The Stories Your House Could Tell: 725 Rugby Road

 725 Rugby Road: On the Road to Recovery

1940: 725 Rugby Road (Waldorf Court on Right)

On Tuesday morning, August 4th, Hurricane Isaias tore through West Midwood, upending trees and ripping countless limbs and branches from our stock of aging London Planes. A number of cars and properties were damaged, but the hardest hit was the house at the corner of Waldorf Court and Rugby Road which Walter and Marilyn Levin Cuff have called home for the past 40 years. Winds gusting over 80 mph toppled a tree across the street, which fell onto another, crashing it into their enclosed porch, ripping huge holes. Then, as the rain and wind ended, Walter took a terrible fall, injuring his hip, and wound up in Lutheran Hospital.


Now, as the holidays approach, the Cuffs and their home are mending, so we thought this might be a good time to take a look back...way back...

Sep 16, 1904: Brooklyn Eagle




In September 1904 John R. Corbin and his architect Benjamin Driesler filed with the Buildings Department plans for a house on an empty lot at the northern corner of Waldorf Court: “Two-story and attic frame dwelling. 24 x 33.4 ft, one family, shingle roof, steam heat, [estimated] cost $7,000.” In late April of 1905, the finished home, secured with a $4,000 mortgage, was sold to newlyweds Jane Ann Jack & Arthur Leslie Sims.

1910 Census Showing Sims at 725 Rugby Rd aka 725 E 14th St (Lines 55 to 60)

It was the second marriage for Jane & Arthur but, alas, how these widowed Brooklynites came to find each other, the historical record is blank. Arthur resided in a row house on Hancock Street in Bedford Stuyvesant with English immigrant parents and his two children, while Jane lived with her adopted son and Scottish mother in a brownstone on 9th Street off 7th Avenue. Jane’s father was James Jack, a prominent builder in Park Slope, who died in the same brownstone in 1902. But when Jane’s mother died in November 1909, the funeral was held at 725 Rugby Road.

1900: Seattle Times Stereotypers 

1910: Stereograph
As for Arthur Sims, he was a stereotyper for a dailynewspaper,creating reusable printing slabs. 
It was noisy, messy, time-sensitive work and Arthur was in the thick of it as a proud member of Stereotypers Union No. 1. Active in his Masonic Lodge, Arthur was also a veteran of the old volunteer fire service that served Brooklyn in the 1890s.


1913 Cadillac Roadster
 Apparently the Sims did   not want for money.   Arthur bought a Cadillac in 1913 for $1,800 (the equivalent of $47,000 today), one of the first cars to feature a crank-less electric starter. Meanwhile Jane Sims often entertained on Rugby Road and led the Ladies Guild of St. Simon’s Episcopal Church at Avenue K & E 11th Street. But in 1916 Arthur took ill and was no longer able to work. The Sims rented out their home and moved to an apartment on 8th Avenue in Park Slope where Arthur passed away in February of 1918. The twice widowed Jane went to work as a dry goods saleslady and eventually joined Arthur in the hereafter 13 years later (they are buried in Section 205 of Green-Wood Cemetery).


After the Sims departed, the house was rented to Harold Morton Halstead, a 35 year old building materials merchant, whose wife Florence gave birth to a baby girl in the home in April 1919. But within months the Halsteads had moved to another rental in Fiske Terrace. They were immediately replaced by Edward Bourne and his wife Rowena Eakin, along with their two young daughters. Edward was a fire insurance manager in New Orleans and may have gotten a lead on the rental at 725 Rugby from Frederick Speckels of 15 Waldorf Court, who also worked in fire insurance as a statistician. But by the mid-1920s the Bournes returned to New Orleans, displaced by the sale of the house to John Edward Madden, possibly the richest person ever to own property in West Midwood.


Madden in 1910
Madden was the son of immigrants from Ireland’s County Roscommon who had settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. When his father died unexpectedly, young John went to work in the steel mills and then boxed his way to paydays that kept the Madden family afloat. John Madden would later become the most successful breeder of thoroughbred racing horses in America, including 5 Kentucky Derby and 4 Belmont Stakes winners, and he remains the only person to be inducted into both the Harness and Thoroughbred Halls of Fame. In 1903 it was reported that Madden was “the only millionaire breeder who trains, develops, and races his own horses.”


