This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
The Astral in Greenpoint has status in the National Register of Historic Places and as a New York City landmark, but not for the murder and mayhem that has emanated from 184 Franklin Avenue since its completion as housing for Charles Pratt’s employees link 131 years ago, in 1886.
When construction of the complex began in 1885, the businessman and philanthropist Charles Pratt had the apartments built as worker’s housing for the employees of his company, the Astral Oil Works, located at the Bushwick Inlet. Pratt commissioned the New York City firm of Lamb & Rich to design the building, the same architectural concern that designed the main building of the Pratt Institute a year later. The housing wasn’t exclusive to Pratt industry workers; over the years advertisements for the shops on the ground floor and the apartments above appeared in the Brooklyn Standard Union, the Brooklyn Daily Star, and The Brooklyn Eagle.
The six-storey building’s Franklin Street side stretches from India to Java Street where the building sweeps around to form an inner courtyard. The architects designed the 108-unit building so that every room had access to the open air. The red brick walls and stone-trimming give the massive structure the look of a fortress. In a special report on the housing of working people prepared for the Commissioner of Labor in 1895, some would-be renters said the building looked too much like an institution. Others likened it to barracks.
Whether or not the exterior was to renters’ tastes, E. R. L. Gould, the report’s author, noted the “excellent accommodations” the apartments offered for the money. Even with steam heat, cold and hot water, extra storage in the basement and marble mantels and fireplaces in some of the apartments, the units cost between $8 and $18 per month, which worked out to about 15 percent of the average apartment dweller’s income.
The ground floor also had a lecture room, storage space, bathrooms, a library, reading rooms and, starting in 1894, a kindergarten. The emphasis on learning opportunities complemented Pratt’s advocacy, which also spurred him to establish the Pratt Institute as an affordable way for workers to receive an education. When the school opened in 1887, tuition was only $4 per class, which would be around $100 today. The Astral’s library was, in fact, a branch of the Pratt Institute. Open from 2 p.m. to 9 p.m., it provided residents with access to newspapers, magazines and 3,000 books.
Pratt’s progressive vision of humane living conditions for his workers brought new possibilities for his workers but not enough to rescue them from the seamier aspects of life in their surroundings. Astral or not, the building’s residents were strikingly unexceptional in the eyes of the judiciary.
One of the complex’s earliest residents, Mamie Burgess, who was 26 when she moved in, had repeated brushes with authorities who considered her a fabulist. In December of 1887, the Brooklyn Eagle carried a four-line item, saying Burgess had fallen ill at a telegraph office in Manhattan and had to be rushed off to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village. Four days later, under the headline “Discrediting Her Story,” the New York Times provided details of additional episodes at the 23rd Street ferry and a restaurant in what is now Noho. Contrary to her claim that she had been drugged and robbed, a police inspector attached to the case said her story was the “result of an altogether too vivid imagination.” She had made the same claim a month earlier when she appeared ill at the 23rd Street ferry and had to be taken home in an ambulance. That story was “not credited” either, the Times assured its readers.
In 1894, an agent of the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children arrested Burgess for carrying an infant while intoxicated. After her arrest, the court sent Burgess to Yorkville Prison, where she collapsed on the floor and laid there unresponsive for six hours despite a series of pinpricks from the prison matron. The Evening Telegram reported that she ultimately awoke “voluntarily.”
Three years after that, when a policeman collected a sleeping Burgess from the stoop of a house, she charged that someone had chopped off her long braid while she napped–with the bar keep’s permission–at a Columbus Avenue bar, a fact that the New York Telegram used to emphasize her taste for strong drink.
To the authorities, she called herself Nellie Steele and explained that she only had a few drinks after the trauma of the haircut and at the barkeep’s insistence. Magistrate Henry Brann was unimpressed with her tale of woe. “Whatever happened to you, you exposed yourself to it and deserve to be punished,” he said as he imposed a $3 fine.
