by Erik Fortmeyer, Boerum Hill Historian
Q: Were There Ever Roof Gardens in BoerumÂ Hill?
A: Yes there were. The idea and use of roof gardens in Brooklyn and Manhattan saw its heyday from the late 1880s up through the beginning of World War I. Boerum Hill was no exception.
Q: How long have roof gardens been around?
A: Roof gardens have been in use almost since the dawn of time for domesticated mankind. Written records and drawings from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt show examples of early roof gardens built on earthen houses in those warmer climates. Ancient roof gardens were often given basic furnishings and used for guests as described in 2 Kings 4:10. A paralyzed man was lowered by four friends to Jesus to be healed from a hole dug through a house’s roof garden in Mark 2:4. An amusing commentary in the Brooklyn Eagle from June 10, 1894 on observed roof gardens in towns other than Brooklyn noted, “Beer and music have as natural a conjunction now as they did in the day of Omar Khayyam. Let’s see. What is it he says?
A book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread â€“ and thou
Beside me, singing in the wilderness â€“
Oh, wilderness were paradise now!
That verse so accurately phrases the functions of the roof garden as to make it seem likely that the Persians were the first roof gardeners. Indeed, we know that the practice, now common in New York, of sleeping on the roof on warm nights and falling into the yard in the morning was oriental in its origin. Other times other manners, and the nineteenth century youth has for his book of verses “Doisy Bell” and “After the Ball,” his jug of wine is a stein of cold Milwaukee, his loaf of bread is a cheese sandwich, the wilderness is typified by six geraniums and a rubber plant and the one who sings in the wilderness is Mlle. Marguerite Obrion, from the Folies Galere, at Toulon.”
Q: What was the point of roof gardens?
A: Life in the city can be pretty miserable without air conditioning! In the days before AC, the dog days of summer in New York would often see residents out on porches and fire escapes trying to escape the indoor heat in houses and flats. Brownstones were usually built with what were referred to in the 19th Century as “piazzas” on the backs of the parlor floors to act as porches where the family could relax in the cooler air. Most were later closed in and are often referred to today simply as “extensions”. Noted American impressionist painter Childe Hassam (1859-1935) painted “Last Light on the City” in 1893 which was reviewed in Brooklyn as “with its girls on a flowery house top, looking over the expanse of dreariness that a city is when it is not glorified, as in that canvas, by the fire of sunset, has an extraneous interest as well as an artistic one, for it suggests that such roof gardens are feasible and desirable in the towns of this land where streets lack shade and yards lack room and air lacks purity and people lack parks and privacy. We live under flat roofs, most of us, and what is to hinder running a rail along them and putting palms and such things there? The withering evenings of June, July, August and September could be more easily endured at a height above the smoking pave, and the citizens could do their gasping and perspiring more freely in more negligee attire on the house tops than on the door steps.” A trend began in Manhattan and later Brooklyn starting around then to develop roof gardens as a way to make summer evenings more bearable and maybe even entertaining. One 1894 comment said it all, “Music, beer, food, coolness and society. That is what the garden is for.”
Q: What was a roof garden like in the old days?
A: Let’s answer this one with a portion of an article that appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on July 14, 1889. “Every Summer the roof garden develops more and more in popularity and attractiveness among the stay at homes, and some of the efforts made by these unlucky ones who are penned in the heart of the city during the heated term are wonderfully ingenious, and go far toward mitigating their misfortunes. Most of the people who are sufficiently well off to own a house in the town can afford to leave it in the Summer, but it is the denizen of the multitudinous flat who is often forced to remain in this flat all during the dog days, and to these the roof garden is an agreeable little oasis in the desert of their Summer existence. Most landlords will not permit earth to be conveyed to or plants raised on top of their houses, but he does not object to having the tenant carry up a load of clean beach sand on the elevator and cover the concrete with a layer of it which forms a very good imitation of a gravel walk and dries so quickly that even should there be a rain in the afternoon it is quite possible to sit there in the evening with comfort. Those who can afford it have a glass screen erected on one side to keep off the winds, as the breezes are apt to be pretty lively at that elevation. Then a pretty red and white awning is spread across palms and potted plants, shrubs and boxes full of growing flowers are disposed about attractively, wicker chairs and tables are fetched up and if there be a convenient chimney a hammock is swung, and some of these gardens in the hands of tasteful owners become things of beauty and an all Summer joy.”
