Brownstoner’s Building of the Day: 683-691 Bushwick Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row houses
Address: 683-691 Bushwick Avenue
Cross Streets: Myrtle Avenue and Suydam Street
Neighborhood: Bushwick
Year Built: 1890
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: Theobald M. Engelhardt
Other Work by Architect: Much of Bushwick and the Eastern District, including row houses, tenements, mansions, churches, schools, breweries and factories.
Landmarked: No, but part of a proposed William Ulmer Historic District

The story: William Ulmer was perhaps Bushwick’s most well-known brewer, which is saying something, as by the 1890s, Brooklyn, the fourth largest city in America, had 45 active breweries. By the turn of the 20th century, his large brewery complex on Belvidere and Locust Streets in Bushwick produced over three million gallons of the frothy brew a year. Brooklyn’s German and, more and more, non-German population had made beer the king of beverages, and William Ulmer was certainly one of the princes of beer.

The success of his business made Ulmer a millionaire, and like many rich men, he began investing money in real estate ventures. He never seemed to be too interested in it, however, and aside from his own homes, he seems to have bankrolled only one project, this group of five large Queen Anne row houses. But, like many property owners in Bushwick, for all of his projects, he relied on the talents of only one architect – the most talented and prolific architect in the region: Theobald M. Engelhardt.

Mr. Engelhardt has been featured here many times; he was one of Brooklyn’s most important and prolific architects of the late 19th century. He was the son of German immigrants, and grew up in Williamsburg. His father was a builder, and early in his career, young Theobald began building, and later designing breweries. His career took off from there, as brewers needed houses for themselves, their workers, they needed clubs and places of worship; all kinds of buildings were needed in the growing Williamsburg-Bushwick-eastern Bedford district.

Engelhardt designed most of William Ulmer’s brewery complex, now a landmark. He also designed the Ulmer mansion, and this row of houses. He was obviously Ulmer’s architect of choice. It’s unclear if these were built to be sold or rented to the top management of the brewery, or were just speculative housing, but his target buyer here was a person of means. These are large, beautiful examples of upper middle-class housing, and were all single family houses, when built.

They soon became a “Doctor’s Row,” with physicians occupying many of them for at least the next ten or so years. 683 was home to a Dr. Robert Daniels, Dr. William Runger, in 1896, Dr. Herman Bender in 1899, and son Dr. Philip Bender in 1911. 687 was owned by Dr. Theodore Burr in 1898, Dr. Frederick A. Cook, in 1899-1902, and Dr. Frederick Cordes, in 1903. 691 was home to Dr. Benjamin Maggio in 1917. It was also home to a judge before Dr. Maggio, Magistrate Higginbotham, from 1903 to at least 1905. The house in the middle, number 685, belonged to Henry Eppig, son of another prominent brewer, Leonhard Eppig. Henry was big in the ice business, and the principal stockholder of the Eastern Ice Association.

One name in the group may also be familiar, as well. Dr. Frederick Cook was the famous arctic explorer who was a member of several important expeditions to Greenland and the North Pole, as well as an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1897. When he wasn’t out in the world exploring, he was a successful surgeon living here for at least three years. He and Robert E. Peary both claimed to be the first to the North Pole, in 1908, and popular regard is that Peary won, causing the beginning of Cook’s decent into disgrace and misery.

Before that, in 1902, Cook married his second wife, and the newlywed couple moved from 687 Bushwick to the mansion that is generally associated with his name, the old Frederick Lipsius mansion, at 670 Bushwick Avenue. This mansion also designed by Engelhardt, for yet another successful brewer, but is generally thought to be the William Ulmer mansion. In reality, the Ulmer mansion was just across the street, and was torn down in the 1990s. A tale for another time in a neighborhood full of interesting stories.

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