It’s hard to overstate how central the Crescent Athletic Club was to the social life of Bay Ridge at the turn of the 20th century. Its members were many of the most powerful men in Brooklyn. For several decades during a crucial period of modern development, it was the most prominent institution in Bay Ridge, not just a sporting club but also a social one, the setting of countless dinners, dances, lectures, concerts, minstrel shows and athletic competitions. Plays were produced here, attracting thousands of spectators; primitive motion pictures were screened; important men were waked.
William Howard Taft visited in 1911 to observe a lacrosse match, probably the only sitting president to ever visit the neighborhood; the beloved Gingerbread House was built across the street by a member, who contracted various other members to design and build it. The Crescent Club was “synonymous with the best in amateur sports” (its members were among the best amateur sportsmen in the county and the city) but it was also “the heart of Brooklyn,” as the Brooklyn Eagle reported in 1939—several years after it had abandoned Bay Ridge.
The club’s Bay Ridge property was its “Country Home,” in contrast to its “City Home,” a 12-story building still standing in Brooklyn Heights at the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton streets, opened in 1906 (to replace the old clubhouse farther down Clinton Street); it’s now St. Ann’s school. The Shore Road-fronting property, between 83rd and 85th streets, extending all the way back to what’s now Colonial Road, was literally a country club, as Bay Ridge was then still predominantly countryside; members could use the handsome boathouse, the subject of many an old postcard, to go rowing, or they could play baseball, tennis, football and, later, lacrosse and cricket, on the athletic grounds, or play golf on the surrounding fields, as well as hobnob with some of the prominent residents and civic leaders of the city and then borough of Brooklyn.
The country house was built on a piece of land, on Shore Road between 83rd and 85th streets, that’s by any measure the most interesting in Bay Ridge, in terms of historicity. It’s where the Van Brunts, a prominent old family, lived for many years, and it’s where two Van Brunts shot and killed the kidnappers of Charley Ross; where Fort Hamilton High School educated and graduated community leaders and local heroes—Bernard King, Janet Yellen, Gilbert Sorrentino; and, right across the street, Mrs. Gertrude Linz raised her world-famous apes.
A Quick History of the Land
Albert Van Brunt (1784-1857) inherited farmland fronting Shore Road from his father, which had already been passed down between a few generations of Van Brunts; Albert then passed it on to his children. His son John, born in 1823, would own and cultivate part of it, while John’s brother Charles, born December 1835, became a lawyer but stayed in Bay Ridge; as of 1867, he lived in his father’s house, according to Teunis Bergen’s Genealogy of the Van Brunt Family, presumably with John.
This house was just south of today’s 85th Street, just off of Shore Road, and was called the Albert van Brunt house. Another house stood a stone’s-throw away, probably built later, after Charles gained prominence—by becoming a judge in 1869. This summer home became known as the Charles Van Brunt house; it was just north of today’s 85th Street, and also just off of Shore Road, on the old family property.
It was outside the Judge’s house that the most notorious crime of the 19th century was busted open: Mosher and Douglas were shot, dying before they could reveal what they’d done to little Charley Ross, kidnapped from outside Philadelphia—a media sensation comparable to the Lindbergh case decades later. In the 20th century, Gertrude Lintz, “the Crazy Chimp Lady of Shore Road,” claimed to have lived in the Judge’s house, but in fact she lived in Albert’s older house. (She was not misinformed that Charles had lived there, but it was not in fact the Charles Van Brunt house of Mosher and Douglas notoriety.)
Charles’s house would be sold, and greatly altered, to become the first country clubhouse of the Crescent Athletic Club.
The Crescent Club’s Origins
The Crescent Club was in 1884 first proposed, on an elevated train platform, by William H. Ford, counsel for the Brooklyn Life Insurance Company, who was with several other men on their way back from a Yale–Princeton match when he thought Brooklyn should have a team, too. (A less plausible version has Ford beside his brother in bed “while the first flush of morning stole through the window.” William says, “I have legs sturdy, like unto piano legs. I am robust and full of vigor. I will organize a foot ball team and I will make of myself the center rush.” His half-awake brother murmurs, “The club should be called the Crescent, which means progress.”)
The football club soon formed in what’s now Park Slope, with what was later described as “a contractor’s crude building” as a clubhouse, on Ninth Avenue (now Prospect Park West) and 8th Street; practices and games were held across the street on a field separated by a fence from a grazing cow. The field went by various names, including the Athletic Grounds and, eventually, the Crescent Athletic Club Grounds, starting in 1886, reflecting then the club’s transformation from a mere football club into a true athletic organization. (A few other “Crescent Clubs” had been formed over the years but apparently bore no relation to this one.)
Within five years, the club had merged with the Nereid Boat Club; it outgrew its playing field, on which it had lost its lease anyway, and needed to buy land or cease to exist. In 1889, it set out to establish a country club, emphasis on the country—at that time, much of Bay Ridge was still farmland, fields and open space, particularly between Colonial and Shore roads.
In 1890, the Club also moved into a new clubhouse from its previous headquarters on two rented floors of a private house on Montague Street. “There is no other organization in Brooklyn that has taken such immense strides in so short a space of time,” Brooklyn Life reported. “Such has been its growth, due in large part to excellent management, that it is safe to predict that it will soon occupy a position second to none in the country.”
The Bay Ridge Country Home
The Club had secured an option on eight acres or so of Van Brunt property by February 1889, at a cost of $51,500. “It will afford ample room for a base ball and foot ball ground, tennis courts and for all field sports,” read a letter from the governing committee. “There is a large old fashioned house on the property, which at small expense can be converted into an excellent club house. The house is surrounded with handsome shade trees. All necessary barns, stables, etc. are on the property….If we raise the money to make the purchase the club will own an athletic ground as fine and more accessible than any in the vicinity of New York….It is very conveniently situated on one of the most beautiful sports on New York Harbor.” The purchase was announced by May.
The grounds needed to be graded “and thoroughly overhauled by a contractor,” the Eagle reported in March 1890. The old house would be painted and used for the season, but plans were to tear down and replace it soon after. A new fence would be put up.
The house was rather renovated and enlarged. As far back as August 1890, people were already bemoaning the changes to historic Shore Road, and one of the prime examples was this Van Brunt house, site of the famous shootout in 1874. It was “since sold by him to the flourishing Crescent club,” the Eagle reported. “This…is a very old homestead, but remodeled, and will, in a short time, it is said, be entirely torn down to make way for a far more pretentious and commodious structure.”
Others were bewitched by those pretensions. In September 1891, bonds had been secured, and construction costs were estimated at $60,000 (somewhere around $2 million, adjusted for inflation). “The Crescent’s new home will be 150 feet in length”—in comparison, Fort Hamilton High School, now on the site, is about 375 feet in length—“and will contain a large reception hall, club dining room, billiard room and cafe, smoking rooms, private dining rooms, bowling alleys, rifle range, writing rooms, and bachelor apartments to accommodate about one hundred people,” Brooklyn Life reported.
It will be built of stone and wood in the old colonial style of architecture, and the first floor will contain a reception hall 25 by 27 feet, and a large dining hall 40 feet by 60 feet will be on the south side of the house. The main hall will be finished in hardwood. An ingle-nook and a large fire-place, prettily tiled and decorated, will be one of the sights to welcome visitors to the comfortable building. On one side of the hall there will be the billiard room and cafe and several small card rooms, writing rooms, coat room and office. The second floor will contain a number of private dining rooms and about fifty sleeping apartments. The new bachelor apartments will be fitted up with every convenience. The third story will be devoted entirely to sleeping apartments. A woman’s entrance, having a separate staircase, will lead from the club grounds to the women’s reception rooms on the second floor. On the east side of the club house there will be a pretty carriage porch for the convenience of members of the club who drive down to the club. In the basement of the building there will be four regulation size bowling alleys of maple. A rifle range will extend the full length of the building. A large airy locker-room, with shower baths and every accommodation for the foot-ball players, base ball players and tennis experts, will be provided. A large wing will be erected in the rear of the house, and the first floor of this structure will contain a kitchen, over which Chef Louis Oppeikofer will preside. The servants’ quarters and store rooms will be located on the second floor of the wing and in the basement will be a well equipped laundry.
