Each apartment in Brighton Hall had a sealed-off fireplace in the living room, and I felt a pang of regret every time I looked at the outline on the wall in my apartment where the fireplace used to be. It would have been so cool to have a working fireplace, and so warm to sit by the hearth on the frequent frigid winter days when the boiler was broken and there was no heat or hot water. Having earned a camping merit badge in the Boy Scouts, I was good at building fires.
The fireplace in the above photo was the only one in the building that was not completely hidden. It was located in a common room off to the side of the first-floor entrance hall. When I lived there, the room served no purpose (as is still the case); sometimes people chained up their bikes there. But the architectural detail that went into that room is indicative of the building's luxurious origins. Note the heads carved into the pseudo-Ionic columns above the mantle, framing a frieze; the combination Ionic-Corinthian marble column in the foreground (a counterpoint to the Doric columns outside); the marble panel next to the column; and the elaborate moldings on the ceiling and walls.
Because Brighton Hall would be located close to the Parade Grounds and Prospect Park, and around the corner from a subway that would put you in Manhattan in 20 minutes, the builders thought East 17th Street was a perfect spot for a luxury apartment house. But their timing was off. The Great Depression hit as the building was being completed, and neglect set in immediately. By the time my parents signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment, in 1953, Brighton Hall was a faded relic. But the rent was a reasonable $36 per month and my father could walk to work. His candy store on Church Avenue was 174 steps from the front door.
Even today, as Brooklyn becomes as gentrified as Manhattan, somehow the odd-numbered side of East 17th Street between Church and Caton Avenues remains the block that gentrification forgot.
Headpress will publish Bobby in Naziland September 1; it's now available for pre-order on Amazon and all other online booksellers.