Some years ago we purchased a small collection of photographs of an opulent house known as the "Pope Mansion" at 871 Bushwick Ave. Mostly interior shots showing crushing amounts of Victorian clutter, the photographs are credited to H.G. Borgfeldt and dated c. 1909.
A search for information on the house and the family revealed a fascinating story of tobacco wealth and family feuds right in the heart of Brooklyn.
The Pope parents immigrated to the U.S. from Bavaria. It was their son John, born around 1857, who was the founder of the family fortunes. According to a long Eagle article dated April 1, 1909, John went down to Richmond Virginia as a wagonboy handling express packages, and was soon noticed and given a position as a clerk in a tobacco company. In fact the 1880 census shows him at age 23 boarding with the well-known Arents family, one of whom (George) was later the donor of a sumptuous collection of materials on tobacco to the New York Public Library.
John Pope was a man of energy and initiative who quickly amassed a fortune in the tobacco trade. Unfortunately he died young in 1896, dividing his millions among numerous friends including George Arents; his brother George P. Pope; and three sisters, Kunigunde Mullin, Margaret Pope, and Eva Kreiser. A Bushwick property was deeded equally to all four siblings, and the brother and sisters pooled their money, the women leaving all monetary affairs in the hands of the youngest, George, who had received the bulk of the fortune.
George was a conoisseur of fine tapestries and other objets d'art. He had a pipe organ built in his new house--(you can just see the pipes at right of the photograph above)--bought costly chandeliers, the finest oriental rugs, music boxes, pianos, stained glass windows possibly by Tiffany (see below) and installed a white peacock in the garden. A staunch Catholic, he gave lavishly to local churches. The marble altar at the Church of St John the Baptist in Willoughby Avenue was donated by George Pope, as was the organ at St.
Barbara's. He also gave freely to Cathlic orphan asylums and other charitable institutions, his good works drawing such notice in the Holy See that in 1902 at the age of 33 he was invested with the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope Leo XIII. To show his appreciation, Mr Pope immediately sent Pope Leo a gold papal seal set with precious stones. Even a modest 1900 report of the fifth ("wooden") wedding anniversary celebration of his sister and brother-in-law, the Kreisers, trumpets the handsome gift he bestowed on the young couple. As the Eagle reporter does not tell us exactly what it was, we are free to imagine--a Steinway piano with the finest of rosewood veneers perhaps, or a medieval German carving out of walnut...
But trouble was brewing in paradise. Kunigunde Mullin, George's widowed sister--a tall, blue-eyed and large-mouthed woman, with a high forehead and a name that is a gift to census searchers--became concerned that the inheritance of her two children would be squandered by her luxury-loving brother. While George had received over $1 million in his brother's will, John left Kunigunde and her sisters a mere $140,000 each. The magnificence of the Bushwick Avenue Mansion seemed to Mrs Mullin out of proportion with her true lot in life. In 1909 she retained an attorney serendipitously named Mr Lack, who made heroic attempts to settle the matter out of court. Failing to reach an agreement, Mrs Mullin sued her brother for the stocks and bonds named in John's will. She, it was said, did not want to be "made to pay one fourth of the cost of all the clocks, the music boxes, the rugs and the priceless embroidery with which George has been satisfying his artistic fancies."
Still less did she wish to pay for one fourth of a $140 peacock that was "worse than worthless." As tends to happen with peacocks, the creature was so noisy that the neighbors --no doubt local beer barons --complained that it kept them awake, and the bird was given away. There was even talk of partitioning off a section of the mansion, but by mid-June of 1909 the siblings finally reached an accommodation, and Mrs Mullin dropped her suit. The house and its contents at that time were valued at $2,000,000.
And so it was that by the time of the 1910 census, Mrs Mullin and her son were living not in the gilded palace on Bushwick Avenue, but at 74 Woodruff Avenue in Flatbush, not far from the Parade Grounds. We can only hope that family relations were improved by the separation, and that Mrs Mullin felt more comfortable in her modest row house.
Poor George with all his finery did not make old bones. In 1917 at the age of 48 he died at his "winter residence" in Atlantic City after a long illness. Three years later, the mansion on Bushwick Avenue at the corner of Himrod Street was sold to the Jewish Home for the Aged and Infirm (later known as the Menorah Home) for $150,000. It must have been the bargain of the century. The remaining family members may not have realized that some of the chandeliers were 22-carat gold, while others were "exquisite objects of Japanese brass." Murals and ceiling paintings and a bonsai garden were among the other objects that would be enjoyed by the elderly inhabitants of the old Pope Mansion.
The house endured until the 1950s, when the directors of the Menorah Home replaced it with a building that was no doubt more practical, but it must be said, infinitely less attractive. That building changed hands in 2005 and is now home to the Metro International Church.