The West South Midwood Chronicles, Part Two

(The 2nd of 83 Parts)

Transportation When not being arrested, another irritant to the original home-owners here was transportation. Since automobiles were not in frequent use, almost everyone relied on the Brighton line of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit (BRT) Company to get around. Soon after the Brooklyn Grade Crossing Commission was created in 1903 by legislators in Albany, controversy hounded the BRT. First, and perhaps not surprisingly, it had opted to go with the lower-cost solution for eliminating grade crossings by building an elevated line through Victorian Flatbush rather than depress the railway below the surface. There is no evidence that Robert Moses was on their payroll at the time. 
1905: Brighton train at Ave H station. LIRR track spur far right.
The Ackerman sales office visible, left of the train.

The Commission, knowing politically influential people when it saw them pounding on their doors, then appointed a “Committee of 100”, largely consisting of furious Flatbush homeowners between Newkirk and Church Avenues, to negotiate a solution. Our northerly neighbors thankfully browbeat the BRT into depressing the Brighton line or cars would now be zooming under a Glenwood Road overpass at warp speed. In return, an easement of one foot by all adjoining property owners was agreed to, allowing the company to create a containment wall and expand the track bed from two to four rails, while creating express stops at Church and Newkirk Avenues.
1906 grade crossing work before Bay Ridge LIRR spur was depressed.

In 1899, the Brighton line was electrified via overhead power lines, just like the street trolleys that had become so popular all over Brooklyn. But the LIRR excursion line, which branched off southwesterly at Fiske Terrace near East 17th and 18th Streets - and then paralleled the Brighton line on its own tracks to the gaudy Manhattan Beach Hotel - was still powered by steam locomotives. As part of the Grade Crossing project, the BRT and LIRR were ordered to share their track beds and the earth excavated to form the BRT and LIRR cuts was dumped south of Avenue H to form the embankment still in place all the way to Sheepshead Bay. 
2010: Neck Rd LIRR station stairway remains
but station is gone. Brighton station on left.
1910: Neck Rd LIRR station. Brighton station on far left

Long after third rails had replaced overhead trolley wires on the Brighton line, the LIRR continued to run steam locomotives both south and east of Avenue H, prompting constant complaints to the Public Service Commission from sleep-deprived residents of our neighborhood. An October 1924 news article reported that West South Midwood's pleas had been heard and the LIRR was ordered to electrify. Rather than bear that expense, the LIRR ceased operations shortly thereafter on its Manhattan Beach line. Today the only remnants can be found in some old concrete blocks near Avenue I, a staircase to nowhere at the Neck Road station and an odd series of LIRR easements near Avenue V inherited by the MTA which were bequeathed to homeowners in 2011. An aerial photo of Brooklyn in 1924 shows the empty land where the Manhattan Beach spur cut across what became E. 17th and E. 16th Streets, north of Avenue I.
1924 Aerial Photo of West South Midwood - Red star is Avenue H at Rugby Road. Note the empty land at lower right where the LIRR Manhattan Beach spur ran through E. 18th and E. 17th Streets and then ran parallel to Brighton line.

Despite the great success of the completed Brighton line, in June of 1908, Joseph Clapham of 716 Rugby Road, along with the Flatbush Taxpayers Association, complained to the Public Service Commission that since service had been extended to Coney Island, express trains were no longer stopping at Newkirk and Church Avenues. Hmmm. Sounds like some serious payback by the BRT to the Committee of 100 trouble-makers! The Commission ordered the company to resume its express stops forthwith. Ten years later, a number of West South Midwoodians were among 93 souls who perished on a BRT express train speeding recklessly into the curve at the beginning of what is now the Franklin Avenue Shuttle, just outside the Prospect Park station. As a result, the BRT went bankrupt and the Brooklyn Manhattan Transit Company (BMT) was born. See for more on the Malbone Street Wreck if you could possibly stand the excitement.

1912 BRT Map. Parkside Ave was called "Woodside Ave" and F line Ave I stop was called "Parkville".

The Bay Ridge LIRR spur passing over Brighton road bed near Avenue H
Foot of  East 17th St. at south side of LIRR cut today.

Stairs and ramp to LIRR cut at E. 18th St.
Manhattan Beach RR branched off here at East 17th Street

E. 18th St. at south side of LIRR cut today.

Transportation issues emerged again at the Fall 1924 meeting of the West South Midwood Property Owners League when the director of the BMT was requested to provide new exits at Newkirk and Foster Avenues to ease congestion on the single stairway that descended from a token booth in the middle of Newkirk Plaza. The request was denied despite the fact that Plaza store-owners claimed 25,000 persons passed their shops each day.

Newkirk Plaza, East Side, looking North from Brighton RR entrance toward Newkirk Avenue (Brooklyn Historical Society).
Again, in May 1929 “a hundred members of West-South Midwood” (apparently 100 was still the magic number to get transit officials' attention) crowded into the church on Argyle to demand the BMT build another exit at the over-crowded Newkirk Avenue station. But the BMT claimed the lone existing eight foot stairway had a maximum capacity of 9,600 strap-hangers an hour and they counted only a measly 5,356 citizens descending the stairs between 7am and 10am and 5,036 ascending the staircase between 4pm and 7pm. Let us all stop and give thanks that we never had to use that single stairway!

Newkirk Plaza, East Side, looking South toward Foster Avenue (Brooklyn Historical Society).
The Westminster Wash-Gate Scandal In early 1922 the owner of 790 Westminster Road, Edgar H. Pennypacker, removed the peaked roof of his Ackerson house and started to make other changes to convert it from a two family to a three family dwelling. Pennypacker told his neighbor, Charles H. Merritt of 785 Westminster Road, who was also treasurer of the Westminster-Marlborough Property Owners League, that he was merely “making a sleeping porch” on the third floor. HaHaHa! After many complaints, Pennypacker agreed to restore the peaked roof but when he then installed dormer windows that projected out to the porch line, Merritt and the League filed suit in Kings County Supreme Court and an injunction was issued to prevent “the injection of a harsh note into the architectural beauty of the neighborhood”.

Former Pennypacker Home at 790 Westminster.
In November 1922 matters escalated to a level so petty, the Eagle placed its coverage of the League's Fall meeting on its front page: amidst news of murders, labor unrest, and the flight of the Turkish Sultan from Constantinople, the headline shouted: “Family Wash On Front Porch Shocks Flatbush – Westminster-Marlborough League Holds Indignation Meeting and Scores Mrs. Pennypacker”.

The key quote emanated from the lips of Charles Merritt, who asked the League: “Can nothing be done to stop Mrs. Pennypacker from hanging her wash on the front porch?”. Sort of recalls Henry II asking if no one would rid him of the troublesome Thomas Becket. In her defense, Mrs. Pennypacker told the reporter she had to put her wash on the front porch because her back yard was full of the building material that lay scattered about since that darned injunction.
Westminster Road Today

Clearly this was a story that had legs. The next day another piece appeared quoting indignant residents, including Mrs. David Plough of 781 Westminster Road. Plough “was greatly mortified...when she entertained a friend at a luncheon” only to have her guest be confronted by the sight of “the wash of a family of three people, consisting largely of underwear hanging out on Mrs. Pennypacker's front porch.”
Former Home of Mrs. Plough at 781 Westminster.

Former Home of Charles Merritt at 785 Westminster.
More telling was Mrs. Pennypacker's accusation that many of the other owners on Westminster Road were housing three families and one had four families. “Why didn't the neighbors come to us instead of going to court?” she lamented to The Eagle. “We did not know this block was restricted to two family houses for the next two decades. We bought our house two years ago and the family on the top floor was here when we arrived. There was nothing in the deed about this restriction.” She ended by adding that her neighbor, Mrs. Otto R. Friedman, and the second floor tenant of the League President, William Goodwin, both “hung out a wash on their front porches.”

Wells Memorial Presbyterian Church, Now Church of the Latter Day Saints, At Glenwood and Argyle Roads
Well, with the Westminster Wash-Gate scandal in full bloom, there was nothing left to do but change the name of the neighborhood association and elect a new president who didn't live on Westminster Road. Both of these events happened within weeks of the press coverage, but alas and alack, by January 1924, with the suit dragging on, the newly appointed League president, John C. Mahon of 730 Rugby Road, announced his disagreement with the policy against two and three family houses, feeling these conversions were necessary because of the housing shortage of the time and promptly resigned at the January meeting. At the next meeting in April 1924, after a stormy session, the League voted to withdraw the suit against Edgar Pennypacker, although his neighbor, treasurer Charles Merritt, announced with a trace of weariness “if anyone else wishes to carry the suit on, they may.”

Over a hundred newspaper ads were run by Pennypacker during the next 15 years for apartments at 790 Westminster, some referring to a “sunny room for a bachelor", presumably on the 3rd floor. Many of the ads specified Christian applicants were desired. Ironically, some of the noteworthy residents of the property following the Pennypackers were Jewish, including Meyer Berman, the founder of the M. Berman & Sons clothing firm, who died in the home in 1961.

