Category Archives: Maud Esther Dilliard

The Fiery End of Gerritsen’s Mill

If I share this story you might think me guilty by association, especially since I’m Gravesend’s self-elected cheerleader, but the crime happened eighty years ago today, so I should be safe.

“Gerretsen’s [sic] Mill at Gravesend,” image from Charles Andrew Ditmas, Historic Homesteads of Kings County (1909).

When I began to research Gravesend history seriously about twenty-five years ago, I showed my late granduncle some book or other of old Brooklyn photographs. He was well over seventy then and enjoyed recalling the Brooklyn he moved to as a teenager from Manhattan, around 1932, with his parents, five brothers, and only sister (my grandmother). Thumbing through the pictures, he stopped at one of Gerritsen’s Mill, as rickety a building as ever there was. It stood on the west bank of the Strome Kill (Dutch for “storm creek”), also called Gerritsen’s Creek, the tidal inlet that formed a natural boundary between the historic towns of Flatlands and Gravesend. The creek survives in truncated form south of Avenue U in Marine Park, but the mill is gone.

Uncle Frank wore his bifocals oddly, with the tops tilted way forward. He lifted his head back to see me through the bottoms of his lenses and said, matter-of-fact, “You know, I burned that thing.” My jaw dropped.

When we think of the Netherlands we conjure up tulips and windmills. But the Dutch who settled western Long Island did not use windmills to grind grain. Instead they built dams across the tidal creeks that fringed the marshy coastline. As the tide flowed in the water level rose behind the dam. When the tide ebbed, the receding water forced the flood gates shut. The trapped reservoir, or mill pond, could then be channeled as needed over a paddle wheel to turn the gears and grindstones inside an adjacent mill.

Hugh Gerritsen owned land at the Strome Kill before 1645. But while it is believed that the Gerritsen clan first operated their tide mill that long ago, the first definite, historical reference we have to its existence is in the 1765 will of Johannes Gerritsen, who bequeathed it to his son, Samuel. Legend has it that during the Revolution, Samuel, rather than grind grain for the Hessians, submerged his millstones in the creek. Forced at bayonet point to retrieve them, he unwillingly served the enemy for the duration of the war.

The historians Charles Andrew Ditmas (1909) and Maud Esther Dilliard (1945) have detailed the genealogy of the Gerritsen property and its long-running mill, which fed Gravesend and the surrounding towns into the 1890s. It passed in 1899 to William C. Whitney, former United States Secretary of the Navy during Grover Cleveland’s first presidency (1885-1889). Whitney’s son, Harry Payne Whitney, trained racehorses on the grounds. The Coney Island Jockey Club’s track at Sheepshead Bay was quite near.

By the early twentieth century the abandoned mill had become a picturesque backdrop for the sightseers who posed for photos in front of it, and, sadly, a destination for souvenir hunters who took away pieces of history in the form of nails and bits of timber. When the City finally acquired the Gerritsen-Whitney property to create Marine Park in 1925, the mill was a wreck. Preservationists called it the oldest surviving tide mill in the country. “It is a sacrilege for our generation to allow this relic of Revolutionary days to crumble into ruin,” cried Gertrude Ryder Bennett to the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle on Wednesday, June 24, 1931.

The City listened. A fence went up around it to keep what remained of the mill intact. Plans were drawn — see “Gerritsen Mill, Old Landmark, To Be Rebuilt” in the Brooklyn Eagle, August 26, 1934 — and the exterior carefully restored. But then, on September 4, 1935 — tragedy. An early-morning fire destroyed the ancient building. The cause of the blaze was never determined. Some have speculated that it was set by a disgruntled employee of “master builder” Robert Moses.

The charred remains of Gerritsen's Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

The charred remains of Gerritsen’s Mill. Photograph from the Brooklyn Eagle, Wednesday, September 4, 1935, p. 13.

Do I believe my uncle really had a hand in it?  Who can say? He had no reason to invent such a tale. Back then, he was nineteen years old and had a bit of a wild streak in him. (When the family still lived in Manhattan, he was off one day on a bicycle ride. He got struck by a car and landed in the hospital. This happened just when they were poised to move to a new apartment on the opposite side of Thompson Street. No one knew where he was, so the move happened without him. Somehow, he got out of the hospital and made it home, only to find that home had left him behind.) He could very well have been in Marine Park, goofing off with friends in the tall, dry grass. A single spark from a match — flicked deliberately or not — would have been enough.

An abandoned grindstone, very likely from Gerritsen’s Mill, survives somewhere in the marshy reaches of Marine Park. And the mill’s foundation, along with the pilings that formed its dam, remain visible at low tide. These traces, and two relics — a hand-forged iron nail and a wooden peg — preserved by someone who picked them from the ruins and fixed them in a shadowbox, are all that is left of Brooklyn’s first industrial plant.

