West South Midwood Chronicles, Part 11

Richard Dutton and West South Midwood

Richard Dutton Article
Back in the Fall of 1988, having just recently fled the rapidly upscaling Park Slope, we were welcomed to the neighborhood by Melanie Oeser who left us a goodie bag with an old copy of the Flatbush Development Corporation newsletter.  On page 10 was a list of phone numbers for representatives from each neighborhood association (the West Midwood contact was Mike Weiss and his phone is the same number at which I contacted him a couple of weeks ago, proving that some things DO remain the same in these parts).  Above the list was an old photo of the church across the street from our house.  And next to the photo was an interesting article written about the early history of West Midwood which I don't recall reading at the time, but I must have liked it because I tore that page out and stuck it in a book about the 1986 Mets...from whence it surprisingly tumbled out two weeks ago as I looked up some stats during the Cubs epic run to the World Series title.  I was struck by the fact the article referenced the original name for our neighborhood, West South Midwood.  If only I had chanced upon it in 2014, when I first started seriously researching our history!  I wasted a lot of time then trying to figure out why Kensington, Parkville and the folks around Washington Cemetery were calling themselves West Midwood from 1910 through the 1950s (more on that time wastage here).  

The article also listed some of our first inhabitants (much like my 1910 census recreation here) and identified John R. Corbin and Thomas Benton Ackerson as the builders of most of our homes, a project I have been working on for months.  I did some research and discovered that the South Midwood resident who penned the piece, Richard Dutton, had also authored a wonderful book, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Postcards, 1905-1907

One of the featured postcards from 1905 I previously posted here after finding it in another online source. And this is what the original post card looked like, with Richard's informative description:

From Page 110 of Richard L. Dutton's Book

Another card showed the corner of the block in South Midwood where Richard settled with his family after returning to Flatbush in the 1980s. The Dutton family lived there until 1991 when life took them across the Hudson to other environs:
After some further sleuthing involving secret decoder rings and such, I tracked Richard down in an Ocean County retirement community where his hectic Wall Street law firm days are a rapidly fading memory.  But not so his beloved Brooklyn.  It was back in 1986 that Richard recalls writing that fact-filled profile of West Midwood, one of a series of such chronicles.  

An Aubrey W. Dutton Cartoon from 1947
How did a Yale Law School trust and wills attorney become a Flatbush history buff, amassing an award-winning collection of books on old Brooklyn along the way?  Richard grew up on Avenue K near East 35th Street in what is technically called Flatlands ("we all called it Flatbush back then") and attended Midwood High.  However his dad, Aubrey Whiteley Dutton, originally lived on East 10th Street near Avenue J and worshiped at the Wells Memorial Presbyterian Church at the corner of Argyle and Glenwood.  A Pratt Institute graduate who became an artist and cartoonist, it was Aubrey, a cheerful denizen of Flatbush from 1916 until just before
his passing in 1997, who instilled in his son a love for the old houses of Victorian Flatbush and an interest in the history of the "borough of churches."
This led to their collecting the old Brooklyn Eagle post cards. Although Richard has all 486 black and white cards issued by The Eagle, the book contains only the 200 most interesting.  "Many of the post cards have no specific locale other than 'a bridge in Prospect Park' or performers in various Brooklyn stage dramas, battleships of the time, and so forth.  Not as fact-filled or as interesting, so I don't think there will ever be a Volume II." The book was published in 2004 and remains in print (available here or here for 20 bucks) and Richard's loving description of walks with his dad is worth the price of the book alone.  Here is his 1986 piece for the FDC:     

