Brooklyn Daily Eagle helps Aussie bring family tree to life
Lawyer Discovers Great-Grandfather Owned Akwaaba Mansion in 1910
All Megan Scannell wanted to do was to put together a lovely scrapbook of pictures and stories to present to her Aunt Agnes for her 100th birthday. But she wound up doing so much more than that.
Scannell miraculously found a way to make her family’s unique history come to life with help from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and with the assistance of the kindly owner of a historic bed-and-breakfast in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
Researching her Aunt Agnes Scannell’s life, Megan Scannell, a lawyer who was born on Long Island but moved with her husband Ian Ramsey to Melbourne, Australia when they were married 30 years ago, found a treasure trove of information about her family from half a world away.
“Thank God for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle!” she said, during an interview on June 25.
Scannell said she had started out conducting research online about her aunt and the family tree and was delighted with what she found. She came across numerous articles in the Eagle’s archives about Agnes’s grandfather, James A. Caufield, the son of Irish immigrants who became a developer. Caufield constructed hundreds of two-family houses in Bed-Stuy between 1895 and 1920.
It was all there, right at her fingertips. “I found so much information,” she said.
For one thing, she discovered that Caufield was a big deal. He was one of the leading property developers of his day.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t the beautiful brownstones that he built. His houses were simpler. But it’s still interesting to think that he built so many homes,” she told the Eagle in her charming Australian accent.
James A. Caufield was Agnes’s grandfather and Megan’s great-grandfather.
It was when Scannell discovered where James A. Caufield lived in Brooklyn that the real fun began.
She noticed that in many of the articles about Caufield in the Eagle’s archives, his home address, 347 MacDonough St. in Brooklyn, was listed. Decades ago, it was customary for the Eagle to include the home address in articles it printed about a prominent person.
“When I Googled the address, I found out that it was a B&B,” she said. “I knew I had to come and stay.”
It wasn’t just any old B&B. Caufield’s old homestead is now Akwaaba Mansion, one of the most famous bed-and-breakfasts in the country.
Owner Monique Greenwood, who opened the place 20 years ago, has created a warm, welcoming B&B out of the glorious Italianate villa-style home that was built in 1860.
Akwaaba means “welcome” in the language spoken by the people of Ghana in West Africa. Greenwood and her husband live on the third floor and rent out four of the mansion’s bedrooms as guest rooms. She cheerfully serves her guests breakfast each morning in a large first floor dining room that boasts a Tiffany chandelier.
Akwaaba Mansion is known far and wide.
Lore Croghan, who writes the “Eye On Real Estate” column for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, named Akwaaba Mansion one of the “Top Ten intriguing places in Bed-Stuy” in a column last July.
Filled with excitement about her discovery, Scannell booked a two-night stay for herself and her sister who lives in Virginia. Her sister couldn’t make it, but Scannell arrived on Greenwood’s doorstep June 24.
She attended her Aunt Agnes’s 100th birthday party a few days earlier, where she presented a book that she created as a gift. The book, which Scannell had bound, was filled with reproductions of Eagle articles and photos of the Caufields and other relatives.
“The doorbell rang and I was expecting just another guest,” Greenwood told the Eagle. “People come from all over to stay here. This place is on some people’s bucket list.”
As Scannell settled into her room, she and Greenwood chatted. Scannell told the B&B owner that her great-grandfather had lived in the Awkaaba Mansion from 1910 to 1920 and that she wanted to stay there and explore Bed-Stuy to see some of the other places where he had lived and to get a look at some of the homes he had built.
Scannell was serious about walking in her ancestor’s shoes, Greenwood discovered.
“I would have thought that she would want to stay in one of our more modern rooms; one with a Jacuzzi,” Greenwood said. “But no, she wanted a room that was preserved as it would have looked in the past.”
Scannell even got to soak in an original claw-footed tub. “It was heaven” she said, with a smile.
She spent the morning of June 25 taking a private walking tour of Bed-Stuy, enjoying the many sights the neighborhood has to offer.
“I absolutely love it,” Scannell said. “I love the feel of it. It is such a family neighborhood.” She also said she was impressed by the many community gardens found in Bed-Stuy.
The arc of history and the power of coincidence are what impressed Greenwood.
“I think it’s serendipitous. You have the confluence of several things here,” Greenwood said. “We are celebrating our 20th anniversary here at Akwaaba Mansion. So you have the history of this house, you have the history of Megan’s family and how that history is tied together with this house; Megan connected the dots. And, of course, you have the Brooklyn Daily Eagle bringing it together.”
The interview with Scannell and Greenwood took place in the mansion’s living room, just off the main entrance hall. Like the other parts of the mansion, the living room boasts parquet floors with delicate, geometric patterns and light fixtures that were originally gas lights but were converted to electricity in the early 20th Century, perhaps when James Caufield lived there with his family.
The living room contains a working fireplace, an upright piano and African-inspired art. Two class photos, including one taken of the eighth grade at Decatur Junior High School in 1939, sit on the piano, giving the room a cozy, homey feel.
During the interview, Greenwood let Scannell and an Eagle reporter in on a couple of backstage secrets.
Underneath the living room rug, in the middle of the floor, is a buzzer. In the old days, the mistress of the household would step on the buzzer to summon a servant.
She also brought her two guests into the kitchen where a majestic old coal stove stands watch over the new, more modern appliances. The coal stove, an Arney Range, had various compartments whose doors Greenwood opened to show where the coal would have been shoveled in.
Next, she opened a door off the kitchen and showed a flight of stairs leading to the second floor. Unlike the wide, grand staircase in the main hall, this set of stairs was narrow.
“This staircase leads to what used to be the servant’s quarters,” she said.
Back in the living room, Scannell talked about how much she enjoyed looking at the articles about James A. Caufield. “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote all sorts of stories about him,” she said.
Articles and advertisements about various housing developments he was building were printed in the newspaper. One ad, published in 1913, offered details about a $450,000 project he was about to embark upon. The neighborhood had factories and the subway lines had been built. Housing was needed for workers and their families who were settling in Bed-Stuy.
Caufield’s private life was faithfully chronicled on the Eagle’s pages, too. Weddings, garden parties, concerts and other events were written about.
One charming story revealed that he had just returned home from a trip to Rome and was greeted by friends and neighbors who gathered at 347 MacDonough St. to welcome him back and to hear all about his sojourn to Italy. Another article exposed the fact that he had suffered from an intestinal issue while out with friends and had to be treated by a doctor.
“It’s funny, the things that a newspaper printed back then,” Scannell said. Greenwood said she felt it was proof that Caufield “was living somewhat of an aristocratic life.”
Scannell was scheduled to leave Akwaaba Mansion on June 26 and intended to spend time with her sister in Virginia before flying back home to Melbourne, where she works for a government agency that advocates for the rights of children.
“I definitely want to come back here!” she said.
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