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My favorite holiday of the year is nearly upon us, and I think the time is right for a celebratory BHS blog post! Sure, while there are many holidays populating the month of December, I think we can all agree that there is one that obviously outshines all the others. That day, of course, comes on December 22nd, when we unite in celebration of Forefathers Day, the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620!
Ok, there are two discrepancies in the above paragraph. The first is that, as we all remember from grade school (right?), the correct date of the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth is December 21st, rather than the 22nd. However, due to an adjustment in the Gregorian calendar, the first official commemoration of this historic event in 1769 took place on December 22nd, and this has been the conventional date of celebration ever since. The second discrepancy is that Forefathers Day is not my favorite holiday (for me, nothing beats Halloween); in fact, like most people outside Plymouth, I grew up not knowing that the holiday even existed. That didn’t change until very recently, when we on the CLIR team came across the records of the New England Society in the City of Brooklyn, an organization for Brooklynites of New England ancestry that was formed in 1880.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the New England Society was one of Brooklyn’s most popular social clubs, and for good reason: according to census records, by 1870 there were actually more New Englanders living in Brooklyn than in Boston! The Society provided the perfect outlet for these recently transplanted New Englanders to celebrate and connect with their heritage throughout the year. The Society held annual festivals and dinners, convened at monthly meetings, hosted lectures by well-known scholars of New England history, and held several other special events celebrating the history and culture of New England. To gain admittance to the Society, applicants had to be upstanding gentlemen and provide proof of their genealogical link to New England. The Society’s records contain several membership applications from Brooklynites eager to gain admittance to the Society:
The Society attracted attention outside Brooklyn as well. The Society’s first annual festival in 1880, for instance, was attended by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who had links to the New England state of Vermont. Fortunately for BHS, Hayes signed his name in the Society’s autograph book:
As you might suspect, among the many New England cultural traditions that the Society celebrated was Forefathers Day. Note in the above photo that the Society’s first annual festival was held on December 21st, affirming that, even though Forefathers Day has never been widely celebrated outside Plymouth, the New England Society helped keep the tradition alive in Brooklyn, even if they chose to celebrate it on the historically accurate date of December 21st. As it turns out, the Society’s annual dinner seems to have been regularly held on December 21st in honor of Forefathers Day, as evidenced by some surviving menus and programs:
As shown by the records of the New England Society, Brooklyn is not so much a stranger to the celebration of Forefathers Day as we might have thought. In fact, the New England Society is still active today, and as recently as 2008, the Society held its annual holiday party on December 22nd in the spirit of Forefathers Day. So if Forefathers Day sounds like something you’d like to add to your repertoire of December holiday celebrations, know that you don’t have to be from Plymouth to don a Pilgrim hat this December 22nd (or 21st, if you prefer). Though I suppose Plymouth may be the only place where you can actually buy a Pilgrim hat.
I’d like to close with a spotlight on another item found in the records of the New England Society. While it’s not directly related to Forefathers Day, it does get my vote of being the best piece of correspondence ever composed. It also reveals that there was at least one New Englander living in Brooklyn who was not standing in line to join the New England Society. The item in question comes from a Mr. Horace L. Kent, who had apparently received one too many pieces of unwanted solicitations from the Society in the mail. By December of 1911, the situation had reached the point where Kent, in desperation, wrote a letter directly to the President of the Society demanding that this “persecution” cease. We’ll never know what drove Mr. Kent to overreact to such a degree, but thanks to the surviving letter, we can delight in the fact that he did. A transcription of the letter follows the below image:
“Hon. Mr. President:
If you have a spark of humanity in your composition, will you please render me a little bit of assistance in this, my dire need?
I have written your society at intervals for the past four years begging them to stop sending me Mr. Howard Kent’s mail. I have begged and pleaded until patience has ceased to be a virtue. I am now going to begin to threaten, so if you have any regard for the personal safety of your secretary, you had better caution him to refrain from sending me any more of Mr. Howard Kent’s mail, for I shall certainly go over there and thrash him within an inch of his life if he insists upon sending me this literature.
