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Peacock in Bushwick: The Pope Mansion

Aug 7, 2010 12:34 PM | 5 comments

 

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.

Pope Mansion Exterior

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. Pope mansion windows

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."

Peacock

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. 

 

Comments

8/8/2010 11:38:07 PM #

Great story! Too bad the building is no longer there, it looks like a beauty. Your blog is always interesting. Keep up the good work.

Montrose Morris

9/12/2011 11:31:44 AM #

I am grandaughter of Eva Pope Kreiser and I found your article very interesting.  I was not aware of some of the information you mentioned about the the mansion (would love to have the 24 carat chandelier now).  I spent many unhappy hours trying to learn how to play that Steinway piano!  We have old photograghs of the family.  If you are interested in seeing these you can contact me at the above email address.

N Lewis

3/16/2012 12:12:49 PM #

We are th

e great granddaughters of Kunigunda Pope Mullin and are just beginning to explore our family tree.  As children we were told stories of the  Pope Mansion and found your article to be a happy discovery and link to our past.  We have only two items of significance from the period:  a lavish menu from a Pope Manion dinner party and a mediallion of George Pope struck in comemereration of the Pope's visit in 1900.

Cornelia Birgel Haile
Linda Birgel Willich

Connie Haile

7/30/2012 1:21:17 PM #

It was my honor selling some photos of this grand mansion to Joy Holland at the BPL a number of years ago. I still maintain ownership of a good number of interior shots, some of which will be used in the book: Brooklyn's Bushwick and East Williamsburgh, which Rick Gomes and I hope to release later this year. Best Wishes to All !

Brian Merlis

12/11/2012 1:07:35 PM #

A couple 1918 blurps in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle shows that Arion Hall the huge home of the Arion Singing Society was taken from them by the US government and the 500 member society was to make its home in the Pope Mansion.


The Brooklyn Eagle, June 23, 1918:
"The Arion of Brooklyn is to have a final gathering of its 500 members and its affiliated sections, the Ladies Society, Ladies Chorus, Dramatic Section and the Orchestra Section—before moving to the Pope Mansion, Bushwick avenue and Himrod street, the new home of the Arion."

Excerpts from The Brooklyn Eagle, September 20, 1918:
"The passing of Arion Hall, which has been taken over by the government for war uses, is a symbol of the eclipse of the social and musical life of the city which can hardly flourish again in its old time luxuriance until the generation active in this war has passed away."

"The war has wrecked good, as well as bad, and among the good things which is brought to an end is the cultivation of German music here in the exclusive spirit in which it has been fostered in the past by singing societies like the Arion."
    

Fred Rump