01 April 2012

Oak Street's Haunted House

Give or two a few bends, the Greenpoint streetmap is a fairly predictable grid. But there's an interesting twist or two. If you walk westerly on Manhattan Avenue, then hang a right on Calyet, in a couple blocks you'll reach an interesting intersection. On the left, it's Guernsey Street. On the right it's Guernsey, too. But a right turn will take you only a hundred yards or so before the road makes a severe left. At that turn, it becomes Oak Street. After that, Oak runs a few blocks before being stopped dead by the East River.

That odd hook in the street is dominated by a stately structure that looks like what you might find it you looked up "haunted house" in the Dictionary. The building dominates the corner, and gives it the feeling of a Hollywood stage set that is ready for a Halloween scene 24/7. The trees and lawn are overgrown. The fallen leaves lie unraked. The fence is rusted. The whole place is unkempt, but wonderfully grand.

Adding to the ancient feeling of this place is the sidewalk out front. On either side of the house, there are cement sidewalks. But in front of this mansion we have old bluestone. Bluestone in front of a building these days is a sure sign of one of three things: the property lies in a historical district; the owners are preservationists; or the owners are old and neglectful and never make improvements. In this case, the first is true. This building is—just barely—inside the lines of the Greenpoint historic district laid out in 1982.

The sign on the cast iron gate reads "Private Property Keep Out." It's an ornate gate, of a width you don't see much in front of private homes anymore. The yard between it and the house is also unusually expansive. Compared to surrounding domiciles, the plot is huge.

The stoop is in need of a paint job and the lovely wooden doors could use some repair work. The upper floors seemed in better shape. The cornice and circular window up top are a sight to see. I didn't see any evidence that anyone lived in the building. But there are a few satellite dishes on the roof.

There are some real estate sites that list this property as having been built in 1930. Which is absurd, for the building is obviously much older than that. It was commissioned by a Guernsey Street family and built in 1887 by Theobald Mark Engelhardt, a prominent member of the Brooklyn German population and a man who built many buildings in Greenpoint, Bushwick and Williamsburg. The way it is situated on the block, I have to think it once stood alone, with no other houses around it. As the years fell away, it became surrounded and boxed in by architectural midgets.

The beautiful brick edifice began its life as the Greenpoint Home for the Aged. By 1894, it had fallen into the hands of the government, and the City was looking to unload it. I have also read that it has functioned over the years as an orphanage, a convent, a home for unwed mothers and a cathouse frequented by sailors. (This may sound odd, but I have encountered other Brooklyn buildings that have had similar histories. Houses of high repute often end up as houses of ill repute.) But it has most recently functioned at an SRO (Single Room Occupancy), home to thirteen aged male tenants. 

There was an attempt to sell the place in 2008, but the residents were determined not to budge. That would explain the property's neglected state; very likely the landlord has not made any recent repairs. According to one report, the residents appear to be dying one by one. Who knows how many are left now. 


Heather said...

This was originally a home for aged women per bequest of the estate/will of Samuel J. Tilden!


Proud NIMBY said...


Please nix my prior comment.

I hadn't read the entire post before commenting, and I see you have its use as a boarding house for the old guys well described.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I don't see a prior comment, NIMBY, unless you and Heather are one and the same.

King Ning said...

If you're using the NYC Dept. of Buildings or OASIS websites to find out the age of a structure, forget it. Every building you check will show a date of 1930. Unless there's a Certificate of Occupancy, or work permits/violations available, you'll never get the correct year of construction. Tax records/deeds provide accurate dates/property status and names of owners. You can access those through OASIS, by the way.

Heather said...

I and NIMBY are *not* one and the same! :)

Brooks of Sheffield said...

I know, King, they all say 1930 or 1910 or 1900. I never rely on that info.

Rob said...

There is a date on the building 1868 I think, but I might be wrong. the reason for the wide ornate gate shown is that the two brick buildings on its right, built around the turn of the last century, occupy the land that was the stables for whomever ran the home for the aged women. These were sold off with the demise of the horse as transportation, a situation that can be seen elsewhere in the neighborhood

Proud NIMBY said...

Hi Brooks,

Nor am I Heather.

Without linking to your entire post, I had originally commented that the house was also used in recent decades as a boarding house for down and out types, going on to say that my ex-girlfriend, a Greenpoint native who lives around the corner on Lorimer, would take me there to show me it, and dream that someday she would win the lottery and buy it and move her large extended family in, since they were reared in tenement buildings.

She still has hopes.

Anyway, I did click submit but for some reason you never got it.

Kati M. said...

I was wondering if you know any other information about the old houses on that street. My great great great grandmother's family had a house at 211 Guernsey in the 1800s but as far as I can tell, it's been torn down. I think it would have been pretty much right across the street from this house. Any info would be great!

CLR Media said...

Kati M. 211 Guernsey does exist, it was given an Oak Street number when the street was widened. I live on oak street and would love to find out more about what you know about your familys history of the property. My email is clrmedia (at) gmail (dot) com.

CLR Media said...

Kati M
The house hasn't been torn down, it's been moved, the house has an oak street address not Guernsey. I would be happy to exchange more information and find out what you know about the house. I am a resident of oak street. Clrmedia (at) gmail (dot) com