Kleefeld's saloon, Kleefeld's Hotel and just plain Hielbut and Kleefeld, until the 1920s, when it began to be referred to as the Court Square Restaurant.

The main order of business of the visit was to eyeball more closely the stained-glass canopy above the bar. In the past I had thought the initials etched into the canopy to be "K" and "N." Ian posited that the "N" might be an "H," as in Hielbut. And so we looked.

And we have daylight! Clearly, I need to improve my prescription, because that seeming "N" is indeed an "H." Heilbut and Kleefeld, you are remembered, as I imagine you wanted to be when you commissioned that fine piece of glasswork. Or should I say Kleefeld and Heilbut? The "K" is over the "H," and most news reports mentioned Kleefeld more than Heilbut. I think he was probably the less silent of the two partners.

We were particularly fortunate to have Sharon along, because she is friends with the longtime owner Bill "Brooks" Gounaris. Thus, we were able to share this information, most of which was new to him, certainly the identities of "K" and H." The bartender, too, was eager to learn, no doubt happy that now, when patrons ask about the stained glass, he has an answer to give them. (Gounaris, by the way, is not the original Brooks; he bought the restaurant after Mr. Brooks died, by his own hand, in the 1970s.)

Gounaris, seeing our interest, was good enough to share an old photograph of the area with us (above). He said it dated before 1902. The Brooks building is to the right. The Court House is not the one that sits there today, but the first one, which burned down. Quite a wide open landscape, wasn't it?

He also showed us some ticket stubs from events that took place in the building in 1916. From these we can deduce: the building was sometimes called Court Square Hall; the music was Prof. Parker was very popular in the teens; ladies didn't have to pay as much as men to get into things back then.

Gounaris also shared with me the fact that it is part of his deal with his landlord, the local Bricklayers Union, that the bar area, stained glass and all, never be altered or changed. Good men, those layers of brick!

We ate not in the bar room, but in the larger hall. This gave me the opportunity to admire some of the details in the room, such as the chandeliers and the beautiful, yellow-hued tin ceiling.

The events of the past week have been enormously satisfying. I love getting to the bottom of mysteries and making people aware of the history they have in their hands. The next logical step, it seems to me, is to get a building that is of such obvious importance to Long Island City's history officially landmarked.

Below, by the way, is Sharon's painting of the restaurant.


mingusal said...

Great work. A place I had always wondered about back when I used to spend a lot of time in that neighborhood, and every time I've gone by there since.

Now, any insight on the very ornate building 2 doors south of Brooks?

mingusal said...

Oh, and I think that old photo is probably about 10 years older than stated, as I believe most old Queens horse car lines were electrified in the early 1890s.

Ian Schoenherr said...

The Greater Astoria Historical Society shows that old Court House photo twice on their site: Images > Community Landmarks > Court House. It's flipped on Gallery page 1 and the right way (but with "City Hall" cropped out) on Gallery page 6.

Anonymous said...

Nice work. But when did it become "Brooks'"?

kleeneth said...

Thanks for the research. My grandfather was Herman Kleefeld. His restaurant became something of a speakeasy, frequented by judges from across the street during Prohibition, to whom beverages were served in teacups.

--Kenneth Kleefeld

Brooks of Sheffield said...

OMG! Kenneth, please contact me at lostcitybrooks@gmail.com. I have so many questions for you.