I tok this picture while walking down 9th street in Brooklyn where it slopes from 5th Ave down to the Gowanus Canal. This stretch of the lower Slope has fascinated me recently, since it remains quasi-industrial, with a half-dozen cheap and primarily blue-collar bars, just around the corner from the flashy restaurants and hipster bars along 5th Ave. The street is an outpost of industrial, pre-gentrification Brooklyn, a reminder of the blue-collar sensibility which lingers in Park Slope in the form of cheap diners, bars like the Carriage House and Farrells, the sweep of this blocky, utilitarian street down to the elevated railway lines of Smith-9th Station, and the factory and warehouse buildings along the Gowanus Canal.
And there, next to a bunker-like post office, is the Big Blue House.
I’d walked by the house countless times before, but this time it was cast in yellow light from one of those spectacular New York sunsets and I had to take a couple of shots. As I was putting my camera away, a middle-aged woman standing by her porch said: “If I had a dollar for every time someone takes a picture of that house, I’d be a millionaire.”
I laughed and we started talking. She said she was always out on her stoop, that she’d been in the area for decades, that she was ‘the mayor of 9th Street’. She thought the changes over the last few years were pretty good: “Brooklyn’s coming back – for so long it was a place no one wanted to come to, but look at Park Slope now . . .”
She said the Blue House used to be an ink factory, that tunnels had once run from the basement right up to Prospect Park because the house had been used as a conduit for runaway slaves. Now, it was a music academy, Slope Music.
When I got home, I googled the Big Blue House, and found a post on Gowanus Lounge (Blue Jewel Revealed), and thebigbluehouse, run by Jake Rockowitz, a web designer who grew up in the house. At one time the site had a photo tour of the interior of the house, but now it seems to have been stripped down to a Portfolio site. Mr. Rockowitz writes:
“… The big blue house is a central theme to my artwork. Sitting in front of a computer in the basement of this big blue house is where I learned how to build websites so it seem fitting to call my company, which I incorporated in 2000, ‘The Big Blue House Production’.”
And from website for Slope Music (where you can still see pictures of the house’s interior, like the one below):
“The building inspires a sense of history because it was built in 1850, before the brownstones, before Prospect Park, before the Brooklyn Bridge. The house is awash in music because its owners, Vita and Charles Sibirsky, who moved there is 1981, started a music school called Slope Music. Since those days Slope Music has grown to include a staff of a dozen teachers, each one bringing their owns special gifts to the art of teaching music and making each student’s learning experience a personal adventure.
“…Vita’s studio is the cupola at the top of the building. When the afternoon light filters through the 13 windows, one feels like they are momentarily suspended above the building. Vita tries to create a warm, welcoming space for the students. The unusual setting encourages people to relax and be open to learning. The unique space makes every lesson special.
“People need more good music in their lives. They need to make it and to learn to listen. This improves them in every way, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Music relieves the stress people feel in these times,” Charles says.”
According to the Gowanus posting, the house was built in 1855, when this area of Brooklyn must have been mostly rural, and predates the brownstones which now dominate the area. The house was designed by Patrick Charles Keely, an Irish immigrant who designed some 500 Catholic Churches in the US. The posting makes no mention of underground tunnels or abolitionists, but it does mention the ink factory, which was housed in the big brick building behind the house – the big blue house was the factory office. The ink factory has now been turned into condos, but I was heartened to see that the Big Blue House has retained elegance, charm, and culture.
That’s the thing about areas like Park Slope: gentrification can never entirely erase history, nor the area’s natural beauty. I’ll be running a few more snapshots from Park Slope’s (and Brooklyn’s) surprising history in the weeks to come.