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.
“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.
When 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.
Interestingly, 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]