152 Henry Street, a four story red-bricked Greek Revival multiple dwelling, could be the last Single Room Occupancy in Brooklyn Heights from the 19th century.
Landmarked in 1965, the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood served as the city’s inaugural landmark designation. The subsequent designation report is brief and scantly detailed, but preservationist and Kentucky-native Clay Lancaster wrote a definitive history of the neighborhood, Old Brooklyn Heights, which is commonly perceived as the surrogate designation report for the area. However, in his book, Lancaster does not mention 152 Henry Street.
Self-effacing in its charmed simplicity, 152 Henry is overshadowed by its more traditionally historic neighbors, like the quaint gingerbread-house coziness of 156 Henry Street, which is now a CVS pharmacy.
A Single Room Occupancy, or SRO, follows different housing rules than regular apartments. The rent is cheaper than most apartments, but tenants must forgo typical amenities. SROs usually follow stringent rules against co-ed occupancy.
I first heard that 152 Henry Street was an SRO from a friend who dwelled there and waited tables at Peter Luger Steakhouse. He’d heard about the place from another waiter at Luger’s, since retired, who lived at 152 for many years.
152 Henry is peculiar, almost from another era, like an all-male bachelor’s boarding house before World War I, when single living situations abided a different social expectation. It is an anomalous, word-of-mouth, somewhat impenetrable happenstance in the midst of one of the most unique and highly-prized neighborhoods in New York City.
You won’t find an ad on Craig’s List for a room at 152 Henry, or as you might have found in the classifieds of the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle, where, in 1895, the terms of rent were $2 per week. In 1878, when the building was advertised as “handsomely furnished,” rooms were offered with “ample closets” (these days the closets have been converted into individual rooms):
… Or in 1864, when a “parlor and bedroom” for a “gentleman and wife” were available, as was a “hall room” for a single gentleman.
Note the building’s address as “130 Henry.” Street addresses in Brooklyn Heights changed in 1870. I found evidence of the building’s old address by consulting our library’s rich collection of Historical Atlases.
A “hall room” sounds like an appropriate, and classier, description of the rooms today in 152 Henry Street. Traces of the building’s modern use as an SRO are reflected in an ad from 1863:
In 1891, an unfortunate incident occurred outside 152 Henry. According to two pieces in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, dated July 28 and July 30, Dr. Helene Lassen, “a well proportioned and rather good looking woman of middle age… privileged to place the letters M.D. at the end of her name… had an experience with dogcatchers this morning which she evidently won’t forget in a hurry.” Dr. Lassen left her residence at 152 Henry to walk her dog, Laddy, a “thoroughbred pug and not as ugly as the general run of this class of dogs.” Laddy was not on a leash, since Dr. Lassen admitted she only took Laddy out this day “for a romp,” but he was duly tagged on his collar. The pug ran off down the street, but before his owner could retrieve him, the local dogcatcher, “a big brute of a man,” snatched up Laddy by the hind legs.
Dr. Lassen caught up to the brute and took hold of Laddy’s fore-end, and the two proceeded to have a tug of war over the pug, until the dogcatcher struck the doctor and knocked her down, and tossed Laddy in his wagon with other kidnapped curs. Dr. Lassen jumped into the wagon to save the dog, but was again assaulted by the “burly brute,” who absconded with Laddy.
Dr. Lassen was advised to complain to the office of Mayor Alfred Clark Chapin. She eventually freed little Laddy from the pound, but after pressing charges against the dogcatcher, she was told that since the pug was not on a leash, she indeed had broken the law, and was “prevented from prosecuting the assailant of herself and her pet.” Said the Eagle, “the shock to her nervous system was very great, and her shoulder is still bruised and sore.”
The next morning Dr. Lassen gained a bizarre sense of closure, when she received a creepy anonymous letter at her home, written with a thuggish level of literacy:
These dognapping brigands would have a fine time today, by the preponderance of Brooklyn dog owners who leave their pets leashed to the parking meter while going inside to have lunch or do their shopping, leaving poor Bowser to languish on the sidewalk.
The writers for the Eagle can’t help describing Dr. Lassen’s attractive physical features before noting her profession as a doctor, for which, being a female in 1891, she is “privileged.” She was victimized by hoods on both the street and City Hall. 152 Henry Street, besides letting rooms to single bachelors, as was the custom of the day, was also once the home of a stalwart lady of class and manner with an independent medical practice – which was not the custom of the day.
In the future, whenever 152 Henry phases out its SRO status, a bygone legacy of apartment living in Brooklyn will have phased out too, one which it could be assumed would have been long extinct anyway, like Automats or subway tokens, or when single gentlemen lived in boarding houses for $2 per week.