Construction was set to begin the following month, and in April 1892 a Brooklyn Life reporter visited. “I can honestly say that I was charmed with the arrangement and workmanship of the building,” he wrote.
For simple elegance, commodious facilities for comfort and admirable arrangement it certainly is not surpassed by any country club house I have as yet seen. The interior of the building is finished simply with whitewood in its natural state, and one gains at once a sensation of refreshing coolness which cannot fail to be deeply appreciated during the season when the house will be most in use. The rooms…are delightful. I for one can see little choice in them and should say that those reserved for the use of members who may wish to make a short stay are fully as desirable as the ones to be sold at auction. There are, in fact, no poor rooms in the house…Two particularly admirable features of the building are the ample accommodations provided for bathing, and the plentiful arrangements for open fires.
The Eagle described the trip there, in June 1893. “The drive down to the Crescent’s fields and green acres is one of the most charming in the vicinity of Brooklyn,” it reported.
The club house is located three-quarters of the way down the shore road just where the shore makes a steep descent and then a gentle decline to the water. In the latter depression the boat house is located, a decidedly pretentious affair. It is on the shore side of the road. The club house crowns the slight eminence back of the boat house and commands a charming view from under the shade trees of the panoramic going and coming of the sailing and steam craft through the narrows. Taken by and large there is no more generally picturesque and altogether delightful spot within many miles of Brooklyn.
The Problem of Women
The house was so impressive, and the grounds so lovely, that they proved popular especially with women—to the consternation of some members, who in 1893 posted a petition to prohibit them from the club on weekends. “The beautiful club house on Shore [sic] has been overrun on Saturdays and Sundays with sisters and cousins in very fetching summer clothes, and some of the confirmed bachelors ask the board of governors to admit none but men visitors on those days,” according to the Eagle, in June.
With their new country club house, looking out on the changing scenes of the waters of Bay Ridge, and its ample acres of beautiful greensward, the Crescent athletes have become most popular in the eyes of their fair associates. The Crescent Athletic club always did have the reputation of assembling the largest crowd of girls ever brought together in Brooklyn…But since the new house has been built on the shore road at Bay Ridge the girls, who used to be delightfully occas[ionally] found, are now far more constant than most of the members in their occupancy of the cozy summer quarters…
While to the unthinking observer this condition of excessive femininity might be taken as the height of bliss for the average Crescentite, it does not seem to be so considered by a certain set at least. Right in the face of what they feel will arouse the scornful glances of the girls, and likewise braving the charge of ungallantry, they get together and make up a petition. This petition in substance begs the officials of the club to rid them of the overplus of feminine attentions which the club is at present receiving. [It asked for a ban on women on Saturdays and Sundays.] The ostensible reason for this is that most of the members are engaged in active business during the week and get their only time of rest and recreation on Saturday afternoon and Sunday. In consequence they want untrammeled use of the club on those days…
[Said an active member,] “It is all right to have women with us within reason, but when I go down from the city tired and hungry on a Saturday afternoon from my business, I do not want to wait an hour while a lot of women are served. This is a man’s club and it should be so treated. Then again, if I take a friend down on a Sunday and we have a few bottles, I must demean myself in the most circumspect manner, both as to the number of bottles consumed and as to my consequent hilarity, or else all the women that I know will be talking of how awfully queer I was at the Crescent Club the other night.”…
Of course the few signers [of the petition] have already been read out of the circle of feminine tolerance before now and have been called “horrid things” and “nasty brutes” at least a hundred times.
The petition caused a stir, with many supporters afraid to support it publicly, and it was removed in secret to the city house, where no women were admitted. Brooklyn Life even published a satirical poem about it in dialogue, the last verse of which reads:
A.—Are they then misogynistic?
B.—Oh, my boy, of course they’re not.
But you see the club was destined
For a very different lot.
Founded for its members only
First and last and every day
Women have their charms, my chappie,
There they’re only in the way.
The “anti-womanists” were “totally routed,” Brooklyn Life reported the following week, alluding to an official statement, but new rules were put in place that suggested otherwise. Ladies were now banned from Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Those accompanied by a member, could use the ladies’ dining room. Those unaccompanied needed a ticket, which would be issued only to members’ families, and such tickets did not entitle a bearer “to introduce or entertain other guests of either sex.” Ladies were barred from the boathouse and almost everywhere else, including the veranda in front of the café; they were permitted only in their second-floor dining room and in the reception room.
By July 1893, partially in response to this issue, a new club had been founded in Bay Ridge, the Ridge Club, whose policies were more liberal toward women. The club bought 1.5 acres on 72nd Street, between what’s now Ridge and Colonial. (It was about where today, on the north side of the street, the apartment building ends and the rowhouses begin.) “It is a handsome wooden structure set in the midst of a grove of elms,” the New York Times reported, when the $35,000 clubhouse opened in July 1894. “The Ridge Club’s new home is intended quite as much for the use of the wives and daughters of members as for the members themselves. In the old quarters on Sixty-eighth Street ladies were always welcome visitors, but it was impossible to make them comfortable. They will find no lack of comforts in the new building.”
As Brooklyn Life put it in August 1893, “At first sight it may seem that the Ridge Club is a superfluous institution, considering the presence of the Crescent Club at Bay Ridge; but as a matter of fact the new organization is to be a family affair, more after the order of a casino, and it will undoubtedly add much to the enjoyment of the residents of Bay Ridge.” The officers included prestigious locals, from E.W. Bliss (whose land became Owl’s Head Park) to Samuel Thomas, whose early photographs of the area are a jewel of the Bay Ridge Historical Society’s holdings.
The woman problem persisted in the Crescent Club’s history. Almost twenty years later, in December 1911, a Sunday afternoon concert that admitted women and let them have dinner in the main dining room for the first time ever was a huge success—between one hundred and three hundred people had to be turned away. Two years later, in July 1913, “old members” reportedly resented an invasion of women. “What seems to have happened is this,” the Eagle reported:
Women, who were granted a special reception and dining-room in the Crescent town house, on Clinton Street, and a special end of the porch at the country house, in Bay Ridge, have shown a militant tendency to wander from the beaten paths…when a thunder storm broke over Bay Ridge recently, scores of women took refuge from the downpour on the northern end of the clubhouse porch, which, any member will tell you, is one of the last places to keep dry…[Wrote one old member, satirizing another,] “The fact that it was an unexpected downpour, that the piazzas were drenched, that the ladies’ parlor was overcrowded and that the ladies were our guests, is no excuse for the ‘flagrant violation of rules.’…It is needless to say that all who could not find shelter in the ladies’ parlor should have been promptly removed to the lacrosse field and covered with a tarpaulin until the storm had passed.
In May 1917, the Club hosted a tea given by the Anti-Suffrage Association of Brooklyn, whose committee included more than twenty women, most of whom went by Mrs. My Husband’s Name. But the club saw small advances for women, as well. In July 1918, during a shortage of men off fighting in World War I, the Club had to allow women to work as waitresses during lunch service. Just ten years later, women were permitted to observe an amateur boxing match for the first time in 44 years. “Last night’s venture was only in the form of an experiment and may or may not be repeated, according to how the board of managers feel about it later,” the Eagle reported. “The wives of many members attended and appeared to enjoy the bouts immensely.”
Transportation Also a Problem
In July 1893, Brooklyn Life complained about traveling to the club. “There is absolutely no comfort in the trip to and from Bay Ridge by trolley,” it reported. “Almost always crowded, these cars seem to have the particular favor of a large majority of the toughs in the city, whose actions are simply disgusting. It seems that they will always patronize the surface road in summer, for open cars and the trolley itself seem to have special attractions for this genus.”
