Vanderveer Park: When Flatbush Was a Suburb

Deborah

Rustic wooden sign reading Welcome to Vanderveer Park across street.
Vanderveer Park entrance sign at Flatbush Avenue and Avenue F, with a few houses in the background and a one-horse shay, 1894. NEIG_0905, Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Center for Brooklyn History

The last quarter of the nineteenth century brought rapid changes to many parts of Brooklyn, not least to the town of Flatbush and its environs. Flatbush (from the Dutch vlacke bos, flat forest or wooded plain) was one of the original 6 towns making up the city of Brooklyn, and became part of that city in 1894. Four years later Brooklyn would become part of the consolidation of Greater New York City.

I became interested in the Flatbush of that era when I went looking for pictures of Vanderveer farm and its most iconic landmark the farm’s windmill. The farm and its history is a fascinating story in its own right, but my search led me to mentions of Vanderveer Park, and the intriguing picture at the head of this article.

I had expected a park, and instead found a rustic wooden gate inviting one into a flat open area irregularly dotted with houses. I learned about a neighborhood whose name has dropped off contemporary maps but was clearly a place created with a defined character - one of the developments that made up Victorian Flatbush.

Newspaper article entitled: Vanderveer Park through mirror.
Vanderveer Park through mirror, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 3, 1940, p. 46, col. 5

Flatbush, until the last years of the nineteenth century, was a village surrounded by farmland, and somewhat inaccessible to the more urbanized areas to the north and west. In 1878 the Brooklyn, Flatbush, Coney Island Railroad began service between Prospect Park and the Brighton Beach Hotel. Later, in 1920, the  IRT Nostrand Avenue Line connected Flatbush to the city along Nostrand Avenue.

Map of Brooklyn, Flatbush and Coney Island "Brighton Beach" railway.
Brooklyn, Flatbush, Coney Island Railroad lines, July 5, 1881. Aart’s Archives website, accessed November 27, 2020
Railroad stock certificate.
[Brooklyn, Flatbush, and Coney Island Railway Company stock certificate], 1882. Center for Brooklyn History

With increased access to the area, developers bought up tracts of farmland to establish suburban developments in Flatbush. Two areas that grew up in the same period may be more familiar to readers: Tennis Court and Prospect Park South.

Beginnings - long subdivision

Vanderveer Park was created by Germania Real Estate, headed by Henry A. Meyer. In 1892 Meyer acquired acreage from several members of the Vanderveer family, and added purchases in subsequent years. The development grew by ‘Additions’ advertised with great fanfare over succeeding years. Each new ‘Addition’ was heralded with warnings like: “There is not much left unclaimed in the older sections of Vanderveer Park.“ 

Advertisement for Vanderveer Park lots sale.
Advertisement for Vanderveer Park lots, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 12, 1897, p. 17
Map of Vanderveer Park, 1893.
Map of Vanderveer Park between avenues C & D: Addition numbers  1 and 2, belonging to Germania Real Estate and Improvement Co., 1893. Center for Brooklyn History. Legend states: Property carefully restricted
Vanderveer Park lot sale prospectus.
Map of Addition No. 5 & 7 Vanderveer Park: belonging to Germania Real Estate and Improvement Co. Flatbush and Flatlands, [1895]. Center for Brooklyn History. Printed on verso: All sections of Vanderveer Park are carefully restricted
Map of Vanderveer Park, 1898.
Section of Vanderveer Park between Foster Avenue and Avenue J; Borough of Brooklyn, 1898, E. Robinson & Co. Sheet 4. Fire Insurance Map
Detail of Map of Vanderveer Park West with the text: Highly improved and restricted.
Detail of Map of Vanderveer Park West, property of Germania Real Estate and Improvement Co., 1899. Center for Brooklyn History. Map states: Highly improved and restricted

How green is your valley, how white is your suburb?

We can see from the increasing map coverage that Vanderveer Park grew quickly from its inception in 1892 to the turn of the century. I would like to call attention to the word “restricted” on the above maps (1893, 1895, 1899). All the Vanderveer Park maps I was able to find issued by Germania Real Estate included some version of this language. These legends may be a desire to signal the elite quality of the development but I suspect they, in fact, indicate the presence of restrictive covenants on the property deeds. These restrictions on the use and sale of property are built into a deed and usually cannot be amended by new owners. They can include: density of habitation (prohibitions on multi-family tenancy, boarders), points of property maintenance, and orders to not sell to people of a particular race, religion or ethnicity. Only a review of the actual property deeds could prove this. Racially restrictive covenants were deemed unenforceable in the landmark 1948 case, Shelley v. Kraemer. For more information about the practice of restrictive covenants in Brooklyn I recommend this Brownstoner article.