Q: What did people do up on these roof gardens? Was it worth the effort?
A: Let’s continue some more in that same article. “A certain family on Thirty-sixth street, who have bestowed particular pains to make their roof garden attractive, say that they find on the whole they can spend more time out of doors in this manner than in the Summer in the country. The whole thing cost them about $60 to fit up, and the six members of the family have discovered that for this sum, which would not have supported them one week in the seashore hotel, they can remain in very good health and get a fair degree of pleasure out of life during the hot weather. The flat building in which they live being a very tall one, they have beautiful views from their green eyrie all over the bay and of green hills in the distance in the other directions. They get clean, fresh sea breezes off the water and plenty of sun, so that to look at the young people of the family one might imagine from their tanned cheeks that they have spent the Summer cruising on some luxurious yacht instead of living on the ninth floor of a New York flat. The young children play dolls and marbles upstairs in the shadow of the awning all morning. The older women bring up their fancy work and sew there, write letters at one of the tables or read novels swinging in the hammock. Five o’clock tea is brought up there and partaken of out of doors, and when the sun gets low enough to have lost something of his vigor the young people play tennis, having set up a net and marked out a court on the roof, with tall nets swung up around it to keep the ball from plunging over into the street below and startling some cab horse into hysterics. All the family lounge there after dinner, chatting, smoking, singing choruses to a banjo accompaniment and breathing in salt winds from the bay over which they can see the silver path of the moonlight and the gleam of Liberty’s torch.” Not too bad!!!
Q: Were there any of these in Brooklyn or were they all in Manhattan?
A: Manhattan certainly had more roof gardens in the nineteenth century due primarily to simply having more buildings. Many of the Brooklyn roof gardens were located on top of the saloons and “hotels” that used to dot the sloping east side of Furman Street opposite the tall warehouses on the East River side from Fulton Street down to Atlantic Avenue. The heaviest concentration was from 89 to 183 Furman running from about Cranberry to just south of Clark. A fine description of them was given in 1888 as they “are topped with brightly blooming gardens of flowers and shrubs, sprays of whose vines overhang the parapets or climb high trellisses far above. Where the buildings are lower, one may see above the backs of tall houses towering heavenward. From quiet, brown stone lined Columbia heights are seen the river below and planted flowers gardens, fountains vine covered arbors and smooth, grassy lawns sloping to the abrupt edge of the street at the back. The only apparent evidence of habitation beneath this green carpet is the fact that here and there brick chimneys rear their blackened heads and silently breathe forth the smoke of the smithy or furnace at work in the shops or caves on Furman street. Although the upper floors in these turf roofed houses are rather damp no special inconvenience is experienced by the hardy inhabitants. The roofs are very strong and well supported, having to sustain in many cases sufficient earth for the growth of small trees. The buildings are of stone and brick, and as no lighting is possible from the roof or back, nor from the sides, as they are continuous, the darkness of Tophet is not a circumstance to a ‘first floor back’.” A brand new theater was planned in 1890 for the former site of the Donnelly Olympic Theatre later the Holmes Standard Museum at 434-436 Fulton Street opposite the current Bridge Street, but it was not to be. Elaborate plans were made by a well known Manhattan theater owner named Alexander Herrmann for a new “four story brick building, 35.9×100, to be used as theater offices, lodge rooms and roof garden” (note the proposed drawing with visible fancy roof garden). Business losses incurred by Herrmann slowed completion of the building until he was forced to sell out. It was later completed as a regular store building, run as an unsuccessful dry good store in 1899, and finally sold in early 1902 for absorption into the expanding Abraham & Straus buildings (now Macy’s). Another new building with a designed roof garden was the 1892 headquarters of the YWCA at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Schermerhorn Street. The roof garden was described as “striking and attractive” available for summer use covering the rear half of the roof with “a very fine view”. Another was built on the roof in 1894 of the new theater at the intersection of Fulton Street and DeKalb Avenue. These new buildings promoted their roof gardens actively noting they had new elevators going right to the roof and colored lights powered by electricity. New tenement buildings known as “wage earners’ homes” were designed in some cases with roof gardens for the “general good health” of laborers.