At the time, work on the “Fifth Avenue Elevated” was underway on Third Avenue (despite the name), from 36th Street to 65th Street. (Service on the line ended in 1940, and the infrastructure on Third Avenue was used in the original Gowanus Expressway.) The writer thought this should be extended to 85th Street, paid for if necessary by clubmembers, who might add 50 cents per weekend admission to fund it. But that wasn’t all. “Whether they can in time influence the company to put on an extra car on certain Saturday and Sunday trains upon which the fare might be made ten cents, remains to be seen,” Brooklyn Life continued. “A ten cent fare would keep out the ‘gang’ and I do not know of a Crescent man who would not cheerfully pay extra for the privilege of riding in decent company.”
But even if a train made the trip to 85th Street, a trip to the club could still be difficult. “A subject of complaint by members…who have taken ladies down to Bay Ridge by way of Third avenue is the condition of the board walk down the lane leading down to the club grounds known as 85th street,” aka Crescent Lane, Brooklyn Life reported. At the time, the street had not yet been graded and paved, and was literally lined with narrow boards.
This walk is too narrow to admit of two walking abreast, and the male escort is generally forced to keep in the middle of the road, which, being rather rugged and full of loose stones and weeds, is not conducive to comfort. And there certainly appears to be just cause for complaint, as the walk, even as it is, is not kept in very good condition, and, though the lane is narrow, it would seem that another board could easily be added.
A stage was suggested, to run from Third Avenue to the club, but critics noted, “there are seldom enough passengers at one time to make it worth while.”
And even if one made it to the Crescent Club, was one still safe? “The possibility of a bombardment of New York has not affected in the slightest degree the renting of rooms at the Crescent [Club], although I have heard one yearly lodger at the Bay Ridge House express considerable solicitude concerning his safety on account of the indifferent marksmanship thus far shown by the Spanish gunners,” Brooklyn Life reported in May 1898, near the start of the Spanish–American War. “He argues—and it seems reasonable—that if a Spanish fleet attempts to reduce Fort Hamilton, the Crescent Club, only a mile away, is in a favorable position to catch a fair proportion of bombs.”
But through the years it wasn’t bombs or toughs or narrow boardwalks that members had most to fear—it was fire. The Crescent Club boathouse, which it built but leased from the parks department (the city took ownership, somehow, after Shore Road opened), burned down on February 7, 1904. At 9 p.m. that night, a passerby saw the fire and reported it to authorities, but it was too late—“The entire building and its contents, which included a number of the finest and most valuable rowing shells and gigs in the country, were destroyed,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. The loss was $20,000 (very roughly, $500,000, adjusted for inflation).
A new, grander boathouse, just north of the old one, opened in September. “No other boat house in the country, completed, under way or planned, can touch it in beauty of perspective and construction,” the Eagle reported. “Seen from the Shore Road, or the main club house verandas or lawns, with the bay as a background, it is a veritable picture.” The first floor was for boats, with just a shower and some washrooms; the second floor was for 502 lockers, and the corners were converted to bedrooms for members; the third floor would be converted into a huge dormitory with space for 50 to 100 men, to house visiting teams. It cost $25,000 to build.
In July 1910, the Grand Republic—a sister ship of the General Slocum, which famously caught fire in 1904 and killed almost 1,000 passengers—caught fire near the Crescent Club. No one died—the fire was extinguished, and the boat pulled into the Crescent Club dock, which was used by steamboat ferries dropping off passengers from the Battery. “The few members of the Crescent Club who were down at the Bay Ridge place…showed energy, coolness and helpfulness in the emergency,” the Eagle reported.
It was only six minutes between the time fire was discovered and the reaching of the Crescent pier, but it was a very thrilling six minutes for the clubmen on shore as well as for those on board. Discomfort for the rescued was reduced to a minimum, after the Crescent men, with the readiness of old watermen, had made fast the ropes flung to them by the excited crew and the gangplank had been thrown out.
Two years later, in July 1912, the clubhouse caught fire in the middle of the night, rousing sixty men—fifty members and almost a dozen lodgers—from bed. The fire started in the basement, believed to be spontaneous combustion in the coal bin, so mostly the cellar and first-floor dining room were damaged. “As the members crowded the smoke-filled halls some only attired in their night clothes, the shout to form a bucket brigade was heard,” the Eagle reported.
In a short time fifty of them were pouring buckets of water over the flames. The delay in conveying the water gave the flames a chance to make a good headway…A strong breeze coming in from over the bay fanned the flames and the south side of the building was fast burning away when the heavy streams from the fire boat were driven into the blaze. Half a dozen companies were now fighting the flames, and in half an hour the building was out of danger….Although coming as it did after 1 o’clock in the morning, the blaze attracted thousands of people who stood at Eighty-fourth street and Shore Road watching the progress of the flames. It was necessary to summon reserves form the Fort Hamilton station to keep the crowd in check. Many tried to press nearer to the building but were held back.
The next day, the Eagle mockingly reported, “It is to be hoped that the presence of Plutocracy in Pajamas sufficiently impressed the vulgar multitude assembled on the Shore Road.”
Another fire did almost $150,000 in damage (adjusted for inflation) in 1926, when the northeast part of the clubhouse caught fire, but was put out with relative speed. “The quickness of all concerned nipped in the bud what would have been a waterfront spectacle,” the Eagle reported, “and the fire was out half an hour after it was discovered at 10:30 [a.m.].” The fire, perhaps caused by “defective insulation,” didn’t spread below the third floor. “The only evidence of the fire visible from Shore rd. was the charred woodwork and the paneless windows at the third floor.”
In 1930, shortly after the Crescent Club had bought property in Huntington, Long Island, with plans to move out there, an unused house on the grounds caught fire. The building couldn’t be saved, but was far enough from others that no more damage was done.
By 1933, the club had moved out to Long Island, abandoning its old clubhouse and the old boathouse on Shore Road; the latter caught fire in April, reportedly after boys had been playing in it, after climbing in through the groundfloor windows. “When Battalion Chief Eugene McKenna arrived the interior of the building was a mass of flames and the fire had spread to almost the entire structure,” the Eagle reported. “Firemen were handicapped by the fact that the blaze could be attacked only from one side, as the structure lies in a depression 50 feet below street level and is flanked on the north side by an inlet and the west side of the bay.”
Twenty-five thousand people came to watch it burn down; traffic on Shore Road stopped as lookyloos parked and rushed to get a closer look. The pier and the old clubhouse were spared, but the majestic old boathouse was utterly destroyed, save for a single cupola “that remains balanced on the blackened skeleton…perched on the burnt timbers that once was the corner of the boathouse,” the Eagle reported two weeks later, when the charred remains still had not been torn down—“what we consider a menace to the safety of boys who will play around that section. To be sure, there is a guard stationed there, but there was a guard on duty at the Crescent Club when the fire started, too, which ought to prove something.” It would be late June, about 10 weeks after the fire, that the parks department would finally cart away the wreckage.
The Threat of Narrows Avenue
The greatest threat to the club, besides women and fire and bombs and boards, was Narrows Avenue. The issue arose in February 1900, when a sort of proto-community board voted to open the long-planned avenue, from 71st Street to Shore Road, ca. 90th Street. If Narrows extended from 83rd to 85th Street, it would cut the Crescent’s athletic field in two. Opposing sides debated for two hours, the Eagle reported.
James C. Church, for the Crescent Club, said that Narrows avenue existed on the map only as the result of an accident: that when it was placed on the map, in 1869, it was proposed to make that avenue the only thoroughfare between First avenue and the shore—in other words, that the present Shore driveway did away with all necessity of opening Narrows avenue.
J.P. Farrell, one of the property owners, interrupted Mr. Church with a statement that there was great need of Narrows avenue being opened, if only because lots facing on the avenue had recently been sold at auction…W. Ford, representing the Crescent Club, declared that the Crescent Club’s property increased the value of all adjoining property.
”If Narrows avenue is opened,” he said, “it means that the club will have to vacate its property, for the reason that it will cut the club’s athletic field in two. It might be well to let the adjoining property owners know that if the club leaves its present home the property will probably become a road house.”
Henry Mackay, one of the property owners, stated that the avenue was needed for the reason that all improvements in the vicinity was [sic] held back because Narrows avenue was not opened. “The question that bothers us,” he said, “is how long are we to await the pleasure of the Crescent Athletic Club before we can improve the property?”
