Gravesend’s Little Chapel That Could

Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

At the end of the long drive that runs beside the historic Ryder-Van Cleef House at 38 Village Road North, stands an odd structure that is hard to see clearly from the sidewalk, shrouded as it is by dense foliage today. Back on an overcast spring day in 1986, it looked like this:

Side view of 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. Note chapel behind the tree. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Side view of 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Although it was then blocked by a tree, its alignment with the driveway suggests the little building might once have been a garage. But its entrance seems too narrow for a car. And why would a garage have a Gothic-arched doorway with similar, flanking windows? (See the closeup below.) Like other sites in Gravesend, legend surrounds this one, fed, no doubt, by the pull of that sinister black portal.

Closeup of the chapel behind 38 Village Road North, taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Closeup of the structure behind 38 Village Road North taken Wednesday 9 April 1986. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

A friend who grew up a few houses down doesn’t recall the place ever in use. She was too scared to go near it, and in her 29 years there, worked up the nerve to look inside just once, when she saw what looked like an altar. Turns out it was an altar, but not one for human sacrifice.

Around 1943 an enterprising young Lutheran divinity student named William George Luger (born 1927), who lived with his family at 30 Village Road North, decided to build a devotional chapel. The Lugers owned the three houses at 28, 30, and 32 Village Road North, so it is a mystery why William chose a spot behind number 38 on which to build. Presumably he did so with the owner’s permission. On a plot 12′ x 12′ he constructed a building of discarded brick and cobblestone scrounged up from vacant lots in the neighborhood. He furnished it with benches and imitation stained glass windows, and even managed to squeeze in an organ (probably a reed organ). Between June 1944 and Christmas 1945, the incipient Reverend Luger preached on Sundays to a congregation as large as 17 members in his tiny chapel. Luger was appointed assistant to the pastor of St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church on Newkirk Avenue on 6 January 1946, a month before his family moved from Village Road North. The Brooklyn Eagle mourned the abandonment of his endearing and short-lived house of worship (see below).

“Reverend 12 x 12 ” went on to a distinguished career at multiple churches in the United States. His little chapel on Village Road North still stands, now roofless and empty. The organ is gone, its music only an echo. And the congregation, only a memory.

The chapel behind 38 Village Road North as it looked on Sunday 25 August 2013. Photograph by Lisanne Anderson.

[Please note: This post does not constitute an invitation to visit the chapel, which stands on private property.]

Copyright © 2013 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Thanksgiving, Gravesend style!

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

On its front page for Friday 30 November 1923, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran the following tale, which could only have happened in good old Gravesend, Brooklyn. Happy Thanksgiving!

TURKEY CHASE IN CEMETERY; BIRD GETS AWAY

Pipenbring Had Won It at Raffle and Wife Had Given One He Bought to Church.

A wild chase after a live turkey, and in a cemetery at that, was the strange pastime indulged in by several prominent members of the Gravesend Civic Association, headed by the president, Edward Pipenbring, in the wee sma’ hours of Thanksgiving morning. And the lively bird got away from his pursuers at that by flying over the cemetery fence.

Mrs. Pipenbring, the good wife of the president of the G.C.A., had just put the finishing touches to a fine $8 turkey intended for the family dinner on Thursday when her phone bell rang.

The cheery voice of Friend Husband announced with glee that he was the lucky winner of a real live turkey at the rooms of the G.C.A. He suggested to his wife that she take the large, juicy turkey that she had prepared for the oven around to a church euchre and offer it as a special prize.

Mrs. Pipenbring carried out her husband’s idea and lugged the turkey around to the hall, much to the delight of a lady who won ten games out of a possible ten.

Mr. Pipenbring grabbed the live “turk” by the legs and started a triumphal march homeward, trying to look like a lithograph of a Pilgrim Father. When they got to Village rd., where the old Gravesend Cemetery is located, a bad spot in the street caused “Ed” to stumble. The bird took a mean advantage, freed himself and scooted into the cemetery. Then the merry chase began, the like of which Gravesend has not seen in a few hundred years. In and out among the old gravestones dodged the turkey, with “Ed” calling to him.