Madden in 1925
Why did John Madden buy 725 Rugby Road? Because his recently separated sister, Mary McTernan, and her two daughters – Catherine and Cecilia – needed help. The McTernan family moved to Cobble Hill from Bethlehem at the turn of the century and were still living in a brownstone apartment at 301 Clinton Street as of the 1920 Census. Soon thereafter Mary and Michael McTernan (who was frequently unemployed and provided five  different birthdates to Census takers) went their separate ways.


It was at this time that John Madden’s largesse 

1929: Mary Madden McTernan
enabled his sister to escape with her daughters to 725 Rugby Road. Mary died there on September 7, 1929, and the death certificate listed her as a widow when in fact her husband would live in a Cypress Hills apartment until his death in 1948. Two months after Mary’s passing, John took gravely ill himself with pneumonia in the Pennsylvania Hotel and died of a heart attack while being cared for by his nieces. The McTernan sisters claimed to the press covering his funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that he died of a broken heart over the loss of their mother Mary.

1930 Census Showing McTernan At Bottom of Page

At his passing John’s estate was valued at nearly $10 million. According to some old papers dating to the 1930s found in the Cuffs’ basement, Catherine appeared to be the recipient of a trust fund which paid her $5,000 annually – which would be about $85,000 today. In fact, John Madden’s will, filed for probate in Lexington, Kentucky in January 1931, provided a trust of $125,000 for Catherine and Cecilia.


1931 Tax Return Calculation
Catherine was never employed, but “Cecile,” as she preferred to be called, a graduate of Mount St. Vincent College in Westchester, worked most of her life as a public school teacher in Brooklyn grammar schools. But it was obvious the McTernans were loaded. During Easter and Summer breaks in 1931 and 1932, Catherine & Cecilia took Caribbean (Bermuda & Cuba) and European cruises, registering at the Brooklyn Eagle’s “Paris Bureau” each year. In November 1933, the sisters took a month long cruise to Hawaii via San Francisco. The following August they took a trans-Atlantic cruise, returning from Genoa, Italy. Another trip, to Greece, ensued in 1935. And the following Spring they visited their rich uncle in Kentucky.

1940 Census Showing McTernan Sisters at 725 Rugby (Lines 56-57)

By the 1940 Census, as a result of the Great Depression, the value of the McTernans’ house had nosedived to  $14,500 from its 1930-estimated value of $21,000. And Cecile continued to teach, earning $3,390 for the 40 weeks she worked in 1939. It should also be noted that the McTernan sisters were very generous souls. They contributed annually to Cecile’s alma mater and to Our Lady of Refuge Church on Ocean Avenue, hosting semi-annual fund raising events as well. They were also socially active in Breezy Point where they rented a cabana for many years.


1935 Ship Manifest: McTernans Returning from Genoa to NYC 

On April 1, 1980, Cecile McTernan died, and come the new year, Catherine sold the house to Walter & Marilyn for $61,500. The Cuffs were then residing with their newborn son Justin (now a pathologist in San Francisco), in a brownstone investment property they owned on Lincoln Place in Park Slope. Their daughter Andrea (now a nurse practitioner in the Arizona Navajo Nation), would arrive shortly thereafter. At the time, Walter, who had been teaching in East New York for 15 years, was attending Brooklyn Law School at night. He would start his new legal career the next year, while Marilyn, a Midwood native and an administrator at a Montessori School, would soon embark on a life in nursing.

 Then in 1985 the ghost of John Madden descended on the Cuffs. Apparently the title search five years earlier had failed to find the 1920s document naming Madden as a beneficial owner of the McTernans’ home. A lawsuit ensued demanding reparations for the gazillionaire’s estate. Oy vey! Thankfully, Walter’s law firm was steeped in realty law and sanity prevailed. If nothing else the episode explained why the McTernans’ upstairs bedroom was covered with wallpaper featuring lots of horses.


Looking back, the Cuffs’ best memories of life in West Midwood revolve around neighbors. Many have come and gone since 1981, but the latest crop suits the Cuffs just fine. Marilyn recalled the support they received during and after the August storm, noting as just one example how Anthony Finkel instantly responded, placing a tarp over their porch that prevented water damage. “There are so many people living here who care and are helping others,” said Marilyn. “We were so fortunate to raise our children here,” echoed Walter.


Indeed the rest of us have been equally as fortunate to count the Cuffs as our neighbors, friends,    and comedic reliefs – while America has benefited from their children’s lives of service.  


1983: 725 Rugby Road




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