By Trudy Whitman
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
As everyone is taught by their parents never to use electric appliances around water for fear of electrocution, it’s no wonder that when a Boerum Hill Yahoo group member noticed an official-looking National Historic Landmark plaque at 160 Schermerhorn Street, he posted an inquiry.
“It’s funny,” he wrote. “Think it’s legitimate?”
The plaque indicated that the site is the former home of the Sylvan Electric Bath, where one could not only scrub clean in the days before indoor plumbing was commonplace, but also, on request, could get a little zing of current to help ease the pain of a host of bodily disorders.
The post generated activity on the listserv, as a number of curious amateur historians began digging into the past. And, indeed, the local history detectives found that there was such a bath on Schermerhorn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that an ad from 1919 boasted of 12,000 patrons.
But although Sylvan was real, the National Historic plaque at 160 Schermerhorn is a phony.
Anna Robinson-Sweet is a Yale-trained artist and former Brooklyn resident who has mounted what HyperAllergic.com calls “a guerilla registry of historic places.” The pop up show and online project is called the “National Register of Historic Places, 2013 Additions, Brooklyn, NY.”
Robinson-Sweet’s blog explains that the exhibition consists of handmade silk-screened plaques mounted on polyurethane-sprayed cardboard placed in ten locations in Brooklyn. The plaques provide facts explaining the sites’ historical significance. Although all the information is “based on research conducted at libraries and archives…the designation itself is false,” the website informs us, with the artist’s motivation being to “question how historical memory is recorded through our built environment, one of the most visceral ways we experience the past.”
The artist notes that eight of the 10 buildings commemorated in the show are gone, and the other two serve very different purposes than their ancestors served. The bath house with the extra kick is now a condominium building housing the Actors Fund Arts Center on the ground floor.
“Taken as a whole,” Robinson-Sweet says, “the ten plaques suggest that every lot on any block can reveal historical understanding of place; the historical narrative told by the structures that survive the ravages of time or are intentionally preserved is only one of many.”
Another interesting site honored by an imitation historical plaque is the former home of H. Kohnstamm & Co. on Columbia Street, a company that made dyes for comestibles that were safer than the standard dyes used at the time. Kohnstamm & Co. helped shape federal food and drug regulations concerning safe colors, the plaque informs readers.
Robinson-Sweet’s text and design so artfully mimic the plaques produced by the National Park Service that many, like the Boerum Hill resident who started the online inquiry, have stopped in their tracks and scratched their heads in wonderment. Installed last spring, however, they have suffered some weather damage. A visit to 160 Schermerhorn reveals a rather wrinkled Sylvan Electric Bath plaque. Still, lots of food for thought is provided by the inscription.
For the definitive answer about the Sylvan Electric Bath—reality or ruse—
the Boerum Hill listservers turned to Erik Fortmeyer. Although he now resides in Texas, Fortmeyer is known as the “official historian of Boerum Hill.” In responding to his former neighbors, Fortmeyer wrote that Sylvan was “not only real, but it was actually quite popular from about 1897 to around the start of the Depression.” He also attached a clipping from a 1922 edition of the Brooklyn Eagle city directory with a photograph of the building where patrons could cleanse themselves. And, if so desired, they could also get a little charged up as well.