“Safety first” seemed to be the bird’s motto, and finally he flew over the high picket fence and disappeared into the shadows. The hunters gave it up and went their ways.

Mr. Pipenbring was up bright and early and bought another bird for $7. With the $8 bird he gave away, the $7 one he ate and the $1.20 he paid at the raffle for the turkey that got away[,] his Thanksgiving dinner was a bit expensive. He is hoping some one may find his prize bird and return it in time for Sunday’s dinner.

In the early years of the 20th century, the Gravesend Cemetery was enclosed by a low picket fence (perfect for hopping by escaping turkeys), which is just visible in this 1905 view looking west towards Van Sicklen Street. The large house at center, one of several belonging to the Lake family, stood where Corso Court is today.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Which farmhouse was it? And what’s it got to do with Bob Hope? Funny you should ask….

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

In honor of the 70th anniversary of its creation this month, I hung a mystery painting above my bed. It doesn’t look terribly mysterious, and I’m sure those of you with a trained eye might say it isn’t even a very skillful picture. It shows a pleasant if somewhat lopsided wood-framed house set snugly amidst a riot of blooming shrubs. An empty stool beside a small basket near the stoop suggests the occupant has slipped inside to escape the summer heat. We can almost hear cicadas droning from the shady trees behind the house.

“Neck Road Farm House, Brooklyn, N.Y., painted by Louis Saphier, July 1942″ (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

The painting and its maker are identified on back: “neck road / farm house / Brooklyn / N.Y. / painted by / Louis Saphier / July 1942.” What makes it so mysterious? Try as I might — and believe me, I’ve tried — I cannot discover where this house stood.

In 1945, just three years after Saphier painted this farmhouse of clearly Dutch-American design – instantly recognizable by its ski-sloped roof overhanging the front porch — the historian Maud Esther Dilliard published Old Dutch Houses of Brooklyn, a survey of the borough’s surviving structures in that distinctive style. As she lamented,

It was not so long ago that many of [the] houses [of Brooklyn's original settlers], and the houses of their children and grandchildren, were standing, but modern business is causing these old buildings fast to disappear. In order that their early owners, the founders of Kings County, may not be forgotten in the hurly-burly of twentieth-century Brooklyn, I have written the stories of all the ancient dwellings which are now in existence — or were at the time their photographs were taken.

Dilliard recorded just four Dutch houses on Gravesend Neck Road:

  • No. 27: Van Sicklen House [Dilliard mistakenly calls this 17]
  • No. 110: Abraham Emans House
  • No. 424: Agnes Lake House [some sources give this as 420]
  • No. 1240: Voris-Shepard House [Dilliard mistakenly calls this 1040]

Only No. 27, the Van Sicklen House (better known as the Hicks-Platt or “Lady Moody” House), stands today. No. 110, the Abraham Emans (or Emmons) House, disappeared between 1945 and 1951, and the Voris-Shepard House, at 1240, was demolished for an apartment building by 1961. None of these had the same layout as Saphier’s farmhouse, but Agnes Lake’s, at 424 (or 420) Neck Road, which was replaced by 1956, came very close. It stood on the south side of the street, and its rear facade bore the correct profile — the three-bay-wide Dutch portion to the left, an addition to the right, and a chimney between — but we do not know if it had dormer windows. (Its north, or street, facade, was “Victorianized” around 1890 through the addition of the tower seen in this 1931 photograph.)

So which house did Saphier paint? Did it vanish between July 1942 and the publication of Dilliard’s book in 1945? Actually, the margin is even narrower: Dilliard published a serialized version of her text in Long Island Forum between November 1943 and March 1945. The structures she covered in both journal and book are the same, so the building Saphier painted, if indeed it was an undocumented Dutch farmhouse on Gravesend Neck Road, would have disappeared in the sixteen months between July 1942 and November 1943, when Dilliard began her series.

