The proposed Ulmer Residential Historic District consists of the detached, single-family mansion at 670 Bushwick Avenue, and the row of five townhouses across the street, at 683-691 Bushwick Avenue. All six were built by prolific local architect Theobald Engelhardt between 1885 and 1889 for German-born William Ulmer (1833-1907), who owned and operated the nearby William Ulmer Brewery at 31 Belvidere Street from the early 1870s until his death. Straddling Bushwick Avenue at its intersection with Willoughby Avenue, the William Ulmer Residential District might indeed be considered a gateway area in the profile of the neighborhood, separating the commercial and industrial zone to the northwest from the largely residential zone to the southeast.
The history of the Ulmer Residential District is interwoven with that of the brewery, a significant participant in the extensive brewing industry in late-19th century Bushwick, and a very successful operation in its own right until the advent of Prohibition outlawed the production of alcohol in 1919. Because the brewery complex, also designed by Engelhardt, stands as “a rare extant example of the late-19th century industry upon which the wealth of Bushwick was based,” its five surviving round-arch style buildings were designated New York City landmarks in May, 2010.
Census records have proved inconclusive thus far, but it seems likely that, as Ulmer-owned buildings in high architectural style and intended for single families, these five houses were originally intended for upper-management employees of the Ulmer Brewery. However, even if they were not, but were merely a real estate investment by Ulmer, these five houses are representative of the wealth generated by the brewing industry, and the manifestation of that wealth in the fabric of the neighborhood: the extent to which, at one point in its history, beer built Bushwick. Furthermore, in either case, the relationship between the row and the mansion—their proximity, their common scale and style—speaks to the historic mixed-income character of the neighborhood, where wealthy entrepreneurs and the educated classes lived alongside, for instance, the salesmen and manufacturers who likely lived at 706-714 across Bushwick Avenue, in wood-frame rowhouses designed, and in the two four-story apartment buildings at 699 and 701—all also by Theobald Engelhardt, for far more modest means and incomes, and expressing the impressive range of this local architect as well.
Though these six structures are in obvious good condition, the threats they face are myriad and immediate. According to records, Ulmer also owned second Engelhardt-designed detached single-family residence at 680 Bushwick Avenue ; this seems to have been demolished sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and no plans remain—the lot, like many in the neighborhood, is now vacant and overgrown. Alongside the five townhouses, a brownstone rowhouse has fallen into a state of extreme disrepair due to years of painting, stripping, repainting, and neglect; its row-mate has been entirely clad in vinyl, stripped of its cornice and stoop, and left all but neutered of historic or architectural character. Abandonment and, especially, fire are tremendous threats to the neighborhood, as is the tenuous zoning assignment that puts larger lots like those of the proposed Ulmer Residential District in danger of losing their historic properties in favor of the high-rises that, as matters stand now, are deemed legally acceptable.
The Ulmer residence, in particular, is an example of preservation depending on the kindness of strangers: while clearly well cared-for by an owner invested in the health of his property, this owner may well be succeeded by a one who is substantially less so—it has happened in this neighborhood before. Furthermore, lay interest in preservation is, while well-intentioned, often somewhat off the mark; it would be a great shame to lose the integrity of these buildings to “old-timey” ornamentation. For these reasons, we recommend historic district designation, which would prevent unchecked future development, and instead actively provide means and guidelines for the preservation of these historically and architecturally significant structures. We also recommend further research, which would determine more exactly the relationship between Ulmer, his brewery, and the people resident in the more modest homes surrounding his along and off the Avenue, as, eventually, this could lead to the expansion of the district to include other significant and materially-intact buildings.