Category Archives: Van Sicklen family

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

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
  • 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.

UPDATE: The painting has since been positively identified as the Agnes Lake House; see this followup post.


Copyright © 2012 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Bob Hope, families, Gravesend artists, Hicks family, Louis Saphier, Maud Esther Dilliard, Van Sicklen family

Letter from Gravesend, 1855

Before 1843 letters destined for Gravesend, which had no post office, went instead to Flatbush, where any passing resident could collect his mail and any for his neighbors to deliver at leisure. Shopkeeper Martin Schoonmaker became the town’s first postmaster that year, and he served until 12 July 1854, when he was succeeded by 22-year-old fisherman Gilbert Hicks. Hicks, a son of Thomas and Cornelia (Van Sicklen) Hicks, was born at Norton’s Point (now Sea Gate), Coney Island, on 6 March 1832, but by the time of his appointment as postmaster, he was living with his family in the house now known as 27 Gravesend Neck Road–commonly called “Lady Moody’s House”–which his mother’s Van Sicklen ancestors had owned for generations. Eventually he moved to Flatbush, where he died in 1903.

In the letter below, dated 1 August 1855 and postmarked the following day, he wrote to his uncle Elias, who lived in Rockaway, then a part of the town of Hempstead, which belonged to Queens County until 1898. Note the use of his franking privilege as postmaster to send the letter free of charge.

Letter from Gilbert Hicks to Elias Hicks, postmarked Gravesend, 2 August 1855 (Collection of Joseph Ditta)

“Dr. Baisley” is probably Robert B. Baisley, a Rockaway physician born around 1819; he does not appear to have been appointed to the position discussed. And the “melancholy accident at Coney Island” refers to the drowning deaths of the Rev. John H. Elliot of Williamsburg(h) and his daughter, who were dragged down by the undertow while bathing near the Oceanic House on 25 July.

Gravesend Aug 1st 1855

Dear Uncle Elias

Mr. Samuel Hubbard of this village, who is one of the Superintendents of the Poor of Kings County wishes me to write to you for some information, which he thinks you can give him. He says that the new Lunatic Asylum at Flatbush is completed, and that at the next meeting of the Board of Superintendents they will most likely appoint a physician to take charge of it. There are several applicants for the appointment, and among them a Doctor Baisley of Rockaway. The Superintendents desire to appoint a capable and worthy physician: one well qualified to discharge the duties which would necessarily devolve upon him in the Institution.

Mr. Hubbard thinks it very probable that you are acquainted with Dr Baisley, and can furnish him with some information respecting him. Mr H. would be greatly obliged to you if you would write immediately (or as soon as you can possibly) and give him your opinion of Dr Baisley, and also state whether you think he would be a proper person for so responsible an appointment. It is worth a thousand dollars a year. Direct the letter to Mr Hubbard who will consider it strictly confidential.

We are all as well as usual. Fish are unusually scarce just now but bring a good price. Mother went to Aunt Fanny’s week before last. She found all the folks there well.

I supposed you have read the newspaper accounts of the melancholy accident at Coney Island. I am unable to add anything to those accounts. Had the proprietors of the bathing houses furnished their establishment[s] with boats, ropes &c as they should have done no lives would have been lost. Now, after the accident has occurred, they have got them. There are very few boarders at the boarding houses on the Island this season, and since the accident on the shore the bathing house has been but poorly patronised. People are afraid to venture into the water.

The farmers, here, are carrying their potaters to market as fast as they can get them out of the ground. They are worth from 4/6 to 5/6 per bushel. The wet weather if it continue[s] much longer, it is feared will set them rotting.

Uncle Elias we would be very happy to have you make us a visit. It is quite a long while since you were here last. If I can spare the time, I will try to make you a short visit next Fall. I would like dearly to visit Far Rockaway.

I have not received a letter from Uncle Isaac in a long while but I occasionally receive papers.

Give my best wishes to Uncle William, and to Potter.

Respectfully yours,

Gilbert Hicks


Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Coney Island, families, Hicks family, postal history, Van Sicklen family