My surmise that this was a segregated area is bolstered by an article in The Chat  about Vanderveer Park homeowners associations and neighborhood zoning. Residents wanted to rezone some streets to prevent business use and builders wanted to preserve that right.

Vanderveer Park rezoning fight ... The Chat, April 5, 1924, p. 76

The Chat reports:

“The fight was brought to a head a year to so ago when a contractor erected several ‘taxpayer’ stores on Clarendon Road at East 35th Street. The one store which opened up failed for lack of patronage. The builder cried ‘boycott,’ and threatened to erect apartments above the stores and rent them to colored people.”

For clarification, taxpayer stores are cheap commercial buildings erected to generate only enough revenue to offset the owner's annual property tax on a lot, providing a placeholder while the owner waits for property values to rise. The homeowners prevailed and the rezoning was achieved. That this tactic was even being discussed confirms this was a segregated neighborhood.

Politics, society, propriety

Along with the rapid increase in Flatbush residents came a proliferation of local clubs, among them homeowners associations, whose activities were carefully reported in the local news. I counted eleven groups in one article speaking about their resumed activities after the Labor Day weekend. The Vanderveer Park Taxpayers Association, reported to be active between 1915-1925, energetically advocated for improvements in transit, school capacity, sewage, playgrounds, libraries and other city services and, as well, hosted lavish teas, parades and dances. Campaigns for new schools in 1896, 1904 and 1914 attest to the rapid growth of the area. Evidently, this homeowners group valued its autonomy because it states explicitly in a 1919 article it did not consider merging with others in the area.

Newspaper article about Vanderveer Park clubs.
Taxpayers' annual meeting held in Vanderveer Park, The Chat, January 18, 1919

Vanderveer Park residents were not shy about expressing their opinions to local government, nor did they stint towards their cultural institutions. An article in the Eagle reports a committee from the taxpayers association denounced the nudity on display at the Brooklyn Institute museum after an exploratory visit. Newspaper accounts in the days following conflict, but Albert Kuelling is quoted as follows in several articles:

“Although a saint by no means, I blushed at the exhibition of nude paintings and statuary, suggestive in the extreme, in full view of young children of 17 or 18. I will most certainly refuse to permit any child of mine to enter that building (the Institute Museum), which, if conducted privately, would be raided as a disorderly house.”

Article in Brooklyn Daily Eagle entitled Vanderveer Park Comstocks.
Vanderveer Park Comstocks, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 11, 1914, p. 6

The above article's title refers to Anthony Comstock, a contemporary anti-vice activist. In the following account Kuelling's fellow Vanderveer Parkite, Assistant District Attorney Reuben Wilson, was evidently less exercised: “I saw nothing particularly suggestive, except an Indian totem pole decoration.”

Newspaper article satirizing Vanderveer Park residents shock at art in The Institute of Arts and Sciences Museum.museum .
Taxpayers committee not shocked … Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 12, 1914, p. 2

The incident inspired a gleefully mocking editorial in Brooklyn Life that almost makes one smart for the Vanderveer smart set.

The awakening of Vanderveer Park. Brooklyn Life, March 21, 1914, p. 10

Victorian dreamhouse

The boom in homebuilding gave rise to a proliferation of imaginative home design well documented in the print media of the day. One example is Scientific American which published lavish views of homes in many parts of Brooklyn. Here are (below we see) some examples built in Flatbush. Fanciful exterior details coupled with terrifyingly fussy interiors combine for a sensory overload of visual incident. These views were accompanied by laudatory descriptions of both interior and exterior, including construction details. They combine a detailed report of a particular home, a good dose of advertisement for the architect, and a template of design and material ideas for the aspiring homeowner.

A dwelling at Flatbush ....  Supplement to the Scientific American-Architects and Builders Edition, August 1886. Center for Brooklyn History
A residence in Flatbush ... Scientific American Building Monthly, February, 1904, p. 36. Center for Brooklyn History

How did these Architectural Digest-style examples translate to this particular neighborhood? We can see from the photograph below that the houses are large and ornate but, despite some gaps in the line, they are clearly planned close together and don’t resemble the settings we see in the more idealized examples in Scientific American.  These Flatbush houses aspire to the forms in the magazine, with fanciful rooflines and complex details, some of them three stories, but do not give the appearance of a small country estate like the magazine illustrations. Those lots would be more representative of the previously mentioned developments, Tennis Court and Prospect Park South.

Several houses in Vanderveer Park, Flatbush, [190-?], NEIG_0907, Brooklyn Daily Eagle photographs, Center for Brooklyn History

Flatbush today

Many of the houses that remain from the early 20th century are somewhat ragged around the edges but the neighborhood has a wealth of beautiful forms that serve as a reminder of the area’s Victorian past. I was able to find some well-preserved examples of this period of homebuilding.

