First Designer Showhouse in Brooklyn Heights brings rich history with makeover
BHA Showhouse Project Open to Public Until Nov. 5
Long before 32 Livingston St. in Brooklyn Heights was crowned the borough’s first designer Showhouse, it had a rich history of its own, often making the news.
Hailing from Bucksport, Maine, Richard P. Buck — a prominent shipper and one of the founders of The Pilgrims Church, known today as Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Cathedral— owned and developed much of the top block of Livingston Street. He lived in a mansion located at 36-40 Livingston St., on an expansive property of gardens and stables stretching to Schermerhorn Street.
In 1865, weeks after President Lincoln’s assassination, Buck purchased two outstanding lots from Brooklyn builders Daniel and Michael Chauncey and probably partnered with them to erect sister brownstones, a pair side by side at 32 and 34 Livingston St. Prior to this, the Chauncey brothers had operated their building and construction business from that same location for more than 20 years, and they demolished it to build the current townhouses.
The brownstones were completed in 1867 and were probably some of the last the Chaunceys built before transitioning from building to full-time realty.
Buck immediately sold 32 Livingston St. to Mary Hazen and her husband Abram. Hazen was a founding partner of Hazen, Whitney, Todds & Co., an important dry goods merchant on lower Broadway. According to ads from the period, he also sold pianos from his home on Livingston Street and was notable for popularizing the upright piano. The Hazens had four children — daughters Lucia and Mary, who attended Packer Institute, founded 1845, across the street, and Horace and Abraham, who were students at Poly Prep, further down Livingston Street, where the Board of Education is now located. The Hazens owned 32 Livingston St. until almost the turn of the century, and were notable for their charitable activities, especially with regard to women and children. In 1875, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle records that they provided Thanksgiving dinner to the orphans of the Home for Destitute Children, gracing them with a “plentiful supply of chickens, oranges, cakes and other delicacies.”
The Hazens’ home also popped up regularly in the local police blotter, as desperate mothers had taken to abandoning their infants on the stoop.
Abram Hazen died in 1895, leaving behind his wife Mary. Their youngest son, often regarded as a “ne’er do well,” contested the will, calling his father’s sanity into question.
In 1898, Mary died and 32 was sold at auction. The eventual owners were Dr. and Mrs. William Dudley, Jr.; Dudley’s father co-founded Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill. The Dudleys remained at 32 Livingston St. through both World Wars.
Dr. Dudley passed away early and, when his widow followed in 1946, 32 Livingston St. was sold to Marion and Stewart Pratt, of the Pratts who founded the Pratt Institute. In 1948, they conducted modernizations that at the time must have seemed practical, including knocking down the wall of the butler’s pantry to build a tiny “modern” kitchen with 8-foot ceilings, constructing bathrooms, sealing off various doors to maximize closet space, dropping ceilings, etc.
In the mid- to late 1950s, the house was purchased by Robert Feemster, chairman of Dow Jones and owner of the Brooklyn Heights Press, and his wife. An in-law moved into the garden apartment, which was separated from the rest of the house. Heights resident M.M. Cooper recalled, “My parents purchased the brownstone from Feemster in 1962, a year or so after I was born, and my first memories are here — learning to walk and coming down the impossibly high and terrifying stairs, one-by-one, on my bottom. For my three brothers and me, this place was a magic castle with no boundaries.”
At the closing, Saul Cooper noticed the deed was for the wrong building. It listed a different address in a different location. According to his wife Karin, “It became necessary for the men to be separated until the correction was made and tempers allayed.”
Saul recalled entering the house after the closing and experiencing the vast silence after the noise of the city and the brouhaha at the lawyer’s. “Our house,” he whispered in awe to Karin, as they sat on the stairs of the parlor floor facing the front door, experiencing one of life’s amazing moments: homeownership. The house at 32 Livingston St. was theirs.
In 1963, three months after closing, Feemster was tragically killed in a small plane while prospecting for land in Florida.
And just 18 months later, Saul was called to Italy to work on the mega-Hollywood production “Cleopatra,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the biggest picture of its day. The Coopers, along with their four sons, boarded the SS Independence, an American Export Lines ocean liner, to Naples, where they planned to spend several months.
“Cleopatra” ran over budget and over schedule, and the Coopers remained abroad for many years, living in several European cities before returning to the U.S. with an addition to the family, a daughter born in Paris.
Over the years, the Coopers rented 32 Livingston St. to some colorful tenants, including Dennis Helliwell, a financial operator who was accused of bilking millions from family and friends; and Tony and Obie Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (currently enjoying a revival of his classic play “M. Butterfly” on Broadway).
Rumor has it a member of the Eagles lived at 32 Livingston St., as well as KISS frontman Gene Simmons, who allegedly took to answering the front door in the buff.
One of the Coopers’ sons lobbied the family to do the Showhouse, and they were happy to comply.
Saul said, “We owe a great debt to the Brooklyn Heights Association (BHA). Hosting the Showhouse is a small way of thanking and supporting them for enabling us to have what few New Yorkers have — a real home in a real and, thankfully, permanent neighborhood. The Heights is an original link going almost back to the inception of the U.S., an authentic place that reflects the American experience and has been protected from ‘progress.’
“When we bought, this was a very different neighborhood. Half of Brooklyn Heights at this time was under serious threat from the city and its master builder, Robert Moses. Plans were underway to turn Atlantic Avenue into a Cross-Brooklyn Expressway linking the [BQE] Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to Idyllwild Airport [JFK]. State Street would be torn down along with the Heights streets needed to feed this major highway complex. The Heights’ uproar defeated the plan and at the same time succeeded in bringing the neighborhood together, supported by the BHA and the Historical Preservation District — remembering that ours was the first in the entire U.S. It was the new young families, like minds coming in, bringing new energy to the then staid and threatened community,” he said.
His son continued, “For our family, 32 is much more than a piece of real estate or a pile of bricks. It’s an American treasure and we feel a custodial obligation to ensure that it is preserved, like the rest of the Heights, to be here in another 150 years. So our interests are perfectly aligned with the BHA’s.
“As for mounting the Showhouse, there was a lot of uncertainty, but we learned as we went and everyone put a lot of shoulder into it. Peter Bray at the BHA, and Showhouse co-chairs Ellen Hamilton and Erika Belsey-Worth, have adopted the house and the house has adopted them. They deserve all the credit in the world for having the vision, rolling up their sleeves, and making this happen,” he said.
The Showhouse at 32 Livingston St. is open to the public until November 5. General tickets are $40 per person and $35 for BHA members. For more information, visit www.thebha.org/events/event/brooklyn-heights-designershowhouse.
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