A Clinton Hill Condo’s Secret Past

The large sandstone plaque over the front door at 320 Washington Avenue in Brooklyn reads “Graham Home for Old Ladies.” Nestled away from the street on a quiet, residential block of polished brownstones and an elegant park, the building’s soaring windows, circular driveway, and red brick colonnades seem to be yet another architectural marvel in Brooklyn’s historic landmark district of Clinton Hill.

Graham Home for Old Ladies, December 2003. Photo by Peter Krebs.

But in its 150 years of life, from a genteel beginning as a home for elderly women to a turn as a brothel and today’s incarnation as condominiums, the Graham Home has become a monument to change in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building’s evolution from early elegance to a dark era of crime and drugs to its recent renaissance personifies the tumultuous past of not only Clinton Hill but also much of Brooklyn.

And yet, in interviews with neighbors of the Graham Home, residents said that while they are pleased the one-time neighborhood eyesore has been restored, they couldn’t help but feel the building’s transformation is the hallmark of gentrification in their neighborhood.

“The Graham Home for Old Ladies was a brothel and now it’s a co-op,” says Alan Bensew, a Clinton Hill resident since 1976. “That’s very symbolic of the area.”

While today the 19th-century Greek Revival building houses a racially diverse mix of middle-class families and young professionals, its life began in 1851 as the “Brooklyn Society for the Relief of Respectable, Aged, Indigent Females.”

At the time the Graham Home was built, Clinton Hill was an upscale neighborhood. A local philanthropist, John B. Graham, a paint manufacturer, donated the land and the cost of the building. Graham’s vision, described in archives, was to provide care for “elderly women, accustomed through life to comforts and refinement, but who in their later years found themselves without relatives or adequate resources.” When the building opened, it housed 90 women from Brooklyn over the age of 60. The cost for a lifetime there was $60, about $1,400 today.

In 1899, the name was changed to the more bizarre and succinct “Graham Home for Old Ladies.” In 1951, still in operation, the Home’s commemorative brochure for the 100th anniversary gave a bucolic account of life at the Graham Home. Housing 70 women, the majority of whom had been secretaries, saleswomen, dressmakers, teachers, beauticians, and nurses, the daily routine was a mellow blur of charitable events, sewing bees, and afternoon teas.

Not long after the anniversary, the Home began to decline, strapped by financial peril. By the late 1950s, the Graham Home had been shut down and remained vacant for a number of years. Historical records are sketchy, but sometime in the sixties the building reopened as the Bull Shippers Motor Lodge, quickly gaining notoriety as a home for prostitution.

Marty Younger Roberts, who lived in a building behind the Bull Shippers Motor Lodge in the early seventies, says, “I knew it had a twilight existence, some kind of motel, hotel, whatever. I would see people coming out of the back at night.”

“Marty is just being nice, it was a whorehouse,” declares his friend Ron Hughes, as the two men hang out on the sidewalk outside the Graham Home one recent afternoon. Hughes has been in the neighborhood since the late sixties.

On the other hand, Jean Jackson, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1976, has fond memories of the Bull Shippers Motor Lodge. Jackson went to “a little disco affair” at the hotel’s ballroom on Valentine’s Day in 1978. “It wasn’t the Waldorf-Astoria,” she says. “But it wasn’t bad.”

Sometime in the early eighties, the motel closed. Just like in many other parts of Brooklyn, neighbors in Clinton Hill remember mounting problems with the police and drugs at the Bull Shippers Motor Lodge. By 1985, the motel was boarded up and the red brick painted black. It sat vacant for 15 years.

After a complete renovation in 2001, the condominiums sold out in 18 months. Touted by a high-powered realty firm, the Corcoran Group, as the area’s “most interesting living opportunity,” the 25 two- and three-bedroom apartments sold for between $325,000 and $495,000. Juliana Brown, the Corcoran realtor for the building, says the Graham Home’s macabre history provided a valuable sales “cache.”

Brown remembers walking through the building before the renovation and being struck by the contrast of the interior: a grand elevator situated between sweeping staircases, and small rooms set off of wide hallways, with glittering walls covered in leopard and zebra print wallpaper and “huge, raunchy, globe-like chandeliers.”

The remodeling efforts focused on demolishing and reconfiguring the interior so that only the nostalgic exterior charm of the building remained. Today, the hallways are narrow and plain, lit by soft fluorescent light. In a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor, with white walls and modern stainless steel fixtures, only the massive seven-foot high windows and 13-foot ceilings allude to the past.

But given the rising cost of living in this neighborhood, the condo’s residents actually see the six-figure price tag as reasonable. “If you think about it,” says Keith Utsey, the first person to move into the building, “in this neighborhood, it is affordable housing.”

Contributor

Claire Hoffman

Claire Hoffman is a journalist based in Williamsburg.