Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house

Charles Pratt was a stupendously wealthy kerosene-refinery owner who left his mark in Brooklyn with grand mansions on Clinton Avenue, donations to churches, and the founding of Pratt Institute in 1887.


But a few years earlier, he gained notoriety for another philanthropic endeavor: building affordable apartments for the families of the men who worked for his Astral Oil Works along the Greenpoint waterfront.


It goes without saying that livable flats were in great demand. New York has always had a shortage of housing and space for its middle- and working-class residents, and this true even in the booming city of Brooklyn in the late 19th century.

pratt“Not that there are not enough houses to supply tenants who desire to pay a monthly rental of $50 or over, but there is a lack of convenient houses to be had at a rental of less than $30,” wrote the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1886.

“At the present high price of ground in New York and Brooklyn it is doubtful if any number of small, cheap houses for the accommodation of persons of small means will ever be constructed.”

That’s where Pratt came in. Distressed by the crowded tenements available to working men and women and inspired by model housing built in London, he invested his own funds to build the Astral Apartments, a block-long, six-story edifice of brick and terracotta on Franklin Street meant to ease “the problem of how to live decently and economically,” as the Eagle put it.

astraltripadvisorWhen the Astral (“of the stars”) was unveiled, the design and amenities blew everyone away. Every room in the 120 three- to five-room units had a window—which meant light and ventilation, two precious commodities in the 19th century city.

For $10-$25 a month, tenants got extra closets, a coal box, sink, range, and a water closet in each flat, plus a lecture room in the basement and a spacious play area in the back.

thegildedageinnewyorkcover-1Interestingly, the Astral was slow to fill up; potential tenants apparently thought the building looked too much like a barracks or institution, according to one 1895 source.

But that didn’t stop the praise. The Astral “is the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world,” the Eagle stated. “Give the workingman and woman a chance to save a portion of their [sic] wages, and they will find means for educating their children and improving their personal welfare.”

Read more about the Gilded Age industrialists-turned-philanthropists who set out to improve housing for poor and working class New Yorkers in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, in stores Tuesday!

[First and third photos: Wikipedia; second image: American Architect and Architecture, 1895; fourth photo: TripAdvisor]

Tags: , , , , , ,

11 Responses to “Brooklyn’s “most perfect” 1886 apartment house”

  1. wendy Says:

    Is it still there? Is it a rental?

  2. Steve Ward Says:

    Franklin Street not Franklin Ave.

  3. Sean Says:

    The Astral fell on harder times in the 70s and 80s, (like much of Greenpoint and the city), and it was the home to many junkies, at least one of whom used its rooftop for suicide. It has returned to a more genteel residence since then in the past 20 years.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Sean. I found a photo of the building from the mid-1980s and it looked dark and rundown. Genteel is the right word for the Astral today; it’s been cleaned up and the original loveliness is on view.

    • Sean Says:

      My Greenpoint native sent me this email just now: “I know at least half a dozen people who OD’d or jumped off that roof.”

  5. Andrew Porter Says:

    Sigh… My own building in Brooklyn Heights was built in 1883, but in the 1930s they modernized it, took off the cornice, made rounded windows square, took out the fireplaces in the apartments, made two of the one bedroom apts on each floor into studios. So now it’s very forgettable in appearance.

  6. Paul Says:

    I’m the archivist at Pratt Institute and am happy to see the Astral getting some local attention. It’s a rare example of a wealthy industrialist trying to benefit his workers rather than exploiting them and cramming them into unhealthy tenements. Our archives unfortunately has no images of the interior but we do have original floor plans for some of the apartments. When it was built it contained a branch of the Pratt Institute Library, which at that time was both an academic library and the only free public library in Brooklyn. I’d like to make one correction: Charles Pratt’s oil refinery was called Charles Pratt & Co., not Astral Oil Works. It’s a common mistake, but in fact Astral Oil was the name of a product.

  7. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Paul for the correction, and too bad there are no interior images. Maybe Astral Oil Works was the colloquial name for the company used by locals, and it just stuck?

  8. georgebeach Says:

    Why the [sic] after “…their…]? How should the word have been spelled, “there”?
    Why “notorious” instead of famous or famed? Notorious has intense negative connotations. Here, for example, is a current definition: “famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed: Los Angeles is notorious for its smog | he was a notorious drinker and womanizer.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: