Heights history: From A.T. White to artists … and a spy on Fulton
Brooklyn Heights business leaders fought segregation
By Robert Furman
Most people familiar with Brooklyn Heights history know of Alfred T. White, the great philanthropist who built the Riverside low-income housing and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. But few know he was a Wall Street businessman.
His firm was W.A. & A.T., the W.A. being W. Averell Harriman, son of railroad magnate Ned Harriman who was an active Democrat and later U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union during World War II and governor of New York from 1955 until 1958. White died ice-skating on a pond near the Harriman estate, later Harriman State Park.
White and Harriman were typical of the wealthy of Brooklyn Heights in its great period in the nineteenth century. They were religious businessmen who believed it their obligation to raise the poor and improve their city at a time when government did not pursue these ends.
A commercial establishment on the Heights side of Fulton Street was Ovington Brothers China and Glass founded by Theodore and Edward Ovington in 1843 on Fulton Street near the ferry. They moved to Fulton at Clark Street in 1879, but this building burned down in 1884. The building shown in the drawing was constructed for the company after the fire.
After the department stores moved to lower Fulton Street, and following business reverses due to the Panic of 1893, in 1895 the company relocated to 58 Flatbush Avenue at Nevins Street and opened a branch in Manhattan at 314 Fifth Avenue. They later closed the Brooklyn store.
For racial equality
Theodore Ovington (1829-1909) was typical of the liberal, religious Protestant businessmen who were the core of the abolitionist movement in the Heights in 1860. His daughter, Mary White Ovington (1865-1951), became famous as an activist for racial equality (her grandmother was Mary H. White). She wrote a well-respected book on the treatment of blacks in America called “Half a Man,” and in 1909 was a founder of the N.A.A.C.P. They were members of the Second Unitarian Church in Cobble Hill.
Mary had to drop out of what would become Radcliffe College following reverses in her father’s business in the Panic of 1893, and returned to Brooklyn to work as registrar of Pratt Institute, and then as head worker at the Greenpoint Settlement, which she helped found. She was also vice president of the Brooklyn Consumers’ League and assistant secretary of the Social Reform Club in New York. From a speech there by Booker T. Washington she learned that racism existed at home as well, and it stimulated her to dedicate her life to achieving black equality.
In 1904 she started a study of black living conditions and employment problems that was published in 1911. As a sign of white southern fear of black sexual prowess, Ovington was attacked for sitting next to a black man at an interracial dinner. President Theodore Roosevelt was similarly vehemently criticized for having Washington to dinner in the White House, where his wife Edith sat next to him. Mrs. Ovington became chair of the N.A.A.C.P in 1919 and in 1923 persuaded the organization to fight for equal federal aid to black schools, thus beginning the critique of “separate-but-equal.” She was an active leader of the group until her death.
The family lived at 218 Livingston Street in Boerum Hill in 1879, 69 Willow St. in 1884, at 58 Orange St. in 1897 (demolished around 1950 for the apartment building at 52-54), in the Hotel St. George in 1905, but afterward they moved to 3 Monroe Place where Theodore died. Many of the family are buried in Green-Wood Cemetery.
The former Ovington Brothers Carpet Co. building on the southwest corner of Clark and Fulton Streets held artists’ studios from the 1930s into the sixties, the institutional embodiment of the flourishing neighborhood creative scene. Tenants (ca. 1937) included Benjamin Eggleston, sculptor Isabel Moore Kimball who had a piece in the Botanic Garden, Ogden Pleissner who had work in the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums, black World War I veteran painter of black subjects Harry Roseland, Beulah Stevenson and Andrew Schwartz. In the 1950s and ’60s luminaries included the cartoonist Jules Feiffer and caricaturist David Levine.
But the really notorious person who worked there was a man who called himself Emil Goldfus but was actually the Soviet spy Colonel Rudolf Abel, the highest-ranking KGB agent ever captured. His real name was Vilyam (William) Genrikovitch Fisher.
He entered the U.S. illegally in 1947 or 1948, taking the name (Goldfus) from a dead Canadian baby. He worked with the Rosenberg-Greenglass spy ring. When he was arrested in 1957, the hotel room and photo studio that he lived in contained multiple modern espionage equipment items: cameras and film for producing microdots, cipher pads, hollow cuff links, shaving brushes, shortwave radios, and numerous “trick” containers. He took advantage of local scenic features by doing dead drops of microfilms for his Soviet handlers in Prospect Park and was exchanged in 1962 at a bridge in Potsdam, Germany, near Berlin, for the U-2 spy pilot Francis Gary Powers whose shootdown ruined a U.S. (Kennedy) and Russian (Nikita Khrushchev) summit meeting in 1961. He died in 1970 and was honored on a Soviet postage stamp in 1990.
Truman Capote described the reaction in the neighborhood to Abel’s capture:
“Know where they caught him? Right Here! smack on Fulton Street! Trapped him in a building between David Semple’s fine-foods store and Frank Gambuzza’s television repair shop. Frank, grinning as though he’d done the job himself, had his picture in Life; so did the waitress at the Music Box Bar, the colonel’s favorite watering hole.”
This article is excerpted from Robert Furman’s forthcoming book Brooklyn Heights: The Rise, Fall and Rise of America’s First Suburb.
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