111 Clarkson Avenue in Flatbush. Built in 1902, the house could now be set for demolition. Photo: Sven Carlsson
A century after it was built to celebrate an immigrant’s achieving his American dream, Flatbush’s “haunted” mansion, which has endured storms, time, savage dogs, a chicken vendor and even an influx of pigeons, may at long last be facing the wrecking ball.
The house at 111 Clarkson Ave. – south east of Prospect Park – was once as grand as the aspirations of the man who built it: three stories, detailed archways, stained glass windows and a spacious veranda.
The garden behind the house was years ago paved over into a parking lot. Many of its windows, and the onion dome above the entrance, have been all but destroyed by wind and rain. The house looks worn, desolate, frightening.
“It was always the haunted house,” said Warren Oglivie, who has lived nearby for 40 years. “The scariest house on the block.”
It sits in sorry isolation, surrounded by apartment buildings. Few locals know what the property is used for, or why it has been left in such a state. But in late September, a developer bought 111 Clarkson for $2.8 million. The talk in Prospect Lefferts Gardens is that the house – grand or haunted, depending on your point of view – soon may be no more.
In 1902, Herman Raub, a plump German brewer who wore three-piece suits and sported a thick mustache, built the house at 111 Clarkson for his family. He had made a rapid success of himself since arriving in the United States at the age of 15. At 23, Raub became owner of the Central Railroad Hotel by Grand Central Station in Manhattan. At 30, he founded Consumers Park Brewery in Brooklyn.
He retained the Austrian architect Hugo von Wiedenfeld, whose plans drew on so many styles that a 1977 guide to New York City architecture described the mix as “berserk.” Von Wiedenfeld made sure to add a large step in the front of the house for carriages, and two stables in the back. “I’m sure it was the grandest house on the block,” said Robert Marvin, a long-time resident of the neighborhood and former president of the Lefferts Manor Association*.
But Raub’s good fortune did not last. He was fired from his brewing company five years after the house was built. In 1915, having founded the Coney Island railway and become “king” of that neighborhood’s Mardi Gras celebrations, Raub – rounder then than he had been at 111 Clarkson’s completion – died from liver complications. His wife and children stayed on, and would remain in the house for over 40 years. During that time, the surviving Raubs saw the block change around them. By the early 1930′s, tall, brick apartment buildings towered over their house. With time, only a handful of stand-alone houses remained on the block.
In 1958, a new family, the Fenimores, moved in. At that time, in a district just four blocks north of 111 Clarkson, a rigorous screening process awaited new tenants in what has become known as the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Landmark District. In the words of Louis Wolff, a long-time resident of the area, inhabitants there needed to be of a “superior type” – homogenous in terms of class, race and cultural backgrounds.
In some ways, Jennie and Joseph Fenimore fit the profile. They were a single family. They were white. But the house at 111 Clarkson was beyond their means. Jennie was a nurse and Joseph a bartender. They and their three children had moved from a two-bedroom apartment.
So Phyllis Raub, one of Herman’s three daughters, sweetened the offer; she lent the Fenimores $15,000.
She also left behind the trappings of the grandeur in which she had grown up: a library, a staircase of imported German wood, hand-painted walls and ceilings, a grand piano, velvet-clad chairs, and a chandelier so heavy that it looked like the only thing able to crush the massive table beneath it.
The Fenimores stayed for 25 years. Their daughter, Mary Fenimore, said that the upkeep of the house, done mostly by her father and his acquaintances in the real estate business, became a strain on her parents’ finances. She remembers the neighborhood and the house having changed by the late 1970s. “Everything began looking dirtier,” she said. “Everybody used to grow gardens, and have flowerbeds in front of their houses. In the morning, you could look down the block and see the old ladies sweeping the sidewalk. But I came back and saw all this trash. The whole place had changed.”
By the 1970s, some say, the house had become spooky. “It just looked creepy to me at the time,” said Monica Jones, who viewed the property in 1977 but felt it wasn’t for her. “I didn’t like the look of the house.” Yet photographs dated 1978 show a neat garden and a spotless facade basking in sunlight. None of the windows shown in the photo are boarded up. The onion dome on top of the entrance is intact.
In 1983, the Fenimores sold the property to Carl Holder, a local business owner and banker. Holder never lived there himself. Some three decades after the Lefferts Manor Association litigated extensively to keep roomers and boarders out of their enclave, the only tenants in a house three blocks south of the Historical District were two dogs: a mutt and a Doberman Pinscher – in Holder’s words, a “very ferocious” dog that, for over two years, only heeded instructions in Spanish. “They were not pets as far as I was concerned,” he said. “They were more to protect my property.” The Doberman was “never a friend.” Holder, who said he kept his dogs in the cellar of his new house, lived across the street, in a brick apartment building.
Meanwhile, the dogs kept watch in a neighborhood that had changed dramatically from Raub’s time. In 1979, four years before Holder moved in, the median family income for the surrounding blocks was nearly 40 percent below that of New York State. In the late 1950′s, that figure had been less than ten percent. A wave of migration to Brooklyn had completely altered the demographic makeup of the block where 111 Clarkson stood. In 1980, Flatbush, an area immediately south of Clarkson, had gone from 85 percent white to 80 percent non-white in ten years’ time.
