Showboating is something we expect from Donald Trump, but his father Fred was no shrinking violet himself. He even used a real boat to advertise his goods — a 65-foot cabin cruiser bearing hoardings with TRUMP HOMES spelled in ten-foot-tall letters. The Trump Show Boat first worked the flesh-thronged shores of Coney Island in July 1939. The city was in the middle of a heat wave; beaches were packed. As the captain drew near the surf, loudspeakers came alive with music so loud it could be heard a mile away. Crewmen began tossing hundreds of inflatable plastic swordfish into the water. Each was stamped with TRUMP HOMES and a figure, from $25 to $250, indicating its value toward a down payment. Swimmers raced into the ship’s wake for the redeemable fish. Hundreds stood at attention when the Star-Spangled Banner played; others rushed into the water when the boat began broadcasting “lessons in ‘aquacading.'”
Fred Trump was the last great builder of the interwar years in outer-borough New York City. He did well enough in the 1920s, but really hit pay dirt in Depression-era Brooklyn, where he ably exploited a Federal Housing Administration program that insured mortgages. With federal winds filling his sails, Trump erected some 2,000 homes in the borough between 1935 and 1942 — in East Flatbush, Marine Park, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, Brighton Beach — infilling many of the last vacant parcels left in the wake of the frenzied boom years of the Jazz Age. Typical of his prewar work was a block-long run of “brick bungalow” row houses, with faux gables, steel-frame casement windows, a small lawn, and smaller porch whose balustrade often sported a T-shaped keyhole motif.
Trump’s houses were cozy, well made, and — more than anything — affordable even to working-class families. He reduced construction costs by using the same economies of scale that made the Model T automobile so inexpensive. Known in the industry as “the Henry Ford of housing,” he applied techniques of mass production to home construction a full decade before William Levitt became famous for doing so at Levittown. Levitt’s subdivisions were studiously suburban and designed for motorists. Trump’s row house developments accommodated cars — most had garages tucked below grade in front or rear — but not at the expense of a picturesque, pedestrian-friendly streetscape. Trump was a city builder first and foremost, and his largest works were always close to rapid transit.
However prolific, Trump was a latecomer to what had been the biggest real estate party in New York history. It roared to life after Governor Al Smith signed legislation in 1920 that eliminated property taxes on new housing for a decade. The Al Smith Act, as it became known, was inspired by Victorian economist Henry George, who argued for a single tax on the value of land, exclusive of improvements, rather than on labor, production, or capital. (A George acolyte invented Monopoly to popularize the concept.) The tax holiday unleashed a frenzy of residential development throughout the five boroughs. Construction outlays citywide from 1921 to 1923 were seven times that of the three years prior to the act.The main field of action was in the city’s southern hemisphere, far-flung sections of Brooklyn and Queens where land was cheap and increasingly served by streetcars, subways, and water and sewer infrastructure.
The development history of Brooklyn cleaves closely to the region’s glacial past. The great Laurentide glacier — the miles-deep ice sheet that ground down the Adirondacks, carved the Finger Lakes, and scoured the Hudson — quit about halfway down present-day Brooklyn, leaving behind an elongated pile of detritus known today as Long Island. A pair of terminal moraines forms the spine of high ground that runs the length of the island. In Brooklyn, this topography is invoked in numerous place names: Bay Ridge, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Crown Heights. Eons of rain flushed the morainal uplands toward the Atlantic, forming a broad outwash plain — modern Brooklyn’s vast southern expanse, from roughly the Verrazano Bridge to East New York.
By 1900, most of Kings County north of the glacial rampart had hardened into cityscape. Nearly everything to its south was still countryside, with the exception of Coney Island and scattered development around the old towns and new subway lines. Not until the 1920s and the Al Smith tax holiday did the tide of metropolitan growth spill fully down the outwash plain. There, the Tudor Revival row house became the iconic building type, eclipsing the Victorian brownstone that had been the archetype of Brooklyn’s 19th-century
Steeped in an aura of chivalry, knights, and Shakespeare, Tudorism was one of the most popular styles for residential architecture throughout the United States from about 1910 to 1940, part of a general revival of styles harkening back to America’s putative motherland. In the same period, Gothic tracery was slapped on everything from college dormitories to skyscrapers. The neo-Georgian style became standard for civic buildings like the Museum of the City of New York. Colonial Williamsburg set off a national rage for clapboard Colonial Revival homes. Brooklyn officials even erected a full-size replica of Mount Vernon in Prospect Park in 1932, which Robert Moses removed in one of his first acts as Park Commissioner.