[Be sure to read Thomas Campanella’s haunting essay on this vanished landscape, “The Lost Creek.”]


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

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Filed under Charles Andrew Ditmas, Gerritsen family, Marine Park, Maud Esther Dilliard, racetracks, Sheepshead Bay

Save Lady Moody’s House!

Copyright © 2015 by Joseph Ditta (joseph.ditta@gmail.com)

On October 8, 2015, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will hold a public hearing to determine if the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — known as Lady Moody’s House — meets the criteria for landmark status. Despite what many locals believe, the house is not an official landmark. That means it is not protected by law, and could, conceivably, be torn down by some uncaring developer. (If you’d like to be its guardian, the house is currently for sale!) However, the house has been on the LPC’s radar since 1966, when it was “calendared.” That provides a modicum of protection in that any application for demolition should send up a red flag, spurring the LPC to action. But they’ve had half a century to decide. After the October hearing, a public meeting in early 2016 will determine the next step, which — fingers crossed — will hopefully lead to designation of this most iconic of Gravesend houses.

What follows is my open letter to Meenakshi Srinivasan, chair of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, urging her to act now. I beg you all to drop a line, however brief, to the LPC, by the October 1st deadline (whether or not you plan to attend the hearing), stating your support for the house. The more of us they hear from, the better. Take a look at the LPC’s informative fact sheet about the house (even I learned some things!), then write to backlog95@lpc.nyc.gov. I’d love to read your thoughts if you’d care to copy me (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com).

Oh, and don’t miss the gallery of wonderful images at the bottom of this post!


The Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured the Lady Moody House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

The Brooklyn Eagle featured the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House on the cover of its 1947 booklet of Gravesend history.

August 29, 2015

Meenakshi Srinivasan, Chair

New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission

1 Centre Street, 9th Floor, North

New York, NY 10007

Dear Commissioner Srinivasan:

Ask anyone in Gravesend, Brooklyn where Lady Moody lived. Invariably they’ll point to the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road, just next to Public School 95. How do they know she lived there? A teacher told them. Or their grandmother. And who was Lady Moody anyway? Oh, she helped George Washington escape the Redcoats through a tunnel running from her basement to the cemetery across the street. And during the Civil War she hid slaves in that tunnel on their way north to freedom.

None of this happened, of course: Deborah Moody died late in 1658, nearly seventy-five years before the birth of Washington, and over two centuries before the Civil War. The general public, knowing instinctively that Lady Moody bore some significance, but lacking specifics, attaches her — and the house at 27 Gravesend Neck Road — to the seminal events of American history.

The facts are these: Deborah Moody (ca. 1586-1658) was the wealthy, freethinking widow of a baronet. By 1639 she was in Puritan Massachusetts, where her Anabaptist leanings branded her “a dangerous woman.” To avoid censure she moved in 1643 to New Netherland, where she petitioned the tolerant Dutch to grant her and some followers a spot on western Long Island where they could worship as they pleased. They called their settlement Gravesend, the patent to which ensured they could enjoy “liberty of Conscience . . . without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate or . . . ecclesiastical minister that may pretend jurisdiction over them.”

Moody’s fellow patentee, the surveyor James Hubbard, designed the town’s central plan: a sixteen-acre square bounded by present-day Village Road North, Village Road East, Village Road South, and Van Sicklen Street, and cut into quadrants by the intersection of McDonald Avenue and Gravesend Neck Road. In each quadrant ten house lots bordered a common yard for holding livestock. Records show that in 1646 Lady Moody was assigned a double lot in the northwest quadrant, corresponding (in part) to the modern street address of 27 Gravesend Neck Road, Brooklyn (block 7123, lot 64).

Lady Moody must have built a house on her property between 1646 and 1658. Is the house standing there today the one she occupied? A structural evaluation conducted in 2005 by Robert Silman Associates, Consulting Engineers, suggests the present building incorporates three phases of construction: The part most visible — Phase 2 — is an eighteenth-century “random rubble [stone] building supporting hand-hewn wood floor beams and simple log beam roof trusses.” Phase 3 reflects the early twentieth-century changes made by then-owners William and Isabelle Platt, who excavated a full basement under the ground floor, added dormers to the roof, and stuccoed the exterior to conform with the prevailing Arts and Crafts aesthetic. But evidence of an earlier structure, one possibly dating from the seventeenth century, is visible in the basement, where there are four stone bearing walls, three of which support the current above-ground walls. The fourth lies buried beneath the main house and its rear extension. This “out-of-place” wall led Silman Associates to hypothesize that the Phase 2 house is a reconfiguration of an older building, a Phase 1 house that was enlarged in the 1700s.

