Category Archives: Louis Saphier

Breaking News! A Gravesend Mystery Solved at Last!

“Neck Road Farm House, Brooklyn, N.Y., painted by Louis Saphier, July 1942” [Collection of Joseph Ditta]

In 2012 I wrote about a painting by Louis J. Saphier (1875-1954), which he labeled, simply, “neck road farm house Brooklyn N.Y. July 1942.” When Saphier painted this Dutch-style house, there were just four of them left along the two-mile stretch of Gravesend Neck Road:

  • No. 27: the Lady Moody-Van Sicklen, or Hicks-Platt House (the only one still standing, and, incidentally, currently for sale!)
  • No. 110: the Abraham Emmons House (demolished between 1945 and 1951)
  • No. 420 (a.k.a. 424): the Agnes Lake House (demolished between 1951 and 1956)
  • No. 1240: the Voris-Shepard House (demolished between 1945 and 1961)
The Agnes Lake House, 424 Gravesend Neck Road from Maud Esther Dilliard's Old Dutch Houses of Brooklyn (1945).

The “Victorianzied” street-facing facade of the Agnes Lake House, 420 [or 424] Gravesend Neck Road, from Maud Esther Dilliard’s Old Dutch Houses of Brooklyn (1945).

Of the four, only the Agnes Lake House — named for the lady who occupied it from birth (about 1843) to death (1932) — bore the same dimensions as the house Saphier painted: a three-bay-wide Dutch portion linked to a lower wing, with a chimney between the two. The difficulty in claiming Saphier had indeed painted the Lake House was that I had only ever seen photographs of its north, or street-facing façade, which had been modernized in the 1890s by the addition of a towered dormer. I could find no view of the rear, or south-facing side of the house for comparison. Until now.

Agnes.Lake.House

Undated view (probably 1920s) by Eugene L. Armbruster of the rear facade of the Agnes Lake House, 420 [or 424] Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn. [Collection of the New-York Historical Society.]

The New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) continually digitizes and makes available online its unequaled collection of photographs, including the thousands of images taken by Eugene L. Armbruster (1865-1943), who captured practically every Dutch farmhouse standing in Brooklyn during the 1920s. He shot the Agnes Lake House several times, but while he was good about captioning his prints, he was less thorough with his negatives. N-YHS has scanned these too, and among them, a friend who is obsessed with Brooklyn’s Dutch past (to the degree he bought and restored this Gravesend house) stumbled across one with the supplied title of “back garden of unidentified Dutch-style house in winter, undated.” There is, however, a telling detail which immediately identifies this as the Agnes Lake House: just next to the chimney of the small wing, poking above the roof line, one can see that unmistakable Victorian turret (circled in red on the image below). Compare, too, the shape and position of the dormer windows in the photograph with those in Saphier’s painting (outlined in blue, along with the chimney, on the images below). They match. So do the door, windows, and porch of the main wing.

I feel confident, then, in stating that Louis Saphier’s “neck road farm house” of July 1942 was, in fact, the Agnes Lake House, which stood at 420 (or 424; the number wavered) Gravesend Neck Road between East 4th and 5th Streets. In her book Old Dutch Houses of Brooklyn, historian Maud Esther Dilliard placed its construction around 1832. Other sources suggest it was built as early as 1812. It seems to have disappeared sometime between 1951 — it is just visible in a blurry aerial view photographed that year (accessible at this link by clicking on “Map Type” and selecting “1951 Aerial”) — and 1956/57, when it was replaced by the row of seven brick houses currently standing at 410-424 Gravesend Neck Road. They were ready for occupancy on April 26, 1957.

Neck.Road.replacements.2012.June

The houses that replaced the Agnes Lake House at 410-424 Gravesend Neck Road as they appeared in June 2012. Courtesy of Google Maps (https://goo.gl/maps/S7rrB).


Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Filed under Agnes Lake House, buildings, Gravesend Neck Road, Lake family, Louis Saphier, Maud Esther Dilliard

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