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House Divided: Italianate Mansion with Spite Elevator

By: Myryah Irby , Contributing Writer
In: House Styles, Old House History

This past weekend I went on the Society for Clinton Hill’s 32nd anniversary historic house tour. I moved to this area of Brooklyn, NY, about a year ago and have been fascinated by the unique history, and the truly diverse current architectural, socioeconomic and ethnic make-up of the area. In a four or five block radius you’ll find old brick factory buildings (like the one I live in), brownstones, limestones, projects (I guess the PC term is public housing?), clapboard rowhouses, mansions, Italianate town houses, antebellum frame houses, carriage houses and more. The residents are rich, poor and middle class, and often living on the same block. The ethnic make-up is mostly black then Hispanic, white, and Asian.

The house tour included 13 different buildings. A few beautiful old churches, a brewery and various dwellings. I was especially drawn to one of the mansions. The Charles Pratt Mansion, to be specific.

Charles Pratt Mansion, 232 Clinton Avenue

Charles Pratt Mansion, 232 Clinton Avenue

Charles Pratt was born in 1830, one of 11 children. He scraped up a bit of money and went to college, intermittently, I believe. It’s said that he lived on a dollar a week at times. I checked an online inflation calculator which tells me that’s equivalent to about $23.70 today. Pretty thrifty! He started off working in Boston for a company that dealt in paints and whale oil products. He then moved to New York and worked for a similar company that also dealt in astral oil. When the company split, Pratt kept the oil business. He merged with John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil in 1874 and became filthy rich. At the time of his death, in 1891, he was the richest man in Brooklyn.

Garden view from front porch

Garden view from front porch

In the early 1870s Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill was a quiet suburban street lined with wood villas. All that changed with the construction of the Charles Pratt Mansion at 232 Clinton. Pratt then built three more mansions on the block, 229, 241, and 245. He gave them to his sons as wedding gifts. I wonder if he threw in a set of stainless steel cookware…

But Pratt’s generosity wasn’t limited to building mansions for his children (and he had many, 2 by his first wife, and 6 by his second, who incidentally was the sister of his first wife. He married her 2 years after the death of wife #1), he also cared for and supported his community in big, important ways. He was known as one of the area’s greatest philanthropists. He established and endowed the Pratt Institute, an art and design school, in 1887 and funded many other community programs around education and housing.

Pratt’s presence attracted many wealthy industrialists and financiers to the ‘hood. Before long new residents included the Bristols (of the Bristol-Myers company) and the Underwoods (of typewriter fame). Clinton Avenue became known as Brooklyn’s gold coast.

Recent ceiling repair reveals original frescos in sitting room

Recent ceiling repair reveals original frescos in sitting room

You get the stairs, I get the elevator

The massive Italianate/neo-Greco villa is now being used as a convent. Twelve nuns live on the upper levels (unfortunately, that area was off limits during the tour), and the main floor library was converted into a chapel. The most interesting bit of the building’s history, to me, was the story of the feuding brothers. Pratt Sr. eventually gave the Pratt Mansion to two of his six sons to share, and apparently these sons did not get along. In fact, at one point their displeasure with one another was so great that one of the brothers installed an elevator — one of the first in Brooklyn, built by the Otis elevator company — so that he and his family would not have to run into his brother and his brother’s family on the stairwell.

Because the elevator brother and his family lived on the second floor, and the stairway to get to the second floor was only accessible through the living area of the brother on the first floor, an arrangement was reached: the elevator was installed close to the front door of the house, and the doorway in the hall beyond that, leading to the living quarters of the other brother, was sealed off. Elevator brother and his family entered the mansion through the front door, first floor brother and his family entered the mansion through the rear door.

I wonder what the sisters who inhabit the Pratt Mansion now think about this funny bit of history.

Previously in this blog, Bill Kibbel wrote about Spite Houses, and some readers mentioned spite fences and spite driveways. I wonder, could this be considered a spite elevator?

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  1. 4 Responses  to “House Divided: Italianate Mansion with Spite Elevator”

  2. Jeff Brooks
    Aug 29, 2011
    What an interesting story. I found this post while researching the Otis elevator company. Interesting to hear about a smaller dwelling using Otis elevators, considering buildings like the Eiffel Tower and (before its demise) the World Trade Center. How interesting to think of a man installing an elevator that goes up one floor of stairs for the sole purpose of not having to see his brother. People are so funny!
  3. Lucy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Steve thanks for the tip. I live just a few blocks from Pratt and I'd never heard about the old steam engines -- how cool. I just googled around and discovered that "Pratt boasts the oldest continuously-operating, privately-owned, steam-powered electrical generating plant in the country." I'll definitely try to check out the NYE party.
  4. Kerry Hoffman
    Aug 29, 2011
    Rumor has it the Underwood widow demanded her house be demolished when she died (it was made into a park) because she didn't like the direction the neighborhood was headed in and didn't want the home to fall into the wrong hands.
  5. Aug 29, 2011
    One of my favorite things about that neighborhood is the New Years Eve party at Pratt University. I haven't done it in a few years, but one of the engineers collects old steam whistles -- some from large ships. Since Pratt generates much of its own power from a steam engines (you have to visit their power plant!), they pull several large steam pipes out to the quad and at midnight they pass out ropes to pull the whistles. What a racket! On a very cold night, the steam rises, freezes and drops as snow.