A month later, as the fight continued, Farrell went further. “I am opposed to the club,” he said, “and am perfectly willing to go on record as saying that since it has been established it has been a blight to property on First avenue and not a house has been erected there since the club went down that way, and it is also a blight to property in the vicinity. The land in the rear of the club is claimed by it and they play golf on it, when, as a matter of fact, it is owned by other people. The club has done no good to the community and it is safe to say that all the boys who play truant from the school are to be found at the Crescent Club, where they are induced to play the part of caddies and the golf links and stay away from their studies. We want the avenue opened.”
An article in March suggested the property owners would likely get what they wanted—“the right to penetrate the Crescent property.” “To extend Narrows avenue wouldn’t hurt the Crescent grounds in the least,” Mackay said.
“The extension would pass right between the lacrosse fields and the base ball diamonds. Beside, it is right that the street should be cut through. The property owners want it and a club should not be permitted to stand in the way…”…Mr. Clarke, speaking for the other side, said that the Crescent grounds beautified Bay Ridge, that they formed a recreation field for hundreds of the best citizens of Brooklyn, and that a street cut through the center could not do otherwise than spoil them hopelessly…
”As to Narrows avenue benefiting values,” said Mr. Clarke, “let us look for comparison at First avenue. It has been cut through for years, and yet there are but three houses on its entire length. On the line of Narrows avenue there is but one, and that is in the middle of the road.”
The club wanted the avenue to end at 83rd Street and restart at 85th Street, as it does now. It had a sympathetic advocate in Brooklyn Life. “Self-interest and utilitarianism have at least prevailed against the efforts of the Crescent Athletic Club to preserve the dignity of their fine property,” it reported in May 1900. “It is surprising, considering the picturesqueness of the grounds, the recreative advantages they confer upon a large proportion of the residents in the neighborhood, together with the concessions the club was willing to make…that the Board of Public Improvement could have been influenced by the vague and unsubstantial assertions to the detriment of the club made by property-owners who would be benefited by the generous compensation allowed in condemnation proceedings.”
The street was placed on maps, but not actually opened; the Club had given the city an easement for sewer rights, which placated various boards, although it was warned that this strategy couldn’t prevail indefinitely. So in 1905, the Club petitioned to have that stretch of Narrows Avenue removed from the official maps, and borough officials now seemed more sympathetic to closing the street, at least as long as the fields were being used by the club. In fact, by the end of June, the Club won, and Narrows Avenue was officially closed between 83rd and 85th streets. A descendant of J. Holmes Van Brunt, who owned land south of the club, sued to reverse this, but lost, in 1908. To this day, this stretch of Narrows Avenue is semipublic, seemingly at the whim of Fort Hamilton High School security, who sometimes leave the gates open, allowing pedestrians to cut through, but more often do not.
E.W. Bliss, owner of the property that later became Owl’s Head Park, went through a similar fight in 1893, trying to prevent Narrows Avenue from cutting through his land. While it can be difficult to sympathize with wealthy landowners like Bliss or the members of the Crescent Club, their private land did not remain private, and thus temporarily preserving it for them preserved it ultimately for us all. Had Narrows Avenue cut through Owl’s Head, the park might not exist today; if it did, it would be very different. Similarly, had it opened through the Crescent field, and if then the club had relocated, this land would surely have developed like the streets around it. There would be no playground, running track and no Fort Hamilton High School, which might have been built at its alternate location—but we’ll get to that.
Fit for a President
On June 7, 1911, the Brooklyn Eagle predicted the following day could “prove a record breaker as far as the Bay Ridge grounds of the Crescent Athletic Club are concerned,” because President William Howard Taft was planning a visit, with the governor and mayor and several thousand others, to see a lacrosse match there. “That the President of the United States has shown a desire to see the famous Crescent twelve in action has spurred the club officials to a great deal of activity and the day will probably be one of the most important in the history of the organization.”
Tickets to the game against the Montreal Athletic Association, to be refereed by the Bronx Borough President (also a Crescent lacrosse star), were given out to those who applied at the clubhouse in Downtown Brooklyn. The Navy Yard Band would supply music, by special order of the secretary of the navy. It was just one leg—the last—of the president’s trip to Brooklyn, for what was then Sunday School Anniversary Day, what we now know as Brooklyn–Queens Day.
The visit turned out to be a minor embarrassment for Brooklyn officials. “In Brooklyn…90 percent of the roads are good and 10 percent are bad,” the superintendent of the bureau of highways told the Eagle. “Those who laid out the President’s route almost succeeded in confining his travels to the 10 percent that are bad.” Some had even been under or adjacent to construction, including those approaching and on the Williamsburg Bridge. None were wet, as even those that had been dampened quickly dried, nor sprinkled with oil, which would have soiled the marching children’s outfits.
“Thick Dust and Dirt of Brooklyn Streets Obscured Taft Smile,” read the headline in the Eagle.
Brooklyn’s eighty-second Sunday school anniversary parade yesterday will be remembered by President Taft as the occasion of one of the dustiest rides of his life. From the time his machine entered upon the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge until he reached the Crescent Club grounds at 5 o’clock, with brief halts in Prospect Park and near some of the churches, the President and his escort traveled in a choking cloud of dust, which caused everyone the greatest discomfort. …
When [the party] arrived at the Crescent Club, in Bay Ridge, the famous Taft smile was buried beneath an almost impenetrable veneer of dust and dirt. Governor Dix’s face was as dark as that of a dusky warrior of the Philippines. Coats were of one hue—grayish brown.
At the clubhouse the crowds on the lawns and verandas sent up a mighty cheer of welcome as the presidential party whirled into the driveway. Instantly the cheering turned into astonished expressions of “Well, well, look at them. I declare, did you ever see such a sight? Just look at the President! And the Governor—is that begrimed man really Governor Dix?”
Democracy in the Extreme in Club’s Washroom
Little time was spent in greetings, for all of the autoists had but one idea—soap, water and a whisk broom. The President and his immediate party with the Secret Service men, hurried up stairs to the wash room. The Governor, his aids, and all the other Congressmen and officials of high and low degree, made a grand rush for the wash room in the basement. Here was an extraordinary scene. Rank and wealth were lost sight of in the one object, to bathe the dust-filled, smarting eyes, and restore vision first of all. The Governor peeling off his coat, collar and tie, plunged his head into the wash basin. The newspaper reporter emersed [sic] his face in the basin alongside of him. Neither cared how much the other splashed.
Behind Governor Dix stood several gold-laced military aids. Once dashingly uniformed, they now resembled the officers of the Mexican insurrection. The Governor was asked how he liked Brooklyn.
“The children’s parade has been an inspiring sight,” he replied, and then added, “I have taken in a great deal of Brooklyn and its real estate.”
…In spite of the dust, the President said after it was all over that he had never had a better time. Those who were in his party estimate that he passed 41 miles of Brooklyn children, massed three and four deep all the way. What with the constant bowing, hand-shaking and turning from side to side, the President was thoroughly tired out last night….But he is well satisfied. He came to Brooklyn to see people and to be seen by them and he accomplished both these objects.
The Times reported that Taft avoided the worst of the dust by being in the first car. He appeared in a field box at the lacrosse game and stayed for about a half hour. “At the end of this time he went to the Crescent Club wharf,” the Times reported. “A small boat of the revenue cutter Seneca was waiting, and he was conveyed on board. As he reached the cutter’s rail the echoes of the harbor were set flying by the bow chasers of the Seneca, which fired the President’s salute of twenty-one guns.” He sailed to W. 42nd Street and went to his brother’s house, where he dressed for dinner.
The Crescent Club won the lacrosse match, 6 to 3.
Film of the visit was recorded, and the footage was screened at the downtown clubhouse that October, where “much enthusiasm was shown as the faces of well-known members of the club were recognized,” the Eagle reported. These could have been Vitagraph newsreels; I have found no indication that these, or any Vitagraph newsreels, have survived.
I have seen mentioned that Theodore Roosevelt visited the Crescent Club while president, in 1902, to see the first Davis Cup tennis matches, which were held on the Bay Ridge grounds. But both the Eagle and the Times covered those matches at the time and made no reference to a visit from the president, nor could I find any mention in those archives that put Roosevelt there at another time. Teddy was a big tennis fan; also in 1902, he had a court built at the White House.
It’s possible that I just missed the mentions of Roosevelt’s visit, or that it went unreported, or that he visited another time. More likely, I think, is that it’s apocryphal, perhaps confused years later with Taft’s visit. As the Eagle itself put it, in 1932, discussing Taft’s visit, “We know of no other President coming to Bay Ridge.”
The Surrounding Community
The Crescent Club’s Narrows Avenue critics said it had no benefit to the surrounding area—which might have been true at the turn of the twentieth century, though not for much longer. The Narrows Avenue fight was about development, pitting the landowners, who wanted to profit off of land sales and house building, against the forces of conservatism, who wanted to retain the country atmosphere that had made the area attractive in the first place. But though the Crescents won the battle against Narrows Avenue, it was only the first; the club could not stop all development surrounding it.
Bay Ridge was a village in the old Town of New Utrecht, which became a part of the city of Brooklyn in 1894; just four years later, Brooklyn became part of New York City. Around this time, talk began about bringing a subway as far as Bay Ridge. (I already mentioned the Fifth Avenue Elevated; it’s worth remembering that before the subway, there were many trains all over Brooklyn and the other boroughs, moving passengers, but they ran aboveground, which means they were vulnerable to the weather.) Talk of the subway started a real estate boom; it wouldn’t climax until the late teens and early 20s, after the subway finally made it, but many lots were sold and homes built during this time, particularly east of Third Avenue.
The Club left its mark at this time, becoming its area’s dominant institution—the way so many schools and buildings around McKinley Park would bear the McKinley name. In 1904, 85th Street was being called Crescent Lane; later on, Harbor Lane, a small side street opened nearby, was for many years called Crescent Street. In 1915, work began on a large piece of land just north of the club, a development that would be called Crescent Hill; its restrictive rules on building survive in modern zoning regulation, which is why there are so many large, attractive, freestanding houses between 83rd and 79th streets, Shore and Colonial roads. (Read a history of Crescent Hill here.)
In 1918, the famous Gingerbread House was built, and the Eagle called it a “distinctly Crescent Club affair,” noting its many connections to the club just across the street: the owner, Howard E. Jones, was involved in the golf program there; the architect was a veteran of the hockey team; the builder had recently appeared in a minstrel show at the club; the interior decorator/glassworker was also on the hockey team and an otherwise prominent member. “The dwelling is situated as close as it can geographically get to the Crescent Club grounds, without actually obstructing the course of baseball, tennis and golf balls,” the Eagle reported; “in fact, it would seem necessary….to provide ball-proof windows in the house to protect the glass from being shattered by the elusive spheres.”
Even the materials used in the construction of the house have a local habitation. The cobblestones which form the main walls have been collected from the neighborhood. The timber used in the ceiling of the billiard room is native to Bay Ridge and the trees and the shrubbery are being transplanted from Mr. Jones’ gardens in Eighty-first street.
Ten years later, in 1928, the Eagle reported that the area the Narrows Avenue owners had once accused of being kept desolate by the Crescent presence was thriving. “Throughout this section development has come only in the past three years,” the paper reported. “Only a short time ago much of this land lying close to the Shore rd. at 81st st. was a part of the golf links of the Crescent Club nearby, and its natural attractions lent themselves to the residential growth that has come since. This section now is probably one of the most popular in Bay Ridge.”
Golf in Bay Ridge
The Crescent Club had space for its clubhouse and an athletic field that could accommodate several sports. But it didn’t have the space for a proper golf course, so it used to use the open land surrounding the club, in the days before there were houses there. But development encroached, and there was always talk of more land to be lost to development, as surrounding owners sold off their land in lots. For more than a decade, anxiety swirled about when Crescent golf would end for good.
In 1905, for example, the Brooklyn Eagle reported, “About once a year the story bobs up that the Crescent Athletic Club is to lose its golf course, or rather what is left of it. [Its president] denies that the links have now been lost for good and all, despite the latest encroachments. Somehow the club has previously managed to gain temporary use of small plots of new ground adjoining, every time it has lost a slice of land elsewhere, but such escape cannot be kept up indefinitely.”
In 1907, “The Crescent Athletic Club has had its usual spring scare over losing its golf links and other athletic grounds at Bay Ridge, but the spectre has again passed and another full year’s tenure is declared to be certain. The opening of Eighty-fourth and Eighty-fifth streets is only a question of time, however.” At the end of that season, the 18-hole course was rebuilt as nine-holes, after much of its land was developed. That course was completely refigured the following year, because even more houses were being built.
This sort of thing continued into 1920, when the Eagle reported that 35 lots south of 81st Street, between Narrows and Colonial, had been sold—land that had been part of the Crescent’s hodge-podge golf course. By 1930, a small item in the Eagle rued the loss. “The Crescent Athletic Club membership once dreamed of a golf course to take the place of the one that once roamed in and around the rolling hills of Bay Ridge near where the present country house stands,” it reported. “The Crescent Club had to let the course go. Real estate booms, encroaching buildings and the like made a golf course in that neighborhood impractical, not to mention expensive.”
(Indeed! The Dyker Golf Course hung on because the land had been slated for a grand park, but government inaction never got it built, and the golfers moved in in the meantime until someone had the idea to overcome municipal inertia and just declare it to be the de facto golf course it already was. Read the in-depth story here.)
A proper golf course was a long-time dream for many Crescent members, unrealized until 1931, when the club abandoned Brooklyn.
Early Ideas to Move
Given the rush to development, it was only a matter of time before the country club would need to seek more amenable country—moving farther east, into the still-unclaimed wilds of Long Island. “With the gradual change of New Utrecht from a country and outlying district to Brooklyn’s 30th Ward, and so a city district, with city improvements, a change of summer home has been apparently needed by the Club,” Charlotte Bangs writes in her 1912 book Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus.
“The Crescent Club has realized for a long time that it must evacuate the Bay Ridge property,” the Eagle reported in February 1911. “Golf has practically been killed by encroachments on the links; shooting is continued only by the courtesy of the neighbors, and although lacrosse is the big attraction at Bay Ridge during the early summer and fall, it is indulged in by but comparatively few members.”
It is felt by the officials of the Crescent club…that its primary object is to give all the members a chance to practice their favorite pastime, and Bay Ridge does not now afford the opportunity. Another important factor in the movement is to find new quarters is the fact that the property at Bay Ridge is annually becoming more and more valuable, and that the taxes amount to a large sum, out of proportion to the good that is being derived.
As early as 1900, at the height of the Narrows Avenue crisis, Brooklyn Life mentioned the sorts of wide-open places to which the club might relocate: “Staten Island, and the south shore of Long Island, somewhere in the neighborhood of Cedarhurst, or Far Rockaway.” But the first mention of a real possible move was in 1911, when it was the north shore of Long Island that looked good.
The property-of-interest belonged to Judge Townsend Scudder, near the Glen Head stop on the LIRR, on the way to Oyster Bay. It was 189 acres with 1,800 feet of waterfront (today, along another “Shore Road”), plenty of space for golf and everything else. Many members were worried, however, that acquiring this land would be the first step to evacuating Bay Ridge.
In June 1911, a holding company bought the Scudder property, now called Glenwood, for $350,000 (roughly $8.5 million adjusted for inflation) and began work on building a golf course. Half of the stockholders were Crescent Club members; the president of the holding company was the president of the Crescent Club. And the club would have an option to buy the property, if its Bay Ridge property were threatened (say, again, by Narrows Avenue).
Golf began the following year, under the auspices of the Glenwood Country Club. “The golf course was not particularly well received however,” according to a history on the North Shore Country Club’s website, “and before long it was experiencing severe financial problems. This proved to be the Harmonie Club’s good fortune however and [the storied Upper East Side club] purchased Glenwood for the princely sum of $390,000 on March 13, 1914, and it was immediately renamed the North Shore Country Club”—the name it retains to this day.
