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Edwin Roberts: Photographer, Tennis Enthusiast, Man of Mystery

Aug 21, 2012 2:18 PM | 1 comment

By my latest reckoning, the Brooklyn Collection has so far uploaded more than 15,000 photograph records to our catalog. It's a sliver of the more than 200,000 images in our holdings, to be sure, but it is nonetheless no small feat, especially when you consider that the meticulous description of these images (in numerous MARC fields including title, author, date, physical description, summary, notes, subject headings, etc) is handled by just two catalogers, Ron and Stephen. Whenever I've prepared a new collection for the catalog, I hand it over to either of them and a few weeks later, like magic, all the photographs are thoroughly described in individual records in our catalog. At least, it seems magical to me, since I'm not the one with the difficult job of teasing out the details in some of our less than forthcoming images. While most photographs from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle sport an informative newspaper caption on the back that includes all the details a cataloger, or patron, could want, many of our older images from other sources are annoyingly baffling in one or multiple ways.

Who is the handsome man with the tennis racket?  Who took the photograph of him?  When was it taken?  So many questions... 

One such bewildering collection is a slim file of photographs and negatives of the former Knickerbocker Field Club in Flatbush, taken sometime in the early 1900s by an Edwin Roberts. While the Knickerbocker Club is a known entity, the photographer of the series, Edwin Roberts, is not.  All we have for him is a name.  Furthermore, there is little information on the provenance of these images, so I couldn't work my way back from the donor to the source.  To answer our cataloger's pressing questions (i.e., "Who was Edwin Roberts, and when did he take these photographs?"), I had to leap headfirst into the rabbit hole of biographical research.

First, some historical background. The Knickerbocker Field Club sprang up in the late 1880s adjacent to real estate developer Richard Ficken's Tennis Court houses between East 18th Street and Ocean Avenue in Flatbush, as a grounds for, fittingly, outdoor tennis and croquet matches. 

A membership card from 1900, part of our ephemera collection.

Membership grew robustly, and by 1892 the club opened a grand new clubhouse, designed by the Parfitt Brothers architecture firm, which boasted four bowling alleys, a library, an assembly hall, a billiard room, running track, and a ladies' parlor. The fancy new digs served the club and the borough as a hub of social and sporting activity for Flatbush's comfortable middle class. On an October evening in 1900, one might catch a performance of traditional Scandinavian dances by the Ladies' Swedish Quartette and a few nights later enjoy a dramatic staging of the one-act play, The Persecuted Dutchman, with a few rounds of golf in the days between (unless the caddies were on strike), as evidenced by our collection of ephemera from the club.

Above, a ticket to a performance of The Persecuted Dutchman.  Below, a group photograph of the club's 1905 bowling team.

Club members trade tips in this Eagle photo from September 22, 1952.

The club continued to host tennis matches and bowling tourneys through the 20th century, and was eventually listed as a New York City Landmark in 1978. Four years later it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. By this time, as noted in two articles in the New York Daily News from the late 1970s, the club had declined somewhat from its former glory. By the 1980s membership had dwindled from several hundred to around 70 souls, and most of these were long-standing family memberships and senior citizens who had joined in the 1910s and '20s. The club was showing its age. As reporter Stewart Ain noted in a January 8, 1978 article, "Indeed even the American flag that stands to the left of the stage in the auditorium has only 48 stars!" A fire swept through the building in 1988 and what remained was demolished in 1990. One remnant of the club lives on -- five tennis courts remain tucked behind an apartment building on East 18th Street -- but its hallowed hall is gone.

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Compare the Google satellite shot of the club's tennis courts alongside the tracks of the B and Q train lines, above, with Roberts' photograph of the courts, below.

So we know the story of club, but what about the man?  I started my hunt for Edwin Roberts as any reasonably intelligent person would, with a Google search.  To my delight, my very first hit took me to the University of New Hampshire's guide to a collection of negatives from an Edwin Jay Roberts. 

The biographical note in their finding aid informed me that Edwin Jay Roberts taught at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute from 1914 to 1918, and moved back to his native New Hampshire upon his father's death that year.  The news gave me goosebumps.  I even found an image of Edwin Jay Roberts that ran in the Eagle on September 23, 1914 (left), during his first semester at Polytechnic.  This had to be our Roberts, I thought.  He lived in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, and he was a photographer!  And how wonderful it would be if it was our Roberts, coming as he did with an authoritative biography courtesy of the University of New Hampshire.  Oh, my catalogers were going to be so pleased with me!  Everything fit together perfectly, or at least, I wanted it to. 

A search on the genealogy website revealed an Edwin J. Roberts (same middle initial) living at... 8 Tennis Court!  That is, right across the street from the Knickerbocker Field Club.  All was going swimmingly until I looked at the date of the census record -- 1920.  Two years after Edwin Jay Roberts, the Polytechnic professor, had left Brooklyn.  A comparison of the family member names between the census record and the university's finding aid further deflated my hopes.  I had two entirely different Edwin J. Roberts, and the one who I really wanted to be the photographer of our Knickerbocker Field Club collection was almost certainly not.

A particularly haunting image from Roberts' Knickerbocker series.

I knew Edwin Roberts wasn't, but who was he?  From what I could glean from, the Edwin J. Roberts who lived across the street from the Knickerbocker Field Club (still my most likely candidate) was a native New Yorker, born in 1880 to John E. and Nannie B. Roberts.  Our city directories show him living with his parents and siblings on Tennis Court through his adolescence and adult years, working as a clerk.  A draft card indicates that he likely served in World War I.  In 1922, the trail stops cold, with this:

The obituary, printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, is unfortunately short on details.  At the very least, however, it gives us the lifespan of Roberts, which will lend an air of authority to the catalog records that document his lasting contribution.  Like the vestigial tennis courts hidden behind an apartment complex in Flatbush that speak to the long-gone Knickerbocker Field Club itself, Roberts' photographs are all that remain to tell of one man's life in Brooklyn.  Maddeningly lacking in detail they may be, but we're happy to have them just the same.  Down the road we may turn up more details about Roberts, but even without knowing much about the photographer, the photographs themselves provide an arresting and candid portrait of Brooklyn at play at the dawn of the 20th century.


8/29/2012 9:52:59 PM #

Two Edwin J. Roberts living in Brooklyn at the same time?  I can't help but wonder if they ever met...  Interesting post, Ivy!  Can't wait to see what other new photographs are being posted!