What caused this rifling through the Anglo-architectural attic? The country was changing, and many felt that the “charter culture” of the white elite was under siege. The 1920s brought many advances, but they were conservative, even reactionary, years. The Great War was still a raw memory, so too the flu pandemic of 1918. The Russian revolution stoked fears of Bolshevism. Prohibition eliminated the succors of drink. Looming above all was immigration. An unprecedented tide of newcomers — from Southern and Eastern Europe, Asia, and the American South — transformed the ethnic and religious composition of the nation’s cities. A hydra-headed nativist movement pushed back hard, leading to draconian new immigration laws. The Ku Klux Klan revived itself as a political force potent enough to hijack the 1924 Democratic Convention in New York.
Tudorism, like the Colonial and Georgian styles, was borne out of this seething milieu; it was “a style for the WASP,” writes Gavin Townsend, “a fortress symbol of established Anglo-American lineage at a time when Poles, Slavs, Italians and other ‘undesirables’ were seemingly flooding the country.”Tudorism first gained popularity around 1910 in upscale WASP suburbs like Riverdale, Forest Hills Gardens, Tuxedo Park, Bronxville, and Scarsdale, where the town center is a stage set Elizabethan village. But by the time the Tudor tide flooded the outwash plain, it was largely stripped of its revanchist edge. Tudorism was popular in Brooklyn not because it channeled a lost Anglo-Saxon past, but because it evoked the wealth and status of the city’s elite suburbs. By emulating the emulators, outer-borough Tudorism thus turned a style for the rich into one for the masses; Scarsdale “banker’s Tudor” became the “teller’s Tudor” of Hollis and Flatbush.
Some of its biggest consumers were, ironically, the very folks — immigrant Jews, Italians, Irish, Germans — whose influx helped spawn the Tudor Revival rage. So too were most of the designers and developers. The architect of many row houses in my own Marine Park neighborhood, Philip Freshman, was a Jew whose parents fled the Pale of Settlement. Freshman designed over a hundred “English Tudor Homes” for Lawrence Rukeyser’s Laurye Homes venture off Fillmore Avenue — described by the Daily Eagle as “one of the largest developments of its kind in the history of Brooklyn.”Rukeyser himself was the son of immigrants who made (and lost) a fortune in the building industry, supplying concrete for projects from Floyd Bennett Field to Yankee Stadium. Before turning to Modernism (and apartment buildings) after the war, Fred Trump — son of German immigrants, born in an old-law tenement — churned out thousands of neo-Tudor homes. His first company logo was a half-timbered bungalow.
By about 1940, much of Brooklyn’s vast outwash plain had been transformed into a stage-set Camelot of steep gables and jerkinhead roofs, battlements and turrets, and storybook chimneys. Of course, it was easy to ridicule this homescape of strivers and working stiffs, and easier still to poke fun at its make-believe architecture. George Bowling in George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939) might well have been returning to once-rural Flatbush when he cringed at the “houses, houses everywhere, little raw red houses . . . semi-detached torture-chambers where the poor little five-to-ten pound-a-weekers quake and shiver.”Critics questioned how a medieval idiom could possibly be right for an age of airplanes and penicillin. Lewis Mumford worried, in 1928, that whenever “a sophisticated age attempts to reproduce the forms of a simple one . . . the result is bound to be ephemeral.”
And yet the Tudorscapes of outwash Brooklyn and Queens have endured. In a city that seems to build only for the rich now, we would do well to create a fraction of the affordable housing churned out by profit-hungry speculative builders (like the elder Trump) of the 1920s and 1930s. The homes they built were neither as luxurious or ostentatious as the brownstones of old Brooklyn, but they have stood the test of time just as well. And as brownstones spiral out of reach of most New Yorkers, the Tudor row houses of Brooklyn and Queens remain affordable, unhallowed by preservationists, unspoiled by gentrificant twee, and suffused still with the funk and pulse of outer borough life.
“Show Boat Tells Bathers About Trump Flatbush Homes,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (16 July, 1939).
Gwenda Blair, The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 121, 146, 151.
“Mass Building Lowering Cost, Builder Finds,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (29 January, 1939).
Mason Gaffney, “The Resurgence of New York City After 1920: Al Smith’s 1920 Tax Reform Law and Its Aftermath,” unpublished paper, Department of Economics, University of California – Riverside (2001), 3.
Gavin E. Townsend, “The Tudor House in America: 1890-1930,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California – Santa Barbara (1986), 248-249.
“Active Home Buying Near Marine Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (20 September, 1931).
Blair, The Trumps, 130.
George Orwell, Coming Up for Air, (London: Penguin, 1962 ), 14.
Lewis Mumford, “American Architecture of Today,” Architecture (June, 1928), 301.