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A Brooklyn Block’s Hidden History

By Cecily Dyer

Posted on November 12, 2020

Classon Avenue showing entrance to Union Place
Classon Avenue showing entrance to Union Place Photograph album; Bommer family collection, 1992.033, Box A0142; Center for Brooklyn History.

This week we explore photographs of a Clinton Hill block from the Bommer family collection.

The easternmost end of Pratt Institute’s Clinton Hill campus gives little indication that it was once a densely-built city block, but it was. Bounded by Classon, Dekalb, and Willoughby Avenues, and formerly by Emerson Place to the west, the block was unusually wide. In the 1870s, a wealthy, Spanish-born merchant-developer named Bartolome Blanco (who faced accusations of earning some of his wealth in the slave trade) took advantage of the block’s generous size to erect townhouses in the Parisian fashion, set back from Classon Avenue via a vaulted passageway and facing onto an inner courtyard with a lovely green space in the middle. This little development was called Union Place.

Americans eyed this European-style housing with skepticism. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article in 1900 titled “Brooklyn’s Queer Streets: Odd Alleys and Quaint Courts” highlighted two objections: the dim light of only a few flickering gas lamps, and the undesirability of a shared common space.  “In other sections it is found necessary to board up even the back yards in order to maintain anything like a peaceable state of affairs, but here a number of families with presumably diverse manners and irreconcilable interests possess one front yard in common.” Union Place stood as a monument to the architect’s failed experiment, the author declared.

Houses on Union Place

Houses on Union Place

Photograph album; Bommer family collection, 1992.033, Box A0142; Center for Brooklyn History.

Americans eyed this European-style housing with skepticism. A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article in 1900 titled “Brooklyn’s Queer Streets: Odd Alleys and Quaint Courts” highlighted two objections: the dim light of only a few flickering gas lamps, and the undesirability of a shared common space.  “In other sections it is found necessary to board up even the back yards in order to maintain anything like a peaceable state of affairs, but here a number of families with presumably diverse manners and irreconcilable interests possess one front yard in common.” Union Place stood as a monument to the architect’s failed experiment, the author declared.

A few years after the article appeared, Emil Bommer bought much of Union Place and the surrounding block. A quiet and unassuming lithographer, Bommer had inherited his father’s successful spring hinge manufacturing business and moved it to Clinton Hill. Where Blanco had capitalized on the large size of the block to create his housing experiment, Bommer envisioned the expansive space as a secluded garden play space for children. He dismantled the fences that adults had erected to keep the peace and established a children’s garden in 1908. He carved and painted wooden soldiers to stand guard over the entrances; “a delightful entrance into Toyland,” the papers said.

Emil Bommer Playground

Emil Bommer Playground

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 21, 1925

By the mid 1920s, the children’s garden was thriving as the wisteria and shade trees Bommer had planted reached maturity and as the neighborhood became increasingly dense with families arriving from Barbados, Italy, Ireland, Sweden, St. Vincent, Virginia and elsewhere. But when he attempted to bring similar playgrounds to other city blocks by creating the Emil Bommer Playground Foundation, readers questioned his motivations. W.E.B. Du Bois inquired in a letter, now in his papers at UMass Amherst, whether the gardens would be segregated. Du Bois’s concern was not misplaced; CBH’s records from the Gates Avenue Association, founded in 1922, document some Clinton Hill residents’ attempts to discourage Blacks from moving to the neighborhood. But Bommer immediately responded with a letter of reassurance: “This Foundation does not discriminate; children of any race, creed or color are welcome.”

Bommer died in 1935. In the latter 20th century, Pratt Institute acquired the block in order to expand eastward, and the curious “French” court and the children’s garden made way for a dorm and parking lot. But on the opposite side of Classon Avenue you will still find one of Emil Bommer’s spring hinge factories, with “BOMMER BUILDING” written above the entrance.

Interested in seeing more photos from CBH’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward inviting you to CBH is the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our digital collections, available here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected].

2 comments

  • Suzanne Spellen

    Posted on November 13, 2020

    Fascinating. Brooklyn's history is a never-ending source of interest and wonder.

  • Jeffrey Jacobson

    Posted on November 12, 2020

    Great story on. Union Place, Brooklyn

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