The wacky beauty of a dormer window.

653 East 29th Street, between avenues F and G, built c. 1910. Photograph by Deborah Tint 2020

Gentle curves on the porch detailing mimic swagged material hanging from the rail here.

657 East 32nd Street, between avenues F and G, built c. 1920. Photograph by Deborah Tint 2020

A gothic ogival arch and Italianate curved windows give an ecclesiastical feel to this third floor balcony.

1619 New York Avenue., built c. 1925. Photograph by Deborah Tint 2020

Old Vanderveer Park: the waning of a name

By the 1940s, when the letter below appeared in the Old Timers section of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s Sunday edition (a place for residents to wax nostalgic about Brooklyn past), instances of the name Vanderveer Park in local newspapers are down from the heyday of 1920s (over 6,000 in the decade) to one tenth that, and the majority of those referred either to Vanderveer Park Methodist Episcopal Church, or to sports events connected to the church.

They’re still friendly folk in old Vanderveer Park. Brooklyn Daily Eagle, July 18, 1943, p. 32

Today the once exclusionary suburb of Vanderveer Park has become integrated into the urban fabric of wider Flatbush.  If restrictive covenants existed there; and they may still, shockingly, be preserved on the deeds of some properties; in practice they are a thing of the past. It seems fitting that this name, emblematic of a dubious insularity, can simply be preserved as an interesting note of Brooklyn history.



Ron Schweiger …

In 1895, the Vanderveer Park sales office was on Flatbush Avenue at the junction with Nostrand (The Junction). A sign on the exterior of the office reads, "Vanderveer Park, Lots For Sale, $5 & $10 Monthly Payments. I have the photo hanging in my living room.
Fri, Dec 11 2020 1:32 am Permalink
Deborah Tint

In reply to by Ron Schweiger …

Dear Mr. Schweiger, Thank you for your comment. It's exciting to hear of a photo of Germania. That would correspond to the 1895 Map of Addition No. 5 & 7, which has their office at that address, and those advertised prices. The link under that map will send you to a picture of the brochure on the verso of the map in our CBH digital collections.
Mon, Dec 21 2020 4:33 pm Permalink
Helen R Barrett

I went to grade school at P.S. 269, adjacent to a playground we called Vanderveer Park. It was near the housing complex called Vanderveer Estates. I played “ball” of various kinds from morning til night: softball, basketball, punchball, handball, at the park. I lived near Brooklyn College and “the junction.”
Wed, Feb 3 2021 2:45 pm Permalink
Brandon

I have a Karl hutter bottle stopper (inventor) from 2/7/1893 with a top marking of Adolph Meny - vanderveer park, ny. Found it off the beach in Rockaways recently. I don’t think it’s worth anything money wise but maybe it has some historical significance? But I’m guessing they are fairly common so probably not. My dreams of antique roadhouse are crushed!
Fri, Feb 5 2021 5:54 am Permalink
H. D. VanderVeer

When I saw the name Vanderveer Park, I was curious to see how my ancestors were connected, this was really fun to read.
Wed, Sep 8 2021 8:02 pm Permalink
Winston Burrell

Can anyone help me find a Vander Veer Estates sign? The ones that were attached to the buildings of the 59-building projects
Sat, Feb 26 2022 2:58 pm Permalink
Kevin Davitt

I grew up at 1549 New York Ave. (between Glenwood & Farragut). I have pictures of the Farragut Woods which is where the Vanderveer Estates were built. Barbara Streisand was an early resident. Many of the new residents were Jewish folk from other older neighborhoods (Brownsville, Pitkin Ave. East New York). I got to see PRESIDENT Lyndon Baines Johnson at "the junction" as well as Bobby Kennedy. It was a great spot for those running for office. Voters turned out of subway and bus traffic as well as hundreds walking through to Brooklyn College.
Sat, Mar 11 2023 11:43 pm Permalink
Jon C

Interesting article. I think the caption should read Glenwood and Farragut, not Ave F & G. 653 East 29th Street, between avenues F and G, built c. 1910. Photograph by Deborah Tint 2020 I also want to learn more about the Brooklyn Heights Railway company mentioned in the advertisement.
Sun, Aug 13 2023 6:04 am Permalink

Post a Comment

While BPL encourages an open forum, posts and comments are moderated by library staff. BPL reserves the right, within its sole discretion, not to post and to remove submissions or comments that are unlawful or violate this policy. While comments will not be edited by BPL personnel, a comment may be deleted if it violates our comment policy.

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
eNews Signup

Get the latest updates from BPL and be the first to know about new programs, author talks, exciting events and opportunities to support your local library.

Sign Up