Q: Why were roof gardens popular with theaters? What about Madison Square Garden?
A: HVAC. Those letters today refer to “heating, ventilation and air conditioning” and those who install and maintain these vital systems. But it wasn’t until 1888 when first generation mechanical cooling systems (fans) were installed in some factories and it took until the 1920s for the general public to experience true “air conditioning” (cooling with the removal of some humidity) in some movie theaters. Large indoor public gathering places before then caused concern with public and medical officials about the healthfulness of “the unwashed masses” mixing together in poorly ventilated buildings. The accumulation of heat and odors after multiple, daily performances by June made most theatres and opera houses unbearable causing them to close for the summer season. It wasn’t until 1911 that the Folies Bergere Theater in New York City was the first to install an air-conditioning system. Back in the 1880s, visits to seaside hotels, outdoor amusement parks, amphitheaters, and new “base ball” parks became the standard source for summer entertainment. Theatre owners who did not want to lose revenue from an entire season began to take note of the roof garden trend in several cities. Why not build a stage and seating on the roof of their buildings and have shows up there when it is not raining? Soon three Manhattan theatres had done just this including the Casino, Fifth Avenue, and Madison Square Garden. The second MSG was built at its old site on Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street in 1890 by renowned architect Stanford White with a spacious and popular roof garden where orchestras, dances, and all forms of city entertainment took place starting each May 30th. It also had a restaurant up top where Stanford’s notorious womanizing came to an end in 1906 when a jealous husband of an ex-girlfriend shot him down! Brooklyn copied this trend where possible on a smaller scale, but an editorial in 1893 still griped, “Why aren’t there any amusement places in Brooklyn open in the summer? I mean first class amusement. None of the theaters stay open. There are no good concert halls where a man can go and drink a glass of beer and be amused for an hour or so. There are no roof gardens. I don’t see why some manager in Brooklyn doesn’t secure a place for a roof garden and run a high class variety show. He’d make money, sure. People in Brooklyn, especially in hot weather, do not care about traveling across the bridge or ferries to New York to find amusement. They want it near home. Why, if there was any such place in Brooklyn I’d guarantee to go every night if necessary. Coney Island is good for about two visits each season. Then you’ve seen all you want to see and are looking about for something else. The theater managers in this town don’t know what they’re missing.”
Q: Why did roof gardens fade away?
A: Fire inspectors in the late 1890s began to become more and more concerned with commercial roof gardens. If a fire broke out below and the stairwells and elevators were blocked with smoke and fire, how would the fire department be able to get possibly hundreds of patrons to safety? The question was never satisfactorily answered. Meanwhile, functional air-conditioning became available on a limited scale in New York City starting around World War I. With the start of Prohibition in 1919 and the general economic upswing in the Roaring Twenties, the general public began to find the entertainment they craved in the form of “motion pictures” in indoor movie theaters with air-conditioning. As AC units became smaller and more affordable, the willingness to spend time “up on the roof” outdoors declined proportionally. After World War II with home AC units readily available and plenty of cheap, new houses available in the suburbs, roof gardens faded into oblivion.
Â© Erik Fortmeyer 2005