I have spent from one to four dollars on postage returning letters, due bills, tickets, invitations, etc.
In the first place, Howard Kent does not live at 858 Prospect Place, and he never did. You annoyed me so much with this mail business that I was obliged to move out of the neighborhood. The house is now for sale, and you will have to do one of two things: you will either have to cease sending me this literature, or Howard Kent will have to buy 858 Prospect Place. I thought when I moved here I would escape this persecution, but you seem to have followed me up, and found my new address. It is terrible.
I don’t want your tickets at $3.00, because I am a New England man myself, and know that no New England dinner costs more than twenty-five cents.
I am enclosing you a letter to Mr. Howard Kent, which my secretary opened by mistake.
I hope and pray that this will be the last time I shall be obliged to write you on this subject.
Please forgive me for addressing this letter to you as President, but I realize it is of no use to write to your Secretary any more.
Very truly yours,
Horace L. Kent”
This was one Brooklyn New Englander who almost certainly did not celebrate Forefathers Day.
I remember first coming across a box with the label “Brooklyn Air Disaster, December 16, 1960, Scrapbook” a couple of years ago. Of course with a title like that I had to open and view the contents. I was shocked then to learn that there had been a plane crash on Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place, right in the middle of Park Slope Brooklyn. Since then we have from time to time gotten reference questions asking about the exact location of the crash. Now that the 50th anniversary is approaching this Thursday, the questions have increased.
The scrapbook in our collections is amazing, and documents the entire course of events through newspaper clippings, from December 16, 1960 — the day the crash occurred — to September 22, 1963. The articles are primarily from The New York Times, New York Post, and the now-defunct Daily Mirror.
What the New York Post called the “worst air disaster in American history,” occurred when a United Airlines DC-8 jet en route to Idlewild Airport (now JFK Airport) from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and a TWA Super Constellation traveling from Dayton, Ohio, to LaGuardia Airport collided near Miller Field on Staten Island. The TWA Super Constellation fell to the ground in Miller Field, but the United jet continued on for more than 10 miles, before crashing down at Seventh Avenue and Sterling Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Between the two crashes, 134 people lost their lives .
One aspect that the scrapbook helps to capture are the myriad stories that came pouring out during the tragedy’s aftermaths. The most sensationalized story highlighted in the scrapbook was that of 11-year-old Stephen Baltz who was on the United Airlines flight bound for Idlewild. Badly burned, but thought to be in stable condition, he was brought to the Methodist Hospital at Seventh Avenue and Sixth Street, just a few blocks away from the site of the crash. Unfortunately, his burns were too extensive to be treated, and the boy passed away the next day, December 17th.
This Thursday, December 16, 2010, marks the 50th Anniversary of the “Brooklyn Air Disaster.” Among the many commemorations, Green-Wood Cemetery will be having a memorial service at 9:45 a.m. and unveiling an eight-foot monument in memory of all those that lost their lives that day. Also all this week The New York Times’ City Room has been running articles about the crash and its impact on the neighborhood of Park Slope.
We invite anyone interested in viewing the scrapbook to come to the library during our open hours. We are open on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 1 to 5 p.m. For additional information about visiting the library please consult our website.
Patricia had a great post recently discussing Brooklyn architecture and architects materials among the Historical Society’s collections. Brooklyn was once characterized as “the city of homes and churches” and while Patricia’s post certainly pointed out some examples of homes and commercial buildings exemplifying a portion of the range of Brooklyn’s architecture, I wanted to focus on a specific instance of the latter half of that characterization with a great example of Brooklyn’s church architecture in our collections. While working on the records of the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn I was fortunate enough to get a good look at the detailed plans of the Church of the Saviour. Sitting almost directly across the street from Brooklyn Historical Society’s building on Pierrepont Street, the Church of the Saviour was completed in 1844 and is now the oldest church building in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood.