The issue caused a huge controversy among the members, and serious plans to move were not considered again until April 1930—just six months after Black Tuesday.
Executing the Huntington Plan
This proposed move to the 300-acre Rainey Estate near Huntington, about 13–14 miles east of Glenwood (as the crow flies), was also very controversial, as Bay Ridge partisans were still many. “A considerable number of Crescent members have always insisted on keeping the Bay Ridge place,” the Eagle reported in May 1930. “They are opposed to going elsewhere.”
But perhaps some skeptics were won over by the promise of amenities such as 40 extra acres for landing strips for airplanes and two golf courses. The Hunting property would cost about $1.5 million (almost $22 million, adjusted for inflation) to purchase and develop, but the value of the Bay Ridge property was estimated at $2 million (about $29 million, adjusted for inflation).
The Crescent Club had also pursued a plan to merge with the smaller Hamilton Club, with a clubhouse on Remsen Street. It was thought that the sale of one of their two clubhouses could finance one superclubhouse, big enough for both, while retaining valuable equity in the other. The expansion plan was threefold: to move to a new countryhouse in Huntington; to merge with the Hamilton Club; and to build a new cityhouse.
About 100 Crescent members visited Huntington in early May 1930, and most returned enthusiastic about the potential move. “Practically all of the members who have inspected the property have been favorably impressed with its beauty and adaptability,” the Eagle reported a few days later. “Sentiment in favor of acquiring the Long Island property is growing and members are inclined to believe the proposition will be approved by a large majority.”
An opposition formed, however, led by Charles Chambers, Jr., a former tennis player, pitted against long-time Crescent president James C. Cropsey, a New York state supreme court justice. Critics said the trip to Huntington took two hours or more; advocates said new highways would cut that time to an hour. (One member “pointed out that when the club acquired the Bay Ridge property in 1890 it required an hour and a half to get there from downtown Brooklyn.) Critics said the Bay Ridge property wasn’t as valuable as presumed; advocates said appraisers put it at $1.5 million minimum.
After controversy around the scheduled vote—including a surprise request for an injunction, which was not upheld—a vote was finally held on May 20, 1930, and the expansion project was approved, 908 to 699. The club would move immediately to acquire the Huntington property, and the Bay Ridge property would remain open until Huntington was ready; bids for the Bay Ridge property would be considered.
Howard E. Jones, who built his Gingerbread House across the street from the Bay Ridge property, quickly sued to set aside the vote and stop the expansion. An acrimonious hearing ended with the judge suggesting he might side with Jones and the opposition, but ultimately he did not. The Eagle defended the late-May decision on merits of law and also the custom of courts not interfering with the proceedings of social clubs and churches.
So the expansion plans continued, full steam ahead. On July 28, 1930, the club took title of six lots in Huntington. Cropsey oversaw the construction of a golf course right away. The Crescent Club was at this point the largest social club in Brooklyn, with more than 2,700 members. Almost 70 Long Islanders had recently asked to join, too, and the waiting list grew to 500.
Moving, and Selling the Bay Ridge Property
In August 1931, negotiations to merge with the Hamilton Club finished up, after the plan received backing from an “influential group” in the Hamilton Club, whose membership had until then seemed uninterested. The club was much smaller than the Crescents—about 360 vs. 2,500—but “its list for years has included the names of Brooklyn’s prominent families,” the Eagle reported. A court approved the consolidation in September 1931.
Old-timers were nostalgic about the Bay Ridge house, particularly its storied history in tennis. As the Eagle reported, in June 1931:
The Crescent Club’s verdant oasis in Bay Ridge stretched out below the old timer’s feet as he stared a little mournfully from beneath the brim of a canvas hat to watch the first day of the intercollegiate tennis tournament unfold itself. Beyond Shore Road, the waters of the Narrows shimmered in the sun. The doleful blast from some rusty old freighter’s whistle seemed strangely in tune with the old fellow’s tone as he began the conversation.
“Forty years I’ve watched tennis here,” he started. “Seen champions come and go. Seen 13,000 people here to watch a championship doubles match—and that was before tennis was commercialized like it is today, with seats priced at $5 and more [almost $80, adjusted for inflation].
“Everybody who ever amounted to anything in tennis played here,” he explained, including with one affectionate sweep of his arm the 10 immaculate courts in their shade-tree setting. “And now they’re going to—well, it’s a shame, I tell you.”
The elderly gentleman hesitated a bit, perhaps because it hurt him to think of the desecration to come. But it’s a well known story how the Crescent Club will soon turn its back upon the Bay Ridge garden spot for the new Huntington grounds. In three weeks even the hallowed turf of the Bay Ridge courts will be torn sod from sod and used to fill in at Huntington…After July’s first week, all that will be left of the Crescent Club’s grand tennis past will be memories.
But what memories they are!
The relocation of the grass itself really did occur, not even 10 days later, as the Eagle chronicled in an article headlined, “Crescent Lawn Has Dark Brown Taste.”
Yesterday—a rich, green carpet of turf that had taken 40 years to acquire its luster and body. And today—a hard, brown gash in the famous lawn of the Crescent Club’s former country place on the Shore Road, Bay Ridge.
When thundershowers washed out the seed that had been planted along the hilly fairways of the golf courses at the new country home of the club at Huntington, L. I., the landscape gardeners removed the historic turf from the Bay Ridge property and transported it to the Huntington courses…Six truck loads of turf have already been removed from Bay Ridge and another two loads will have been taken before the job is completed. It is estimated that 2,000 square feet will have been removed from the lacrosse field, the grass tennis courts and the putting greens on Shore Road.
The Bay Ridge grounds closed on July 1, and the Huntington ones opened on the Fourth: its 20-room clubhouse, its front-lawn dance floor (with “flowers bed in the form of crescents on either side”), a locker room said more to resemble a hotel, 24 clay tennis courts, 30 grass tennis courts, eight miles of motorcar roads and 12 miles of bridle paths (with its own stables and horses); there were two swimming pools—one fresh water and one salt water—plus fields for lacrosse, cricket, polo and lawn bowling. One of the 18-hole golf courses was opened for the occasion, as well as Edward W. Ditmars Memorial Baseball Field, and the beachfront casino, “itself the last word in yacht clubs.”
A month later, back in Bay Ridge, the Eagle described the effect of “desertion” on the “once gay” clubhouse.
Bay Ridge is beginning to miss the Crescent Athletic Club. Wednesday and Saturday nights at the Shore Road clubhouse are now just dark evenings. The dancing crowds and the crooning melodies, which lent a festive air to the Shore Road section, are no-more.
The crowds and music might have been discontinued and still the atmosphere of the old club would have carried on, but the tall lawns and the uncut hedges, the abandoned dock and the makeshift gates to the property, the absence of lights and the dim, drab appearance of the grounds lends melancholy character to the scene of former gayety. Like the abandoned place of a deposed potentate, the old country site of the Crescent Club stands silent and dismal, overlooking the Narrows.
The miramar stops no more at the Crescent pier. The high locked gates does [sic] not permit prospective passengers to meet the Manhattan ferry in the morning. The boathouse, with its locker rooms and large steeples[,] is just another deserted building. The missing boards on the boathouse pier and the broken down dock nearby which helped to form a basin, the incoming tide with its collection of watermelon rinds and pineapples, lemons and bananas all indicate that the activity of another day is no more….
Where the ancient lawn tennis once stood and from which the 40-year-old sod was taken…a new kind of grass grows. It grows without fear of lawnmowers. For the motor driven mowers are heard no more, nor the electric hedge cutter, which buzzed away when the hedge needed trimming.
The Bay Ridge grounds of the Crescent Club stand deserted and unkempt awaiting the fate which time has in store for it. How soon its fate will be determined is a matter of speculation. It has been sought for many purposes, but to what use it will finally be put only the board of governors of the club know. And they are keeping that information to themselves.
Such melancholy stretched into September.