From at least 1925 until his death in 1954, Saphier lived at 1544 East 17th Street, between Avenues O and P. Assuming he traveled south down East 17th Street that day back in July 1942, one wonders which direction he turned upon reaching Neck Road. In the 1920s Eugene L. Armbruster photographed practically every Dutch farmhouse then standing in Brooklyn; combing through his shots along the length of Neck Road has not revealed an obvious candidate for the one Saphier captured. The 1939-1941 tax photographs at the New York City Department of Records and Information Services (a.k.a. the Municipal Archives) might include the house closer to the period Saphier painted it, but searching them will have to wait until I find the time or the Municipal Archives digitizes the series, whichever comes first. Maybe Saphier simply painted from memory a long-vanished house he recalled from his walks. Who knows?

The artist himself, while not completely unknown, is not terribly well documented either. Incidentally, his son, James L. Saphier (1907-1974), was for nearly forty years Bob Hope’s business agent. In 1945 the elder Saphier did a lifelike portrait of Hope which sold at auction a few years back for $20,800.

Perhaps from its presence above my bed at night Saphier’s farmhouse painting will seep into my dreams and subconsciously supply the location of this lost corner of Gravesend.

Louis J. Saphier (1875-1954), portrait of Bob Hope, 1945.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Filed under art, Bob Hope, Families, Hicks family, Louis Saphier, Maud Esther Dilliard, Van Sicklen family

Maurice Sendak, Gravesend’s Own

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

The recent death of iconic children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak (10 June 1928 – 8 May 2012), perhaps best known for his 1963 Where the Wild Things Are, reminded us that he was a native Brooklynite. Folks recalled that their parents attended the same schools Sendak did. Michael C. Marmer went one step better and produced a block print by Sendak that accompanied an essay his mother, Ruth (Luberoff) Marmer, composed for a Lafayette High School publication around 1947. The Bensonhurst Bean: Bensonhurst’s Premier News Blog speculated that the image — of a seated, emotionally drained man holding a hand to his forehead and in his lap a crumpled newspaper with the headline “WAR ENDS” — might possibly have been Sendak’s earliest published work. (Be sure to read Marmer’s touching story detailing his search for a copy of his mother’s essay.)

But Sendak illustrated another school publication at least four years before the one for Lafayette: his work appeared on the cover of the June 1943 Boody Beacon, the yearbook of David A. Boody Junior High School at 228 Avenue S in Gravesend. Where the Lafayette illustration depicts a man worn down by war, the Boody image shows a younger, confident figure progressing from farmer to riveter to soldier.

Cover of the Boody Beacon, June 1943, signed at lower right: “Maurice Sendak 9B1.”

Sendak graduated from Boody in class 9B1. His photo is on page 28 of the Beacon, where he stands in the third row from the top, second from left.

Detail of page 28 of the Boody Beacon, June 1943, showing Maurice Sendak, third row from top, second from left.

Incidentally, for those who insist on claiming Maurice Sendak as a son of Bensonhurst, we present the following page from the 1940 U.S. federal census, which shows the Sendak family (on lines 20 through 24) — parents Philip and Sadie with their children Nettie, Jack, and eleven-year-old “Morris” — living at 1717 West 6th Street, between Quentin Road and Kings Highway. That’s right smack in the middle of Gravesend.

1940 U.S. census showing “Morris” Sendak (line 24) living at 1717 West 6th Street, Gravesend, Brooklyn, New York.

(The prior federal census, 1930, shows the Sendaks at 408 Montauk Avenue in East New York. That’s  definitely not Bensonhurst!)

 By April 26, 1942, when Sendak’s father, Philip, filled out his World War II draft registration card, the family had moved to 1518 West 4th Street, between Avenues O and P, still within walking distance of Boody.

World War II draft registration for Philip Sendak, father of Maurice.

Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Christmas Dream

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

This card — which I am taking the liberty of appropriating to send you with my best wishes — was painted for Christmas, 1893, by the artist Charles William Bauhan (ca. 1861-1938), who was living then in Gravesend, hence the compound of “Gravesend” and “Dream” along the left side of the card: “GRAVESENDream of ’93.” The vignettes include a smaller version of his watercolor of Homer Wiltse tending his garden (upper left; the original is reproduced on the title page of Then & Now: Gravesend, Brooklyn); a side view of the Lady Moody House with the Reformed Dutch Church beyond (to the right of the woman leaning out of the window, who was probably his wife, Agda, also an artist); a view of the Wiltse House at 15-17 Gravesend Neck Road (below the previous image); and a view looking east on Neck Road to the Gravesend Town Hall (lower right). The toddler playing on the steps just above the ’93 (who is also depicted as an infant in his cradle between the words “Merry” and “Christmas”) was probably the artist’s son, the noted Princeton architect Rolf W. Bauhan (1892-1966).

Charles W. Bauhan, painted Christmas card, 1893. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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Thanksgiving Basket for Old Saar

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

“On the way to the Cedars at Sheepshead Bay, N.Y.” Card postmarked Brooklyn, November 12, 1909. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

During the early years of the 20th century, the poet-historian Gertrude Ryder Bennett (1901-1982), who lived her entire life in the landmarked Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (built around 1766, it stands proudly at 1669 East 22nd Street), went with her parents one Thanksgiving to deliver a charitable wagon-load of food and winter supplies to “Old Saar,” a woman thought to be a surviving Canarsie Indian. Old Saar was supposedly over 100 years old and lived in a dirt-floored shack in the section of Gravesend Neck called “Hog Point Cedars,” or sometimes just “the Cedars,” located in the marshy reaches east of Sheepshead Bay near Plumb Beach/Gerritsen Beach. Here is Gertrude’s poignant remembrance of that long-ago day. (FYI: “the cove” = Sheepshead Bay.)

Thanksgiving Basket

My parents took me with them when they drove

To Hog Point Cedars. Long ago that name

Sank to oblivion. Beside the cove

Our Blackie jogged. We knocked and Old Saar came

To ask us in her weather-beaten shack,

Her long, white hair in braids, her placid face

Like my dried apple doll. Her eyes were black

And keen. One single window pane. The place

Had only earth for floor. Her feet were bare

Although, across the dunes, the wind blew cold.

I had been told she always had lived there,

That no one knew her age, she was so old.

She wore a wrapper, with a brilliant stripe,

Of summer weight, and smoked a corn-cob pipe.

—————–

She spoke to me through wrinkled lips. Her hand

Caressed my hair. My parents brought the food

Out of the carriage and I watched her stand

Bright eyed. “My son’s out back. He’s choppin’ wood,”

She said, “and he’ll be eighty come next year.

He’s just been clammin’.” Then she proudly chose

The best to share with us while I could hear

Ax upon driftwood. When the inlet froze,

They would have staple food that bleak November.

“Canarsie Indians,” folk said. They were

The last. Though long ago, I still remember

A certain air of mystery in her,

Her walk, slow but erect, kindness to me,

And childish wonder at her dignity.

[From the chapter "Basket for Old Saar" in Turning Back the Clock in Gravesend: Background of the Wyckoff-Bennett Homestead (Francestown, N.H.: Marshall Jones Company, 1982), 25-26.]

Despite the caption on this image from F.A. Busing’s Brooklyn Landmarks Calendar for 1902, “The Cedars” was located between Sheepshead Bay and Gerritsen Beach, in the eastern part of town, not at Gravesend Beach, in the western part of town. (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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A soggy day in Gravesend town

P.L. Speer, “Street Crossing Avenue Y at E. 11 St. Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, after Sunday Downpour.” (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

No, these Sheepshead Bay ladies aren’t cooling their heels in the surf. They are wading across the flooded intersection of Avenue Y and East 11th Street after a violent thunderstorm soaked the region on Sunday, July 9, 1933. The view is looking northwest (the frame house behind the tree is 2472 East 11th Street), with the ladies standing in the middle of Avenue Y, just two blocks west from where Squan Creek, a wiggly tributary of Coney Island Creek, once flowed freely through the grass. The early years of the twentieth century brought such drastic development to marshy southern Brooklyn that its newly asphalt-covered landscape could not cope with such sudden downpours. Let’s hope that in the 78 years since this photo was taken the sewers in our low-lying neighborhoods will be better equipped to drain off the rains of Hurricane Irene come Sunday.

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

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