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The Philanthropist, His Oil, His Institute, and a Library

Oct 17, 2011 10:15 AM | 0 comments

On October 6, 1887, a humble little advertisement ran in the classifieds column of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

"Applications for enrollment in classes in mechanical and freehand drawing, designing and modeling, will be received on and after October 10.  Class work will begin October 17.  Circulars giving general information furnished on request.  Personal interviews at office of Institute 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. and 7:30 to 9 P.M."

A little over a week later, on October 17, 1887, twelve intrigued students attended the aforementioned drawing class, and thus Pratt Institute was born.

Photograph of Pratt's inaugural faculty, 1887. 

Since then, the Institute, which is now kicking off its 125th anniversary year, has built a reputation as a leading undergraduate art and design school (incidentally, it is also home to a graduate program in library science, with which we are collaborating in the Project CHART grant).  As told in Pratt's 50th anniversary publication, The Story of Pratt Institute, 1887 - 1937, the school wasn't originally conceived as a fine art school, but rather as a center for vocational training.  The art classes supported founder Charles Pratt's belief that "to co-ordinate the hand and eye was fundamental in all expressions of manual skill," and the curriculum evolved from that combination of practicality and artistry. 

Above, Pratt students learn blacksmithing.  Other trades were taught as well, including wood-turning, tinsmithing, carpentry, plumbing, stone-cutting, house- and sign-painting, and bricklaying.

Below, female students gather in the Pratt gymnasium.  While the purpose of this solemnly geometric assembly is unknown, it is certain that Pratt accepted female students from the beginning, often in its domestic arts department, which taught sewing, dressmaking, and millinery.

Much like the libraries that sprouted up all over the country thanks to Andrew Carnegie's steel wealth (and like the university that was founded by glue magnate Peter Cooper), Pratt Institute was funded by Gilded Age industry -- in this case, oil.  Charles Pratt made his fortune in petroleum oil in the second half of the 19th century, establishing the Astral Oil company in Brooklyn's Greenpoint industrial corridor.  The oil works occupied a patch of land on the East River, bounded on the south by North 12th Street and the east by Kent Avenue (known until 1885 as 1st Avenue). 

Brooklyn Daily Eagle advertisement, 1875. 

Eventually becoming a well-known brand of illuminating oil, one of the company's slogans claimed it "will not explode."  That may have been true for the end-product, but danger is inherent at oil refineries, and Pratt's oil works was not without its hazards.

Above, the tremor caused by an explosion at Astral Oil wreaked havoc within a mile-and-a-half radius of the plant in January of 1880.  By the Eagle's estimate, three-quarters of the windows in the vicinity were shattered by the shockwave.  Below, an explosion in December 1884 set the East River aflame.

Pratt's oil business was absorbed by John D. Rockefeller's growing Standard Oil company in 1874, at which point Charles Pratt joined that company's board of directors and installed his son, Charles Millard Pratt, as secretary of Standard Oil.  Finding himself even wealthier than he had been before, Pratt turned toward philanthropic pursuits.  In addition to founding Pratt Institute to train Brooklynites in technical trades and higher arts, Charles Pratt tackled what the Eagle described as "the problem of how to live decently and economically."  As the city's growing population spilled from Manhattan into Brooklyn, overcrowding became a social concern, and a better solution than squalid tenements was sought.  In line with the efforts of other industrialists like London housing benefactor George Peabody, Pratt conceived of a building that would provide attractive, wholesome apartments for working people at an affordable price. 

The Astral Apartments building, occupying the entire block of Franklin Street between India Street and Java Street in Greenpoint, was completed in 1887.  The Eagle fawned over the structure, declaring it, "the most perfect type of an apartment house in the world."  An advertisement from that year promised three- to five-room apartments with hot and cold water, bathrooms, natural light, and ventilation.  Profits from the apartment building, which in 1887 were expected to total $30,000, were promised to support Pratt's other new project, the aforementioned institute.

Below and above right, the Astral Apartments as they look today.

The gifts did not end there. Pratt installed a library in the basement of the Astral in 1889, which the Eagle described as possessing a "an artistic and homelike air, suggestive of the cheer and comfort which may come to a wanderer on a stormy night."  Although membership was initially limited to Astral residents, the library was opened to the general public in 1890.  By 1900, the library boasted a collection of 6,500 volumes. 

The Astral Library in 1901.

The Astral library was eventually incorporated into the Brooklyn Public Library system, in 1901.  In that time, as the city was using some of Andrew Carnegie's promised funding to build more libraries throughout the borough, consolidation of existing libraries became a hot-button issue, one that reflected the various tensions and viewpoints of New York City's recently-consolidated constituents.  The library was offered as a gift to the city, provided a $50 monthly rent for the site was paid to Pratt Institute.  The city's Sinking Fund Commission balked at the steal of a deal and refused the gift in a move one library trustee described as, "indicative of the attitude of Tammany Hall toward libraries... the organization cannot control the appointments to be made in the library force, and, therefore, is not interested in the library system itself."  After much back-and-forth, the Astral branch was approved in the waning days of 1901 -- a year that saw an additional five new libraries established in Brooklyn.  Alongside Greenpoint's Carnegie building, the the Astral branch served the neighborhood until it was closed permanently in late December of 1934.

Charles Pratt did not live to see the controversy of the Astral library, having died of heart failure in May of 1891.  At the time of his death the Eagle praised him as Brooklyn's "wealthiest man and greatest philanthropist," and went on to downplay his fortune in favor of highlighting his generosity.  "A horsehair, imprisoned in a bottle of water, will draw to itself animalculae which will barnacle upon it and make it seem a living thing.  But neither artist, nor poet, nor historian, nor publicist would regard the horsehair as deserving praise, because the animalculae twined about it.  No more is the wealth on which more wealth accretes entitled to distinction."  A bizarre metaphor, to be sure, but perhaps a fitting enough one for a man whose legacy resides more in his gifts to Brooklyn than in his bank account.