By Richard Dutton
This first installment on the development and history of the individual Flatbush neighborhoods will be devoted to West Midwood, an area about which very little, if anything, has previously been written. West Midwood is the name now applied to the area bordered by Foster Avenue on the north, Avenue H on the south, the Brighton subway line on the east and Coney Island Avenue on the west. For generations, this entire tract had been part of the Lott family farm, which extended all the way from Flatbush Avenue west to Coney Island Avenue. In 1899, the farm was sold to the Germania Real Estate and Improvement Company, which began to develop it almost immediately, starting from the east and creating, home by home and block by block, the community between Ocean and Bedford Avenues called South Midwood (thus, West Midwood was at one time called "West South Midwood"). Germania stopped its building at Ocean Avenue, however, and sold its unimproved land west of there to other builders. West Midwood was therefore built by three other companies: the T.B. Ackerson Company built the massive, two-family houses with front porches both above and below that lined Westminster Road in 1905 and 1906, the E.R. Strong Company built all of the houses on Marlborough Court and several similar houses that border Foster Avenue at Rugby Road in 1913 and 1914, and, with only a few exceptions, all of the rest of the houses in West Midwood were built by the John R. Corbin Company, in a piecemeal fashion between 1904 and 1908.

John R. Corbin, the Trump or Levitt of his day, was a pioneer in assemblyline construction, and a quick comparison of the houses along the longest uninterrupted block that he built in West Midwood, Argyle Road between Glenwood Road and Avenue H, will show that most of them are variations on just a few basic types. The Corbin houses were constructed entirely in wood, generally stand on 40 x 100 lots-small for Flatbush-and typically have porches across the front 'of the first floor that do not extend around the side and either one bay or no bay on the second floor. Although they seem modest when compared with their larger neighbors in Fiske Terrace or even Midwood Park (which, coincidentally, Corbin built immediately after West Midwood), they all originally had attractive interior wood details like pier mirrors, mantels, pocket doors, wainscoting and parquet floors, and their original owners, while generally not as wealthy as their neighbors in communities like Prospect Park South and Ditmas Park, were certainly "solid citizens".

Their surnames represent a cross-section of the American middle class at the time: along with descendants of the old Dutch families like Ten Broeck, Lefferts, Schenck, and Hegeman, we find residents with Anglo-Saxon names like Hopper, Skinner, Hammond and Hutton, Irish names like Behan, Lennon and O'Reilly, and German names like Wegemann, Weinmuller and Dinkelspiel. On Argyle Road between Glenwood Road and Avenue H, the homeowners listed in Upington's General Directory of Brooklyn 1910 included a number of individuals described as "buyer," "agent," "salesman," "manager" or "commercial traveler," as well as a boat captain (Allan H. Thompson, at No. 739), a musician (Jacob Schloeder, at No. 765), a reporter (Thomas Kenny, at No. 760), a grocer (Joseph Sasso, at No. 752), a lawyer (Theodore B. Chancellor, at No. 732), a civil engineer (William G. Gove, at No. 731) and other individuals who listed their professions as "watches" (Frederick W.C. Nieberg, at No. 783) and "blank books" (Devan Bloodgood, at No. 735). The local elementary school was the newly-built P.S. 152, which was a long walk across the footbridge and down Glenwood Road to East 23rd Street, but not too far for boys and girls to come home for lunch. Although the local public high school, Erasmus Hall, was at that time one of the finest in the country, it was common for West Midwood residents to send their children to private schools like Packer, Berkeley and Poly Prep, and from there to prestigious colleges.

BREAKING NEWS...The Cut: Circumferential Light Rail or A Suspended Tram?

In May of 2008 I posted a map of the proposed Cross-Harbor Tunnel Project, which is presently undergoing feasibility reviews, and a map of what the MTA suggested could be a very long-term capital project to build a circumferential subway line following the same route.  

The Circumferential Line Suggested by the MTA in 2008

The Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel Suggested in 2005

What both proposals had in common was the track bed forming the southern border of our neighborhood presently used by the LIRR to run an average of one freight train a day from Queens to the Bay Ridge Army Terminal at the foot of 65th Street. The MTA has not uttered another word about its 2008 idea and the Cross Harbor Tunnel is another 10 years away, were it to ever be approved.  Readers in 2008 will no doubt remember, if they have perfect recall, that I was very much enamored with the idea of a new subway line that would link with the airports and all other subway lines, allowing five million folks in Brooklyn and Queens to get around without having to (UGH!) traverse Manhattan.