Residents of Bay Ridge and Fort Hamilton heave heavy sighs as they stroll or ride past the old building think of its past glories. The grass is growing long and weedy on the lawns that were once pressed by the dainty slippers of Brooklyn’s prettiest girls and most stalwart athletes. Before, during and after the gay ’90s, and the piazzas and dining rooms that for many a long year…resounded to the clinking of glasses, the ringing laughter of merry throngs and the buzz of animated conversation, are as silent as a grave.
…You can’t convince any of the old members that they will ever have half as good a time at the new [Huntington] place as they had at the old Bay Ridge house, where one could sit and eat and chat, and if so inclined, sip light (or dark) wines or Pilsner or Wurzberger, or plain everyday lager made in the U.S.A. And what could compare with the view of the harbor, especially at night, with the commerce of the world passing a few feet from the foot of the steps leading to the spacious porches?
It won’t be long now until the crowbars and axes reduce to splinters and dust the place where, on innumerable occasions “eyes looked love to eyes that spake again,” and the hearts of young men were reduced to pulp by the devastating glances of the more or less demure maidens of another day. Who can forget those Saturday afternoons when the great lacrosse contests drew large and fashionable gatherings? Most of those who applauded the players remained for dinner and a stroll along the lovely lane that led from the clubhouse to Fort Hamilton, and that has been cruelly transformed into a hard highway.
…“The House With Nobody In It” is still standing there by the side of the road. Spiders are spinning webs over the bins in the cellar that once held such vast quantities of “corked sunshine,” and the athletic field, where once the crowds cheered the footballers and the lacrosse experts and the ball-tossers, is still waiting for the steam shovel that will probably dig a place for a skyscraper apartment, the occupants of which will have only a hazy idea of the glorious past that the site has known.
The Club soon faced a money problem, “because of unexpected costs in establishing the Huntington Country Club,” the Eagle reported in June 1932—a shortfall of $140,000 (almost $2.5 million, adjusted for inflation). Earlier reports had mentioned the possibility of borrowing money from members, or of raising membership fees. (A rumor had circulated in February that the old boathouse would be sold to “refreshment stand interests,” the Eagle reported, selling hot dogs and soda and potentially turning Shore Road into a “miniature Coney Island.” The parks commissioner firmly denied he would allow such a thing, adding that the boathouse would likely be “removed.”)
Drastic steps were recommended the following month: close the Hamilton clubhouse immediately, and sell the Bay Ridge property.
Locals feared the decision “may result in a lowering of the asking price for the Bay Ridge holding…seen by many who predict that [apartment] builders are only waiting for the situation to come to a head”—and that the zoning law, which protected Shore Road from 79th to 86th streets, would be changed. “The general feeling among residents,” the Eagle reported in July 1932, “tends to show that they are sentimental about retaining many of the show places along the beautiful drive.”
Hugh Napier, president of [a local civic organization], deplores the changing of the old order on Shore Road. “The advance of the apartment house row on Shore Road is inevitable,” said Mr. Napier, “and doubtless as the occasion arises the zoning laws will continue to be changed along the entire road.”
But there is little beauty in the solid faces of apartment walls, in the opinion of Napier, who remembers when Shore Road was a country lane with farmhouses dotting the landscape…Opposition to the change in zoning would be futile, he believes.
Napier also opposed a proposed taking over of the house and grounds for a public recreation center, which the city would exempt from taxation. “The whole idea is far-fetched…and would be of little of no service to this community,” Napier told the Eagle. “Making the property tax exempt, I fear, would simply add to the burdens of an already overtaxed community. There are many one and two-family houses in this part of the city, and the owners of these, many of whom are finding it difficult as it is to ‘keep their heads above water,’ will find any additional tax, no matter how small, burdensome.” He suggested that Dyker Beach Park, when finished, would “provide all of the wants of those seeking to play handball, tennis, volley ball, etc., and I see no reason why the Crescent Club property should be even considered for athletic purposes.”
A rumor emerged that several wealthy young members of the club would buy the land or make arrangements with Crescent management to run it. “It would be a big thing for Bay Ridge to have that property pass into the hands of local folk,” the Eagle reported in September 1932. “It’s a cinch they wouldn’t do anything with it that would hurt Bay Ridge. As a matter of fact the idea seems to be to make it an exclusive Bay Ridge club with dues sufficiently low to allow moderate purses the right to membership. The proposition was outlined to us in such a way that it could not help but be attractive.”
But these ideas didn’t come to pass. Meanwhile, the ferry to the Battery, which stopped at the Crescent pier, was discontinued in late September 1932. “Several large apartment house owners in the Shore Road section are eager to have the service continue,” the Eagle reported, “but this the line refuses to do unless the owners agree to guarantee the cost of operating the Sea Gate, a 800-passenger boat,” which would have been $75 a day (or more than $1,300, adjusted for inflation). Less than two years later, the Eagle found the parks department dismantling the old dock and the foundation of the boathouse. (In addition, the paper was informed that the old curves of the sea wall would be straightened out with landfill, so Robert Moses could build his parkway, which opened in 1940.)
And the house continued to crumble. “The property…has been allowed literally to go to seed,” the Eagle reported in September 1933. The hedges had started overtaking the for-sale signs. Four months earlier, it was later revealed, the Crescent Club had stopped paying the mortgage on the Bay Ridge place, and the Bowery Savings Bank began foreclosure proceedings in November 1934, three months after the Club’s 50th anniversary celebration, held at the city house, at which Mayor LaGuardia was the guest of honor.
In January 1937, the Board of Estimate (a precursor to our City Council) denied a rezoning request to build apartments on the land. “The board’s action was based on a report…which said that the property should be subdivided by streets before any such request is entertained,” the Eagle reported. “Otherwise…some one will build an apartment house in the bed of what later will be a street.”
The High School
In 1929, teenage girls in Bay Ridge attended Bay Ridge High School, on 67th and Fourth Avenue (now the High School for Telecommunications), and boys attended New Utrecht High School, on 79th Street and Sixteenth Avenue. But both schools were becoming crowded, and the chairman of the local school board urged construction of a new boys high school in Bay Ridge, as well as new athletic fields for the New Utrecht school—once adjacent to the school, and another at nearby Dyker Beach Park.
“‘Athletic fields and playgrounds’ may be needed for a Bay Ridge Boys High School,” the Eagle reported nine months later, in September 1930, “but the proposition to have the city buy the Crescent Club’s extensive property seems a bit too ambitious. Taxpayers are beginning to feel that more attention to their relatively inexpensive books would improve the morale of school children immensely.”
Six months earlier, in March 1930, the idea had also been floated of transforming the 15-acre parcel into a college. The $1.5 million pricetag was half a million less than the mayor was willing to pay. “Facing the lower bay, on Shore Road, the property is on high ground,” the Eagle reported. “Proposed erection of a spur to the Smith St. subway by the time the building would be ready would settle the transit problem, it is pointed out.” (This, obviously, never happened.) Crescent Club president Cropsey thought the lot was too small for a college, especially compared to a 43-acre tract in Flatbush, a former golf course, under consideration—which eventually became the present site of Brooklyn College.
In 1931, the Crescent site was called the “likely” site of a new high school, as well as, perhaps—given its size—an elementary school. But the plan didn’t move forward. Support for a high school reemerged in January 1934, as did alternative sites, including two blocks of Leif Erickson Park and a site on 100th–101st streets. A November 1937 letter noted the Crescent Club site was superior to the 100th-Street site because the latter “has buildings on it,” which would cost tens of thousands of dollars to demolish.
The following month, at a vote of the Board of Estimate, City Comptroller Frank Taylor advocated for the 100th Street site; when his bid failed, he joined Borough President Raymond Ingersoll in advocating for the Crescent Club site, but Mayor LaGuardia decided to postpone the vote, and the borough presidents of Manhattan and Staten Island followed his lead, meaning neither site had enough votes to win. (It was later blamed on “a few excited spectators” who “made a rumpus.”) Taylor subsequently recommended renewal of the lease of “the entire second floor in the building at the northwest corner of 4th Ave. and 63d St. as an annex for the Bay Ridge High School” for three years, at a cost of $10,300 a year.
