Scholars Stumble on Puzzle in Brooklyn Fireplace

October 7, 2008 at 9:20 pm Leave a comment

A preservation scholar at Columbia found the tiled fireplace at Greenpoint Reformed Church while scouting walking-tour stops. At the Greenpoint Reformed Church on Milton Street, a grand 19th-century pillared building that the congregation has owned since 1943, half a dozen historians have visited over the past few months to scrutinize old tiles along the back wall of a fireplace in the parlor.

It was not until this year that anyone recognized their historical significance.

Two white porcelain plaques depict a pair of gentlemen wearing waistcoats, a model of a primitive paddle-wheel boat and a snub-nosed object that resembles a miniature submarine or perhaps a torpedo. The bas-relief porcelain is detailed down to fingernails, hair strands, buttonholes and boot tassels — even the upholstery tacks on one man’s chair are visible.

“Of course I’d seen many, many fireplace tiles over the years, but never anything like this,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University.

Mr. Dolkart said he stumbled on the parlor and the tiled fireplace by accident. He had gone to the Greenpoint church while researching sites for walking tours he conducts for the American Guild of Organists, and happened to take a close look at the parlor fireplace.

“I realized these pieces were important and rare, and out of my field of expertise,” Mr. Dolkart said.

So he started assembling a team, which has included Susan Tunick, president of the Friends of Terra Cotta, a preservation group in New York, and Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the lead curator of American decorative arts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What they have determined about the porcelain scenes is that the seated figure is Robert Fulton, who pioneered designs for paddle-wheel steamboats, submarines and torpedoes in the early 1800s. The nattily dressed gentleman standing is the politician Robert Livingston, Fulton’s business partner. The plaques were probably made in the late 1870s at the Union Porcelain Works, a factory in Greenpoint that was in operation from the 1860s to the 1920s, Ms. Frelinghuysen said.

The factory’s owner, a major real-estate developer named Thomas C. Smith, built and lived in the bay-fronted building that now houses the Greenpoint church. In the 1940s, the congregation converted some central rooms into a sanctuary with stained glass and an organ, but much of Smith’s décor was left intact, including honey-colored carved woodwork and elaborate plaster moldings.

Union Porcelain Works was known for producing some zealously realistic images of historic figures. But Ms. Frelinghuysen said she had never seen a Fulton portrait made by the company. Did Smith commission the scenes? Who installed them in the Greenpoint fireplace alongside tiny 1890s tiles patterned in blue and white griffins and flowers, and why?

“Was there just some bin of extra stuff at the factory that these were all pulled from at some point, or was there some actual connection between Smith and Fulton?” asked Ms. Frelinghuysen, who has gamely crawled around the sooty fireplace with a flashlight and magnifying glass. “It’s really wonderful how well preserved these are, as a puzzle for us to explore.”

The leaders of the church, Pastor Ann Kansfield and the Rev. Jennifer Aull, find the academics’ enthusiasm somewhat perplexing. “I feel like such a philistine — why is everyone so excited about these?” Ms. Kansfield said. “But I do wonder why they were made, and how they ended up here. I hope someone figures it out.”

By EVE M. KAHN
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Brooklyn, Maritime. Tags: , , , , , .

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