Imagine my surprise then to suddenly read today that two of the largest and most prestigious architectural firms in America agree with me!  Crains New York reached out to a number of firms engaged in large scale urban planning enterprises and asked them for proposals that would address New York's growing population, expected to reach 9 million souls within the next eight years. The resulting article (you can read it here) led with the ideas of two firms that both addressed THE CUT.    

First, GENSLER of San Francisco, which for five years has ranked as the top grossing architectural firm in the U.S., proposed converting the Cut into a light rail line.  And to illustrate their proposal they used the stretch along Avenue H at the intersection of the Brighton line with the LIRR freight line!  In the GENSLER mock-up, here's what that stretch looks like now (slightly idealized):

Avenue H Station In Distance Crosses Above the LIRR Cut (GENSLER View)

 And here's what it ACTUALLY looks like:
Ave H Station of the Brighton Line Crosses Over the LIRR Cut

And here's what it would look like in the near future were their idea to be implemented (heavily idealized!):

Note the Avenue H Light Rail Station on the Left

According to GENSLER, this high-powered, multimodal, 15-mile light rail line from Jackson Heights to the Brooklyn Army Terminal would simply require "repurposing existing freight lines. By leveraging current infrastructure to support emergent commercial activity, the below-grade transportation corridor would effectively create new land to develop. The key is getting the tracks’ owner,
the Long Island Rail Road, to share them."
Oliver Schaper, GENSLER director of planning and urban design said: “All the track you need for this project already exists. Economics wouldn’t be an obstacle.”

Not to be outdone, New York's own FXFOWLE ARCHITECTS took a look around and decided the same cut should be used to create a circumferential SUSPENDED TRAM line that would pass through every borough, even wandering over to New Jersey for a ways.

Does This Map Look Familiar? (FXFOWLER)

The Overhead Tram (In NJ?) (FXFOWLER)

Says Crains: "FXFOWLE has devised an ambitious plan to create an entirely new transit system: a suspended tram that would encircle the city, connecting the five boroughs and the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The 57-mile 'halo line' would pass over several bodies of water by running along existing infrastructure, including the George Washington, Bayonne and Verrazano bridges. The tram’s construction would be less disruptive than subway expansions and provide a mode of transportation that is operable in the event of widespread flooding, which is becoming increasingly likely. Crucially, it would provide new routes to LaGuardia Airport, Hunts Point Market and other hubs and spur development in far-flung areas such as St. George, Flatbush and East New York. The system would be within a half-mile of 1.7 million residents." Jack Robbins, a major domo at FXFOWLE, feels this investment in transportation infrastructure would really spur growth and development.

Hard to believe but there you have it. So now we have multiple independent sources, private and public, urging new expanded use of the Cut.  Of course, this renewed interest in a man-made gash in the Earth, winding for 15 miles through Brooklyn and Queens, brings to mind some ancient proposals that never went anywhere. In the 1950s, there was a plan to use the Cut as part of a new "Cross-Brooklyn Expressway", an eight-lane highway connecting the Gowanus and Nassau Expressways (GULP!). Then in the 1960s Mayor Lindsay's planners suggested the Cut be covered, with a highway below, a commuter line above, and residential/commercial development everywhere else (DOUBLE GULP!) to form a new "Linear City." Ironically, master planner Robert Moses opposed Lindsay's idea because he thought the commuter line (almost an after-thought in the grand scheme) might discourage automobile traffic.

But at some point there has to be a dawning realization that a barely utilized rail-bed running through one of the most densely populated urban areas in the country, which intersects with a dozen subways, just might be the answer to a number of growing transportation needs.