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Originally published in The New York Times, March 12, 2006.


Moored in Legend, and the Talk of the Town

The oral history swirling around an anchor casts a light on the days when the neighborhood was the nexus of wealth and power in Brooklyn, then an independent city.

There is nothing odd about the rusty steel anchor that sits on a small pedestal outside 874 President Street, a Tudor-style town house near Eighth Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Nothing, except that few of the people living in the building know anything about the four-foot-high structure other than the fact that it makes for a nice conversation piece and a handy landmark for friends and delivery people.

Gill Torren, who works as a sales director in the publishing industry and has lived next door to the anchor for two years, doesn’t know much about it, either, aside from a local rumor that it was put there by a former sailor in the merchant marine. “I make up stories about it all the time when people ask, a different one for each person,” Mr. Torren said the other day. “Sometimes I say it’s Herman Melville’s.”

Melville had nothing to do with it, but the oral history swirling around the anchor casts a light on the days when the neighborhood was the nexus of wealth and power in Brooklyn, then an independent city. Some people speculate that the anchor was once the personal landmark of Charles F. Burckett, who lived at 874 President Street in the 19th century and whose obituary in The New York Times, on April 23, 1895, noted that he was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1821 and ran a cotton-trade business.

During the years Mr. Burckett lived in Park Slope, the neighborhood was booming in the wake of the creation of Prospect Park, which was completed in 1873. But not long after the death of merchants like Mr. Burckett, the area began experiencing a slow death as well, and property values tumbled. It was during this time, some local residents suggest, that the anchor found its way to President Street, as the prize of a former sea captain from Maine.

“I always heard the lore about a sea captain,” said Marc Garstein, a broker at Warren Lewis Realty in Park Slope. “But nobody knows the real story.”

Mr. Garstein’s version of the story isn’t far from the truth. According to Peter Groeger, a retired merchant seaman who has owned the house at No. 874 since 1960 and lives on the parlor floor, the anchor found its berth only in 1968, and thanks to a sort of rescue mission.

“It was picked up three miles off of Cape May Point in New Jersey,” he said. “It ruined the day of the fisherman who got it tangled in his net, and I took it off his hands.”

The anchor was loaded into a flatbed truck and shipped to Brooklyn for pennies on each of its 2,150 pounds. According to Mr. Groeger, the wide, curved arms indicate that it is what is known as a stock anchor, built sometime in the mid-1800’s, before modern welding techniques created the more streamlined stockless anchor.

The anchor was there during the years wealthy families left Park Slope for the suburbs, and it was there when many of the neighborhood’s buildings stood abandoned, even after 44 blocks in the neighborhood were designated as a historic district in 1973. By the time waves of gentrification began sweeping through the area in the 1990’s, the anchor seemed rooted in another time. Elderly residents often stared at it and thought about the past; to the very young, the anchor seemed to have dropped out of a fairy tale.

For those now living at 874 President, which contains five apartments, in addition to the owner’s, the anchor is a catalyst for conversation, if conversation is the word to describe passers-by inquiring about the nautical decoration steps from their front door.

“I’ve been asked about it every day for 40 years,” Mr. Groeger said the other night as he returned home from walking his dog.

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