The Many Iterations of 23 Cranberry Street

In 2022, this building became the home of the Asia Art Archive in America. The non-profit archive is the latest use in the richly varied history of this site.

The original building on this lot from the 1820s

Historic maps show a small wood-frame house, which based on directory listings dated back to the early 1820s at least. The first known residents were both sailors. The house was most likely very similar to the surviving wooden house next door at 25 Cranberry Street. The property was typical of much of the northern, earliest developed part of Brooklyn Heights, in that for some of its life it was mixed-use. For example, in the 1830s, the firm of Burnet & Sealy was using the rear yard to manufacture ornamental iron railings for stoops and fences.

A new carriage house in the 1880s

Charles Arbuckle bought the property at the beginning of 1886. But he wasn’t planning to live in the old wooden house. For Arbuckle, it was a tear-down.

The brothers Charles and John Arbuckle became fabulously wealthy in the coffee roasting business in the late 19th century. They were the first to patent a process for packaged coffee. By the 1880s, the duo controlled the Empire Stores warehouses in the waterfront neighborhood known today as DUMBO.

At this time, the brothers lived together at 82 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights. In 1886, Charles Arbuckle hired Albert F. Norris to design a grand mansion for himself on Columbia Heights facing Cranberry Street. Norris was a local Brooklyn architect just making his name. The brothers had used Albert’s father Francis, a longtime Brooklyn builder, to put up many of their warehouse and factory buildings in DUMBO and for houses they built in & around Brooklyn Heights. Albert later became a prominent architect across the northeast, designing homes in Victorian Flatbush, and Princeton and Montclair New Jersey.

(While Charles Arbuckle built his mansion close to DUMBO, his brother John hired architect Montrose Morris to design his own mansion in Clinton Hill. John Arbuckle’s house survives today, but Charles Arbuckle’s Brooklyn Heights house was torn down to make way for the BQE. John also built the Hotel Margaret, named for the brothers’ mother, at the corner of Orange and Columbia Heights. The Frank Freeman-designed building famously burned to the ground in a devastating 1980 fire.)

When planning his Columbia Heights mansion, Charles Arbuckle wanted his carriage nearby, so he bought the 23 Cranberry Street property about a block away, and demolished the wooden house.  He had Norris design a carriage house that was large and luxurious by Brooklyn standards. The three-story building covering almost the full lot featured a large carriage space and 7 stalls for horses on the first floor, richly furnished private office for Arbuckle on the second floor, coachman and groomsmen quarters on the third floor — and even a bowling alley in the basement!

Incidentally, next door to 23 Cranberry is an apartment at the corner of Willow Street. This building, 37 Willow (aka “The Willow”), was designed by Norris at the same time as 23 Cranberry. These two buildings, while not a continuous design due to their separate uses and owners, are nevertheless intentionally complementary. The apartment was put up by a granddaughter of Moses Beach, the founder of the Associated Press and The New York Sun.

As fate would have it, Charles Arbuckle didn’t have long to enjoy either his Columbia Heights mansion or the over-the-top carriage house at 23 Cranberry. He died only 5 years after they were built. Unmarried and without any direct heirs, the building soon passed out of the Arbuckle family. And not long after that, the carriage house era ended and the automobile garage era began.

Garage in the 1900s

It’s unknown exactly when the building was converted from horse & buggy to car storage, but we do know that the wealthy residents of Brooklyn Heights were early adopters of automobiles. The first garages (both converted and purpose-built) appeared in the first decade of the 20th century. Nor do we know when exactly the original rich detail of the building would’ve been removed from here. However, an intriguing newspaper ad from 1903 offering private bowling alleys for club rental at the property was made under the name “The Autoclub” — confirming both that the building was already a garage by then, and still had the bowling alley intact.

Old carriage houses and garages are notoriously difficult to research because they often get less attention in historic records than other types of buildings, and don’t always have residents/occupants whose names are trackable. Still, we can piece together some other details of the building in this period:

– an Oscar Lear model of car was registered at the address in 1908

– a mechanic named E. Allen at the building was looking for a chauffeur position in 1910

– in 1911, oil exploded in the Pioneer Garage here. Manager James Eddy was badly burned and 20 cars were destroyed, including the autobus of the Hotel Margaret

– a Socony Motor Oil ad lists the still-operating Pioneer Garage at this location in 1919

– by 1924, the building has been renamed the Plymouth Garage

– 1928 photo shows signs hanging from the building advertising Sinclair Gasoline, Firestone Tires and Whiz Gear Grease

– through the 1930s and 1940s, fewer references to the building appear, generally tracking both the decline of Brooklyn Heights generally and the Brooklyn newspapers of the time in particular – but when they do appear, references are still to the Plymouth Garage

– in 1953 the final mention of the Plymouth Garage that can be found — a reference to a car theft from the building

Art Studio in the 1960s

In 1960, John and Richanda Rhoden bought the building, and started its next chapter.

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