Another Astral resident, B.J. Wright, served as a character witness for his sister-in-law, Eleanor Wood, who appeared to have been lured away from her home in Montclair, New Jersey by a man calling himself Frederick Miller. Actually, she was the victim of a scam. She had answered a confidential ad for a job for “a woman from a good family.” Miller, tall and clean-shaven, drove up to her house in a black car, ostensibly to take her into Manhattan, and she wheedled $100 from her father as an advance on a larger bond Miller said the job required.
The 33-year-old Wood never made it to Manhattan. Instead Miller drove her through Newark and Long Island City and ultimately abandoned her on a country road, having handed her an enveloped that he said contained the $100 she had given him. Instead, it was filled with newspaper clippings, one of which read, “An Income for Life.”
B.J. Wright, as a male relative — and in Greenpoint conveniently close to The New York Times’ reporters — affirmed Eleanor’s and by connection, her family’s, respectability. Her own words do not appear in the piece. “This man ‘Miller’ could hardly have been the ordinary woman hunter who devised to lure a girl away from home for the customary purpose,” Wright said in a statement. “If that had been his object, he would hardly have gone out into the country and selected a young woman 33 years old.”
“Serge” John Maley, a 32-year-old dock builder who lived at the Astral, didn’t have as fortunate an escape as Wright’s sister-in-law. In what Greenpoint police officers called one of the most blatant murders in recent years, he was shot to death by an unknown assailant on Saturday, Nov. 5, 1921. Two days later, Maley was meant to appear before the State Compensation Bureau on claims he had made for work injuries. First reports indicated that a gang fight over a woman had been the impetus for the shooting, which took place in a brightly lit area in front of Greenpoint’s Edwards Hotel on Manhattan Avenue. The Daily Star gave no details to credit the original theory.
Eyewitnesses said the assailant shot Maley, a father of two, with a revolver after jumping out of the back of a large, black car. A woman was also in the car screamed. Maley died 45 minutes later in the ambulance on the way to Greenpoint Hospital.
Detectives questioned his acquaintances for a few hours on Sunday, saying little more than that they suspected Maley had made gangster enemies in his line of work. A few days later Bridge Plaza Court’s Magistrate James Short arraigned Adam Cendorski, of the nearby 242 Franklin Street, for Maley’s murder.
A decade later, two other Astral residents suffered untimely tragedies. Late on a Saturday night in March of 1931, Greenpoint Hospital refused a bed to Jimmy, a five-year-old who was suffering from tonsillitis. He was the son of Mary Baldwin, a single mother who lived with him at the Astral. Baldwin and her husband, who sent her $7 a week in child support, had separated two years earlier.
When Greenpoint Hospital refused treatment, Baldwin borrowed cab fare from a neighbor and took Jimmy over the Pulaski Bridge to St. John’s Hospital in Long Island City. The same thing happened. A Dr. Theodore Friedman, however, did write several prescriptions for Jimmy and told Baldwin to bring him back the next morning. Friedman later said he had sent them away because the case was not an emergency and it might have made Jimmy sicker to have spent the night in the facility. Helen Schlosser, one of Baldwin’s neighbors, said Baldwin told her she couldn’t afford to fill the prescriptions. Once back at the Astral, Baldwin turned on a gas burner and asphyxiated them both.
Another Astral death also triggered a police investigation. George Witte owned a deli in the neighborhood, across the street from the large apartment complex. In July 1937, he fell to his death from the roof of the six-storey Astral, but the police quickly listed the death as a suicide. Neighbors told the police Witte had a nervous disorder. The investigation ended there.
In 1983, James Dillon wrote in a report for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission that the Astral was a “radical departure” from the standards of working class housing. And today, the Astral may seem safer, but the need for humane living conditions goes on. The NYC Department of Buildings has 32 open violations against the owners of the Astral apartments, including multiple charges of lead-based paint. Residents complain of broken buzzers, windows, and plumbing in the building that should be Charles Pratt’s legacy of social good.