Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Union Hall

A few days ago I got an email from a woman seeking help in tracking down a couple of places in Brooklyn that were landmarks in her family's history.  Her father, a merchant marine from Galveston, Texas, had been sent to Brooklyn after WWII to work in a line of business she described as "union protection."  We'll leave it at that.  At some point after his arrival, his fiancĂ©e , also from Galveston, joined him in New York.  They were married at City Hall in 1952, & the marriage certificate gave their witness's place of residence as Union Hall on Fourth Street.  She wondered if I knew anything about the place.  Her father was no longer living, and her mother was no longer sure about all the details of their time in Brooklyn.  It was a long shot, but could I help?

When it comes to the local history of the neighborhood I live in, I'm strictly an amateur, but I always enjoy a challenge.  And this particular question wasn't too hard to answer.  As soon as I read "merchant marine" & "Union Hall,"  I guessed where the witness was probably staying. The address on the certificate should have read Fourth Avenue, not Fourth Street, & the Union Hall was The Seafarer's International Union, at 675 Fourth Avenue (21st Street).  The Union moved there in 1951, taking over the premises of PS 60, and it stayed there until the early 90's, when it moved a block north to the corner of 19th Street.  It left Brooklyn for New Jersey a couple of years back. The premises at 675 reverted back to being a school, and 635 was recently demolished to make way for an as-yet unfinished apartment building.

I developed a casual interest in the Seafarers Union a couple of years ago, but my interest really took off in 2015.  A reader, Virginia Maksymowicz, had a personal connection to the Union, as her father, former Chief Petty Officer Henry "Hank" Maksymowicz, had been a bartender at the Union bar, the Port-O'- Call.  She remembered childhood visits to the bar, which was carved in the shape of a boat, with a mermaid at the helm.  Her story was fascinating, and the two of us were inspired to dig out more information about the Union.  I uncovered - who would have thought? - a 1953 Stanley Kubrick documentary about life at the SIU.  It was a promotional piece, but a lovely film for all that, and gave a vivid picture of all the amenities the building offered - there was the Port-O'-Call - along with a stirring scene of sailors assembled in the Hiring Hall, waiting to sign up for their next voyage. Virginia made an equally exciting discovery - the bar's mermaid figurehead had survived the exodus from both 675 and 635 Fourth, and she was now heading a boat-shaped bar in the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training, in Maryland.  We were delighted by this news.

I was happy to find out that my hunch about the Union Hall was right.  The woman who had sought my help wrote back, and her mother remembered the center on Fourth as the place where she and her new husband had celebrated their wedding!  They were married soon after the SIU opened on Fourth, so the place must have looked tip-top.  I like to think of the young couple, up at the bar in the Port-O'-Call, toasting their new life together, in far-from-home Brooklyn.

The second question I was posed was harder to answer.  My correspondent wondered if I knew of a Brookyn bar/restaurant called Mom's Place.  The woman who worked there, or whose family owned the joint, was named Rose McCusker, and had become friendly with her mother.  Apparently this must have been quite a place, as Tony Bennett was a frequent customer.  So far the only clue I've found is that maybe the bar was in Dyker Heights, around 13th Avenue (see comments at the end of this Forgotten New York post).  If anyone's heard of such a place, please let me know.  I'd love to pass on the information.  One of my favourite things about writing this blog is connecting with a reader who's stumbled upon it, and being able to share his or her memories of earlier days in the area.  Thank you, readers!

Further reading:

Back to 635
The Port of Call
Back at the Port of Call
The Mermaid Lives!

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