Westminster-Marlborough Yields to West South Midwood Property Owners League The new name selected in late 1922 for our community association, the West South Midwood Property Owners League, remained in effect through at least early 1955. At that point The Brooklyn Eagle, whose reporters recorded many of the League's stormy meetings for posterity, ceased publication. Presumably, the League became moribund by the 1960s, as the new suburbs called. The emergence of the West Midwood Community Association, however, is a story for another day. But be sure to pay your dues.

Glenwood Road
Looking South Down Rugby Road
Resuming our chronology, the next president of the re-named League was Thomas J. Deegan of 760 Rugby Road. Deegan, a member of the Kings Highway Democratic Club, was a mover and shaker who restored order and pride to the neighborhood. In November 1924, he presided over the erection of 12 pillars at Rugby, Argyle and Westminster Roads where they intersected with Foster Avenue and Avenue H. Deegan made clear these were to be ornamental stanchions, placed between the sidewalk and the curb, and the total cost was estimated to be about $2,000.
An Argyle Road stanchion in Victorian Flatbush.

Dekoven Court
Apparently the pillars on Marlborough Road came some time later. Deegan also contracted for a plow to keep all of the streets and intersections clear of snow and lobbied the sanitation superintendent to do a better job collecting coal ashes that piled up on our streets in the Winter months.

Argyle Road driveway.
At the Fall 1926 meeting, Deegan championed the League's “planting of fresh trees and shrubbery wherever needed” and “decorating the ornamental pillars which mark the boundaries of the district”. At this same meeting, members denounced the poor mail delivery, “particularly at the end of Argyle Road”. This stood in stark contrast to a 1924 letter from the League to our US Congressman of yesteryear, urging that postal workers' salaries be increased to $2,400 per annum.

When Deegan passed away in 1932 at the age of 59 in his Rugby Road home, the New York Times obituary noted that he was “a member of the New York Produce Exchange and former president of the West South Midwood Property Owners' Association”.

Deegan was likely also responsible for the League's importing 10,000 tulips annually from Holland and planting them throughout the neighborhood to maintain its self-proclaimed reputation as “the garden spot of Brooklyn”. Sadly this practice appears to have fallen victim to the Depression. 
Tulips still bloom in Argyle Heights.

The more I read about Deegan, the more I wished I knew him. Like many other residents of West South Midwood before and after him, he was an immigrant. There will be more on the immigrant roots of our neighborhood in coming Chronicles, so for now, let's move on.

The Menace of Traffic By November 1929, with pharmaceutical importer Adrian Frederick Paradis of 758 Westminster Road serving as President, the League voted to petition the BMT to further depress the subway tracks from Foster Avenue to Avenue H so that traffic might pass over the cut. Thankfully, the BMT rejected the request but the following year the League discussed the erection of a bridge over the LIRR cut at Argyle Road.

Looking North on Brighton Line tracks toward Glenwood Road, from Avenue H platform more than 70 years ago. Florida? Is that you calling?
The bridge debate was presided over by H. Mart Smith of 783 Rugby Road, the next president of the League. Smith was also President of the Board of Trustees of Wells Memorial Church and helped burn their paid-up mortgage of $150,000 on 4/12/1929, a sure-fire photo-op the press did not miss. Smith presided over another press event in 1930 whereby residents were stationed along Rugby Road south of Foster Avenue to hand out circulars to truck drivers. At that time, Rugby was the only paved street between Ocean and Coney Island Avenues that ran uninterrupted to Sheepshead Bay. The handbill read in part: “The roadway on this street is only 33 feet wide and was not laid for heavy trucking...You will please detour to Coney Island Avenue three blocks west [which is] 70 feet wide and well paved from curb to curb...The residents of Rugby Road earnestly seek your co-operation in relieving us of the noisy and heavy traffic”. No fist-fights were reported.

West South Midwood: Same As It Ever Was?
Photos of our streets back in the 1930s showed few parked cars. Indeed, most lots contained garages, erected in the decade surrounding World War I. And alternate-side parking was still a distant dream of City revenue collectors. Yet, cars were now a big priority for West South Midwoodians, to judge from the League's suggestions for inclusion in Long Island's 10 Year Plan in 1931: 1) amend the existing law to allow owners of private garages on residential properties to rent all or part of those premises without paying a tax to the Firemen's Pension Fund; 2) immediate construction of a tunnel connecting Flatbush Avenue to the Rockaways; and 3) swift completion of “the Linden Boulevard”.
Looking South over Argyle Road stanchion from corner of Foster Avenue