The First Unitarian Congregational Society at first tried to secure Richard Upjohn as their architect. Upjohn was already making a name for himself with his work on the new Trinity Church in Manhattan and would go on to be famous for his work, particularly on churches in the Gothic Revival style and in founding the American Institute of Architects. Upjohn, however, required a $1,000 fee for services even before submitting any plans (perhaps due to his bias against the Unitarian faith). The First Church went back to reviewing plans offered by architects and settled on the designs submitted by Minard Lafever. While later known for his pattern books on the Greek Revival style, Lafever deserves to be mentioned alongside Upjohn as one of the hands behind the spread and influence of Gothic Revival architecture in America’s 1840’s-1850’s, particularly in New York and Brooklyn. The design of the Church of the Saviour is proof in itself of Lafever’s fine work in this style.
Lafever designed other buildings which were eventually landmarked around New York City including the Church of the Holy Apostles in Manhattan and the Greek Revival styled buildings at Sailors’ Snug Harbor in Staten Island. In Brooklyn (and still remaining within the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood) there are two more buildings that Lafever designed which showcase his work in the Gothic Revival style and its influence on the area. One is the St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church on Montague Street and the other is his final commission, the Packer Collegiate Institute building on Joralemon Street.
The original plans of the Church of the Saviour show the hand of this important architect at work. I particularly liked how these original plans included notations, variations, and comments on materials. It at once reveals Lefever’s mind at work, suggestions from others, and the involved process of constructing this beautiful church.
By the early 20th Century the congregation had grown to a point that they could further beautify the Church of the Saviour with the addition of stained glass windows designed by Tiffany studios with some of them designed by Louis C. Tiffany himself (alas, I could not get photos of the windows that do them justice, but Brownstoner has a decent shot of the windows from the exterior).
Within the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records, these plans of Lefever’s and documents on the buildings and renovations exist alongside other documents that fill this architecture with the life and work of the First Unitarian Church in Brooklyn. The collection contains lists and ledgers of the owners and renters of these pews which includes the names of many prominent Brooklynites like Alfred T. White, the Low family, the Pierrepont family, and many others. The collection also contains orders of service and sermons delivered within the church and non-ecumenical work carried on by the congregational outside the walls of the Church of the Saviour.
If you’d like to learn more about Brooklyn architecture, I would recommend you follow the suggestions Patricia made in her post. If you would like to learn more about the Church of the Saviour, the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, and the collection of records we have for Unitarianism at Brooklyn Historical Society, check out the postings on Emma, our catablog, in regards to the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn records and the Women’s Alliance of the First Unitarian Church of Brooklyn records both of which also have linked finding aids.
You know that part in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) where Buggin Out tells the guy in a Larry Bird jersey to move back to Massachusetts? That’s one of those highly charged interactions we’ve all had at some point with our neighbors, to both positive and negative effect. Our neighborly confrontations may not be as heated as Buggin Out’s or directly address big topics like gentrification and race, as his does, but they still stick in our minds for a long time, replaying over and over — and when we share these moments, they say a lot about our neighborhoods and what it’s like to live nowadays… Which is exactly the kind of cultural snapshot BHS is trying to capture and preserve.
I’ve been starting my day lately by reading The New York Times Opinionator blog Disunion, about the Civil War; they do a great job of bringing that time period to life in a dimensional way. I like thinking about historians 100 years from now painting a picture of life in Brooklyn in 2010 and using the audio and video interviews BHS has collected with people (500+ people born as early as 1890 and as recently as 2004) to add authentic voices to their history-telling. Imagine how amazing it would be if we could hear 500 people from Brooklyn in 186o talking about slavery, secession, and the abolitionist movement in their own words, unfiltered by news reports.
Which speaks to why BHS is asking people to call the new STORY HOTLINE: 718.222.4111 x203
Leave us a message with one story about your neighborhood. We’re starting with Fort Greene / Clinton Hill because these messages will be included in the Fort Greene / Clinton Hill audio walking tour (forthcoming January 2011). You can tell us your name, or not, it’s up to you. You can share a story about neighborly confrontations, neighborly love, whatever defines the neighborhood for you. It could even be a song or a sound…
We look forward to hearing from you!