This 1893 watercolor of an African-American laundress by Charles W. Bauhan --

This watercolor by Charles W. Bauhan  — “Wash-day. Gravesend L. I. Sep. 4 / [18]93.” — was painted looking east from a spot now in the schoolyard of P.S. 95. It captures the west gable end of the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House rising above the fence. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Was this Phase 1 house Lady Moody’s? Or was it built by one of the later seventeenth-century owners of her land? We may never know. But its expanded  form — the rubble-stone Phase 2 house — is probably the work of the Van Sicklen family, who came into possession of the property in 1702. Most eighteenth-century houses in sandy, coastal Gravesend were of wood-frame construction. Stone houses tended to be built near ridges, where appropriate-sized boulders were plentiful. To build a stone house at a location where rubble was scarce required significant manual labor, and the Van Sicklens, who, like most Dutch farmers of the period owned slaves, likely employed those slaves to transport rock to the site.

The Van Sicklen family occupied the house for the rest of the eighteenth century and through most of the nineteenth. Eventually it descended to Cornelia Van Sicklen, whose husband, Thomas Hicks, acquired it in 1842. (His carved initials survive on a ceiling beam near the eastern ground-floor fireplace of the house.) Hicks died in 1884, and his wife followed in 1893. The house sat vacant for a time, and then served briefly as meeting place for the fledgling Gravesend Methodist Episcopal Church in 1899. In 1904 the Hicks estate sold the house to William and Isabelle Platt, whose renovations resulted in a romanticized Dutch farmhouse set in a lush garden, which Mrs. Platt profiled in the June 1909 issue of Country Life in America. The Platts were the first to call this the “Lady Moody Homestead,” a name it has kept for more than a century.

By 1910 the Platts put the house up for sale (William Platt was a real estate speculator who was then involved in developments on Staten Island), and so began the perennial cries from preservationists and press that the Lady Moody House be rescued by the City or a civic group, or moved to Prospect Park or even to the grounds of the 1939 World’s Fair. Its fate seemed secure after it became a V.F.W. post in 1945, but that was a short-lived incarnation. The house reverted to private status, and was bought in 1955 by Nunzio Maisano, who covered the front in imitation stone veneer. Ironically, this facing hides the real thing. (It wouldn’t be too difficult to restore the house to the attractive state in which the Platts left it; the original door, removed by Maisano, survives in care of Eric J. Ierardi, president of the Gravesend Historical Society.)

Nunzio Maisano’s descendants held the house for nearly fifty years before selling it. Now it is on the market again, and time is running out. (Couldn’t the City acquire the house as a gift to the neighboring school for use as a meeting place or exhibition space? Both the Historic Districts Council and the New York Landmarks Conservancy have expressed interest in the house. Why not tap them for assistance and grants?)

The Landmarks Preservation Commission calendared the property in 1966, but a hearing that year did not result in designation. Nor did subsequent hearings in 1970 or 2004, due to owner opposition. But the Commission has designated other sites when faced with similar resistance (e.g., the Hendrick I. Lott House at 1940 East 36th Street in Brooklyn), and in cases where the fabric of a structure has been significantly altered (e.g., the asphalt-shingled Sandy Ground cottages at 565 and 569 Bloomingdale Road on Staten Island). And the recent designation of the Stonewall Inn, birthplace of the modern LGBT movement at 51-53 Christopher Street in Manhattan, illustrates that the Commission is cognizant of the historical associations of a building, even when its architectural integrity has been compromised.

Despite the changes it has weathered, the Lady Moody – Van Sicklen House remains the sole surviving eighteenth-century stone farmhouse in Brooklyn. It is one of two extant Dutch-American houses within the boundaries of the original Gravesend town square, where as late as the 1920s there were seven. It sits directly opposite the landmarked Van Sicklen Family Cemetery, which holds the remains of many generations who occupied the house. At the very least, it stands on the property of the remarkable Lady Deborah Moody, the first European woman to found a community in North America, a settlement chartered on the principle of religious freedom some hundred and thirty years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. I trust you will seize this opportunity to recognize publicly, formally, and legally, the significance of this site tied inextricably to the themes of Brooklyn history, Women’s history, American slavery, and religious freedom. Without landmark protection the house is doomed.

Thank you for your valuable time.

Sincerely,

Joseph Ditta

Author, Then & Now: Gravesend, Brooklyn (Arcadia Publishing, 2009)


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

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Filed under buildings, Charles William Bauhan, churches, Gilbert Hicks, Gravesend artists, Gravesend Cemetery, Gravesend Neck Road, Hicks family, Lady Moody House, Maud Esther Dilliard, Slavery, streets, Van Sicklen family

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