In a lame duck session of the Board of Estimate, less than a week later, Comptroller Taylor pushed through his plan for the site at 100th Street, even though, as Ingersoll pointed out, the Crescent Club site was three times as large and “accessible from all parts of the district.” Plus, the 100th Street site had two large apartment buildings on it, one of which had 60 families in it. Furthermore, “8,000 family units live within a radius of one-half a mile of the Crescent Club property, twice as many as in a similar radius of the Fort Hamilton site.” And it was accessible by bus and a not-unreasonable walk from the subway, unlike the 100th Street site—and the Crescent Club site was $69,000 cheaper!
Though the decision was thought to be final, and much lamented by Crescent advocates, it was then overturned a month later by the new Board of Estimate. Of course, this decision had its own detractors, who thought the location was too remote, and that the price was inflated, though the source of their opposition might have laid more in fears of “serious depreciation in the property values surrounding the site, which is today a high-class residential area.” Opponents from Borough Park also thought a “Fort Hamilton” high school should be more centrally located—on Fort Hamilton Parkway, somewhere between 55th and 69th streets—to alleviate overcrowding at Erasmus as well as New Utrecht and Bay Ridge high schools.
An influential real estate man, however, supported the plan, and within the year a bond issue would be made to finance demolition of the Crescent house. The Bay Ridge Chamber of Commerce urged the construction of a “special building” in keeping with the surroundings. “Taking [a typical school] and setting it up in Bay Ridge would be an abortion,” said one member. “This particular site deserves special attention because of its beautiful layout, its vista and its scenery,” said another.
“We don’t want barracks,” said a third.
They were surely impressed with the designs by Eric Kebbon, released in July 1939. The Eagle reported the school would be “One of the City’s Handsomest,” a “Harbor Landmark…”Semi-Monumental in Design” which would “Impress Those on Incoming Steamships.” “The style will be modified classic, built of red brick with limestone trim in the form of a capital ‘H,’ with open recessed courts to the north and south…plans for the Fort Hamilton High School were designed to get away from the old factory type of school building.” It planned to accommodate 3,600 students; the total cost was put at $3.3 million (more than $57.2 million, adjusted for inflation).
In September 1940, the cornerstone was laid by Mayor LaGuardia. Officers from the army base attended the ceremony, as did 500 New Utrecht students, each carrying a small American flag. It recalled the ceremony held in 1913 for the laying of the cornerstone of Bay Ridge High School, which attracted 2,000 residents.
Seven months later, before the school had even opened, locals were already complaining about its effect on the community. “What is the matter with the people of our lovely Bay Ridge in the section recently spoiled by the new high school and playground on the old Crescent Club grounds?” A.C. White asked in an April 1941 letter to the Eagle.
Why are we all standing apathetically by and letting our lovely section and property be ruined by hoodlums on their way to and from the playground? These unruly youths are not youngsters by any means. They are youths bent upon ruining all the property they can, breaking every window within reach, and pulling up all the bushes and shrubs as they pass. What a pity to ruin a section with such a playground!
This goes on from the time school closes at 3 o’clock each day and well into the night until around 10 o’clock. They then go up the street breaking all the bottles they find and strewing the middle of the roadway with broken glass, causing damage to the tires of the cars using these streets. The condition is becoming more and more acute each day and no doubt with the coming of the Summer one’s life will be a prolonged heartache trying to preserve the property one has so dearly paid for.
Perhaps all the neighbors in this vicinity can band together and take some action to preserve this lovely neighborhood which Mr. [Robert] Moses has exerted all his talents to destroy. I know the police are doing more than their physical share but they can’t be everywhere and these rowdies are even impudent to them.
The coed school opened on September 8, 1941 (with my grandmother in its classes, the first of three generations of my family to be educated there; the school celebrated its 75th anniversary last year), with room now for 2,500 students, after a cost of $2.7 million ($44.6 million, adjusted for inflation). Dr. August Ludwig was principal. “The school is three stories high and has a tower in the center,” the Eagle reported. “Architects, knowing that the school could be seen from the ships which ply in and out of the harbor, lavished much skill upon it.”
The playground had opened earlier that year, on March 16, 1941, and was called “the 83rd Street and Colonial Road Playground.” It was renamed after Russell Pedersen in 1969, the year after he was killed in Quang Ngai. “Pederson often assisted Parks staff…in park maintenance and…organization of park activities…until his graduation from the adjacent Fort Hamilton High School in June of 1964, when he joined the United States Army,” according to the parks department.
The Crescent Club was now officially gone, though its legacy lived on in the outlines of the land, the closure of Narrows Avenue, and the existence of the large athletic field.
The End of the Crescent Club
The Club didn’t thrive after the move to Long Island, having put so much money at stake right at the start of the Great Depression. Its members were hurting and membership declined; the club’s coffers suffered. In March 1938, foreclosure proceedings began against the Huntington property, which had a $310,000 mortgage (more than $5.3 million, adjusted for inflation). The following month the Crescent Club filed for bankruptcy, unable to pay almost $160,000 ($2.76 million) in interest and other debts. A faction fought to reestablish the club, foregoing the Huntington property while maintaining the Downtown Brooklyn clubhouse, which was feared would be lost come February 1939, if $35,000 ($613,000, adjusted for inflation) in back taxes weren’t paid.
In April, a bankruptcy judge split the club in two: 300 members reorganized as the Huntington Crescent Club, purchasing the Long Island property for $222,000 ($3.89 million, adjusted for inflation), and by May another club, with about 500 members, had been formed around the Brooklyn property. But it was still financially unsound, and the board suggested in March 1940 that it be closed, though it was willing to hear alternative suggestions.
“Brooklyn Needs Crescent Club,” according to an Eagle oped the next day. “For fifty-six years the Crescent Club has been a center of the civic life of the community. With it have been associated some of our best-known names—leaders in commerce, business and society. It has always been a potent Brooklyn booster.” Until, perhaps it should have been added, it bet its future on Huntington.
Boosters kept the club from closing on March 15, but by May the Pierrepont Street clubhouse had been abandoned for more modest quarters, TBD, after a fundraising effort failed. “Many of the members have been lamenting removal from the clubhouse these days,” the Eagle reported.
The exclusive building was opened to the public in June, before an auction. The club would keep its trophies and a stained-glass memorial to members who served in WWI. Pictures of past presidents were returned to their families. But otherwise, furnishings, equipment, paintings, everything but the building itself, were sold at auction. The only member present at this desecration was club president Joseph Catharine, whom the Eagle found looking on “with the unhappy appearance of a poor relation at a funeral.”
Everything went for a song. “Twenty-five volumes of Balzac went to the highest bidder for $1.25,” the Eagle reported. “Sixteen assorted volumes which had entertained members of the Crescent Athletic Club were knocked down by the auctioneer in one lot for—25 cents ($4.35, adjusted for inflation). A two-volume autobiography of Bismarck went also for two bits despite the auctioneer’s jesting that it was probably a first edition, and five volumes of Woodrow Wilson’s History of the United States brought 75 cents. ‘What’s the matter?’ asked the auctioneer with professional petulance. ‘Everybody illiterate today?’” Liquidation drew to a close by July.
I found no evidence that the Brooklyn club regrouped and reformed after 1939–40. The Huntington Crescent Club, however, still exists, with a full golf course, 16 tennis courts and a heated pool, plus its clubhouse.
The Pierrepont Street clubhouse had numerous uses, including as offices and stores. The basement bowling alleys were open to the public in the 1950s as Crescent Bowling Lanes. In 1966, St. Ann’s Episcopal Church paid $365,000 for the building, turning it into a school, which it remains today. “Student artwork now decorates the old store windows on the ground floor,” the Times reported in 2000. St. Ann’s gutted the place, although it left a few of the rooms and, here and there, a remnant of the past, uncared for. “The classical-style murals by the Rambusch Decorating Company in the hall and the library (the old club dining room) are damaged and dark with age,” the paper reported.
“The marble floor in the main hall, with its crescent inset, is covered in linoleum.”