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On moving houses, and John Thatcher.

Feb 19, 2009 2:48 PM | 1 comment

A print that is new to our collection got me thinking about buildings that have been moved, about things worth keeping, and exile, and all sorts of serious things. Single-pointed focus is not my strong point, and so the faithful reader--if you are still there, thank you--will just have to put up with reading several posts melded into one.  

This print shows the Brighton Beach Hotel being moved back from the beach to terra firma in 1888, after erosion brought the ocean to the very foundations of the building.   No small structure, the hotel was dragged backwards 555 feet by eight or ten locomotives on specially constructed tracks. In a city obsessed with knocking down perfectly good structures and replacing them with inferior ones, why were a few buildings deemed good enough to move?

The Montauk Theater was moved and turned  an eighth of an inch at a time, to accommodate the creation of the Flatbush Avenue Extension. Investors discovered it would be far cheaper to move the building than to create a new one.  When the Perry Mansion was moved across the Street in Bay Ridge, who knows what combination of sentiment and economics combined to create an extraordinary feat of engineering. And then there was the Lefferts Homestead.

The Lefferts Homestead was moved by the firm of Thatcher and Sons in 1917.  From its original position at the corner of Maple St and Flatbush Avenue, it was pulled across the Botanic Gardens and then across Flatbush Avenue to its current position.  To their eternal credit, the citizens of Flatbush raised $6000  to move the house, bucking the tide of demolition that destoyed so many colonial houses through the course of the 20th century. Apparently they thought they had something worth keeping, even if it meant sending the homestead out of the heart of Flatbush and into a little exile in Prospect Park.  

The picture here from Brooklyn Public Library's Thatcher Collection, shows the house en route through the Botanic Gardens. John Thatcher, founder of the firm, was a Welshman who came to  America in 1868 at the age of 17. He lived for some time in Chicago, where he worked as a plasterer, then moved back to Brooklyn to found his own plastering and building firm. Thatcher knew all about creating buildings worth keeping. He built the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, the Dime Savings Bank on Fulton Street, Erasmus Hall High School, the Greenwood Mortuary Chapel, the residence of Jonathan Bulkeley, Grace Church Parish House and other significant buildings. As a contractor rather than an architect, Thatcher's name is not often connected with some of these buildings, and yet  he is clearly a man who made an enormous impact on his home borough.

Thatcher was long gone when the firm bearing his name, taken over by his son Edwin,  moved the Lefferts house.  Appointed Superintendent of Buildings after serving under Borough President Swanstrom as Superintendent of Sewers,  John Thatcher died in 1912 investigating a violation at a building site near Snediker Ave in East New York. A scaffold broke, plunging him fifty feet to the ground. A young man on the scaffold with him survived, but Thatcher fell head first and died within a few hours of the accident. The outpouring of grief from colleagues and  friends is recorded in a series of letters and newspaper articles preserved in the Collection alongside a portfolio of photographs showing the construction company's fine work.   Thatcher lies buried in Green-wood cemetery in a vault built to last by his employees--another exile like Axel Hedman, who embraced Brooklyn as his home and quietly left a solid legacy of buildings worth keeping that has lasted into its second century. 




2/21/2009 12:27:30 PM #

April 3rd, 1888 was when they commenced moving the hotel.
  * The New York Times April 4 review:
   * Brooklyn Daily Eagle's commentary on the matter appeared in the April 4 1888 paper: page six, column eight.

Both are 'gee-whiz' articles: geeks fascinated with the engines, the machinery, the wonder of it all. No indication of who thought it was a good idea and why. Apparently it was fine entertainment, though, that fine Spring day, even if it was a bit chilly. Take care.  -- Garry

Garry R. Osgood