Even as the area transformed, Raub’s mansion remained a magnet for dreams. Holder – himself an immigrant, from Trinidad – harbored ones sprung from American literature. “I wanted something like the Great Gatsby,” he said. Holder’s idea was to entertain the community elite he had met working as a banker in Harlem. “I wanted to invite friends to wear their old-time clothing and things like that.” On Super Bowl Sunday, he hosted a lobster cook-off between him and his sister. “It was too big a house for a single person.”
During his brief spell as owner, a glass company in Long Island offered Holder $50,000 – nearly half what he had paid for the whole property – to remove the leaded, stained glass and replace it with regular windows. He did not take the offer. Nor did he realize his plan, conceived when he had decided to move to Florida, of tearing the house down to make the whole property a more lucrative parking lot.
The house survived. But, like the neighborhood, it had changed. After accommodating families for some 80 years, 111 Clarkson had no human residents. “I tried sleeping there,” Holder said. “Sometimes I would hear the wind blowing and noises when I was sleeping.”
On a recent afternoon, wrappers, bottles and take-away cups were strewn in the overgrown front garden. Bushes crowded the walkway. Pigeons had long ago outsmarted the nets there to protect wooden details on the facade of the house. Their excrement covered the archways on the outside, and blanketed the floor on the windowless third story, which the birds annexed long ago. A pigeon sat on the railing of the top balcony, posturing ownership.
Behind the house, the parking lot – laid by the Fenimores two years after they moved in to rent out spaces for extra income – had only one car in it. Its windshield was smashed, the tires flat. The car offered no sign that its owners intended to return. The back fence was shut, reinforced by concrete barriers a few yards inside the lot.
Yet it was business as usual on the enclosed porch, from which the house’s most recent owner, Raphael Berger, ran a law office. Inside, the sour smell of damp, old wood did not bring to mind a workplace. But the phone rang frequently. Back from lunch, flicking through a notebook full of names and notes, Berger’s secretary sat at her desk, running the daily operations. Berger got full ownership of the house in 1988, and remained on its deed until last month. Many say 111 Clarkson deteriorated on his watch. “The previous owner didn’t touch it for 30 years, or more,” said Seth Brown, the real estate investor who recently bought the property.
Berger is of a different opinion. He said that when he became part owner, in 1984, the house “was in a terrible state of disrepair.” Berger blamed Holder for letting dogs stay unattended in the cellar. “It deteriorated in part because the person I bought it from was using it to house animals,” he said.
Yet a tax photograph from the mid-1980′s shows a tidy garden with all windows intact. As the photographic evidence would have it, the house slid into dilapidation while in Berger’s hands. “Houses deteriorate,” he said, pointing out several exterior repairs he had paid for. “We had some hurricanes, we had storms, we had things that adversely affected the shape of the house.”
In Berger’s office clients dropped in frequently and exchanged greetings with his secretary. Some visitors, however, have been more welcome than others. In recent years, to the mild disapproval of some locals, Berger let a chicken vendor set up shop in the back of the parking lot.
“He got a couple of tickets from the police for operating on the sidewalk,” Berger said. “I let him stand in the corner. But it didn’t work out because he kept expanding, from a stand to a larger table.” Eventually Berger told him to leave the lot. “He built a cabin and moved in there, or slept there. So I got rid of him.”
For Seth Brown, the investor who bought 111 Clarkson in September, the choice is a stark one: tear the house down, or make it financially viable. Brown said market forces will decide its fate. “The question becomes, can the house be restored and rented out or sold for more than what it would cost to restore it?”
In the parking lot, he added, there will be a new five or six story building with “high end” apartments. Brown plans for the apartments to have solar power, gardening plots and “tons of bike storage.” Adam Glassman at Property Buyers Group, who brokered the deal, guessed that the lot will now be filled with condos, and that Raub’s house will be demolished. “Financially, it makes sense to take it down,” he said.
Not everyone thinks economics should decide the property’s fate. “Powerful market forces will override any sense of community,” said Suzanne Spellen, who writes about Brooklyn architecture for the Brownstoner website. “I’d be really surprised if he kept the house. I’d have to go over there and shake his hand.”
Online, members of the community mourned the likely loss of so unique a house.
“This is very sad,” Robert Marvin, the longtime resident, wrote in an email. He has lived in the area since 1974. “I hope this alerts homeowners on this and other non-landmarked PLG [Prospect Lefferts Gardens] blocks to the importance of designation.”
Brown insisted that his new development – which will be added to his previous projects, such as a modern brownstone house in Park Slope – will fit the area. “I hate it when people build stuff that’s inappropriate for the neighborhood,” he said. “People who never want any change in neighborhoods are not going to like it. People who have been there for a long time will see that there will be more people around as a result, and more pressure for subway improvements.”
Spellen said she hopes someone will get to “salvage the goodies” inside the house “before the wrecking ball comes in.” And Berger said he would be taking the imported, European furniture once bequeathed by Phyllis Raub. “Some of the pieces I am told are very valuable,” Berger said. He said he is not sure where he will take his office next.
As he shopped the property around the market, Berger had not demanded of potential buyers retain the house. In the end, 111 Clarkson sold for nearly $3 million. “There’s no other way to feel but to feel sad, and nostalgic,” Berger said. “But life goes on.”
*A previous version of this article stated, incorrectly, that Robert Marvin had been president of the Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association. In fact, Marvin is a former president of the Lefferts Manor Association.