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Winsor McCay’s Hell House

According to Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay news blog, the so-called “Hell house” at 1811 Voorhies Ave. (between Ocean Ave. and Shore Road) — currently inhabited by a horde of insects — turns out to be a former residence of legendary cartoonist and pioneering animator Winsor McCay.

According to the blog, “…the property’s owners seek to tear down the structure and replace it with condominiums. Failing that, they’re attempting to subcontract it to the city for a new life as a halfway house or homeless shelter. What should be done is a full restoration and landmarking.” We couldn’t agree more.

(Thanks, Anne D. Bernstein)

  • Donald C.

    What a terribly inappropriate thing to do…

  • Don’t go in there, it’s guarded by Gertie the Dinosaur!

  • This makes me so sad.

  • Casper the friendly executive.

    The horror! The horror! You see the size of that mosquito? I wish I hadn’t eaten that toasted cheese last night.

  • Michel Van

    it a shame to destroy that house
    make a full restoration and transform it to a Museum
    a Museum of Winsor McCay life and work.

  • Marc Baker

    This is another instance of our culture thumbing it’s nose at animation legends, and landmarks. They either have no respect for animators, or they’re just not well informed. I’m sure if a well respected journalist dies, and left behind an old home he use to live in, the media would be all over it, but if you’ve worked in animation, tough luck, kid.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    This is like the perfect frat house I’d want to be in!

    Yeah, they need to get this landmark status pronto!

  • Dick Stone

    “Hell House” on Voorhies Ave!!!!

    I first thought this was a movie trailer! LOL

    ah, poor Winsor McCay’s house. Actually, a homeless shelter would be appropriate considering the time period McCay lived in. And as a stark reminder of how history repeats itself.

  • i really love little facts about new york animation like this. we already lost the fleischer building earlier this year right? it’s a shame these things aren’t recognized or used for other related purposes, but i guess that’s how buildings go. sheepshead bay though isn’t exactly a bolstering area and they could probably really benefit from a space like a windsor mccay museum. though i guess that sort of thing works best when the house and it’s furniture have been preserved…

  • Sunday

    This news coupled with that image has left me saddened me in a way I don’t fully understand. It’s not a feeling as when someone has died, or some deeply tragic moment in another’s life, but a general “way the world works” kind of quiet reflection which dampens the spirit only just so. My day is an inch more somber than it was.

  • Tom

    A hospice for allergy sufferers, a sleep study clinic or a rarebit restaurant might also be good uses for this building. A paleotology studies center, perhaps?

  • Can’t help wondering if the graffiti is the work of local taggers or the owners who want it torn down, after presumably letting it fall into its current state of disrepair.

  • Greg Ehrbar

    I know that 3400 Cahuenga Blvd. is now an LA Fitness center and it wasn’t where the early HB animation was done, but it’s still nice to be able to visit Los Angeles and see a semblance of the 3400 Cahuenga building still standing. There are alternatives to complete demolition.

  • His ghost probably did that after he saw what became of animation.

  • Matt Sullivan

    I say tear it down.

    Why? Because Winsor McKay, as famous as he is, isn’t THAT famous. I hate slums. I hate old, dilapidated neighborhoods. They become centers for drugs, disease, and crime. Tear it down, build something nice.

    I mean heck, are we going to make a national monument out of every house an animator ever set foot in?

  • Chris Sobieniak

    While we’re entitled to our own opinion, I still don’t really care for those that seem these things as eyesores and would rather throw away history anyway. There’s plenty of places I can think of locally that are now gone through carelessness and planning, that nowadays some wished they had saved instead. I don’t usually think of the bad things attributed to urban decay (if only because that’s what happens over time).

  • someguy

    1) he’s pretty famous. not even just within animation circles. Art Historians would definitely take an interest.

    2)your hatred of old dilapidated neighborhoods kind of misses the point entirely and isn’t even relevant to topic. It also ignores the socio-economic reasons for why things like drugs and crime happen.

    3) build something nice? like overpriced condos that the current residential population will likely not be able to afford? further uprooting families and lives? Also the dubious standards for many condos often ignore safety regulations and cut corners for the sake of cost. Condos would likely be anything BUT nice. tacky, sure. but I seriously doubt it’d be nice.

    it’d be cool if it were turned into a museum, it’d add value to the area without destroying the social core of the neighborhood. Locals may even learn something.

  • Jerry: What a godamn heartbreaker. Anyone who has every read Little Nemo can’t help but imagine his spirit in nightshirt, crying up in one of the bedrooms. — Mykal

  • Mr. Pencil

    I must agree with Some Guy. McCay wasn’t just ‘some animator’. He was, for all intents and purposes, the first animator. If you animate (or even draw a comic strip) you are, in some way, building on something McCay originated. The man created an industry whether he wanted to or not. Regarding the neighborhood of Sheepshead, that is a more complicated problem..

  • To see that there would be any arguments FOR tearing it down….wow, just wow.

  • Wow. The picture on that blog from when McCay lived in it shows that it used to be an impressive house! He took care of it. It looks like some owner in the past removed the beautiful balconies, gardens and woodwork. It SHOULD be a labelled a landmark, and it SHOULD be restored to its former glory. In the meantime, a visit from an exterminator and a good paint job would be a step in the right direction.

  • This should indeed be made into some sort of landmark/shrine/historical-thingie.

    It’s really a shame what time does to things that matter!

  • I’m sure there are enough pieces of McCay’s work floating around to put together a decent museum of early animation, even if none of the original furnishings exist. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they could get a bunch of other early New York animators work into a museum collection. The last thing the outer boroughs need is more empty, ugly, overpriced condos.

    I’m also curious as to how to get petitions together to get status like this:

  • This house was of interest to us even before we knew of the McCay connection (though many of us knew he lived in the neighborhood) Even though the house fell on bad times decades ago many of us have a soft spot for it. It’s special and I would think that it would stimulate the creative juices.

    When McCay lived here Voorhies Avenue was called “Millionaires Row”. Today, if you like condos, don’t worry. “Hell House” is surrounded by them. Developers are stealing our history. Sheepshead Bay is not a slum, it is currently overdeveloped and real estate prices are ridiculously high.

    The graffiti was put there by residents of this house. Exchange students live here, and their living conditions are terrible. Conversion of the premises to a museum of some kind would help restore the balance between history and progress. However, we’re going to need a lot of help to make that happen.

  • There’s a “Dreams Of The Rarebit Fiend” strip in which the Rarebit eater finds himself in Hell, tortured by Devils: “Oh, you’re from Manhattan? You’ll be staying around here, we think!”

    Since I’m from Manhattan, that worries me just a little.

    McCay had a very dark outlook on life, and it’s not as apparent in “Little Nemo” as it is in the “Fiend.”

    He probably would have laughed a bitter laugh at his old home ending up in this condition!

    Damn right that it should be preserved and made into a museum of McCay’s work and other early animation, but it probably won’t happen.

    Americans tend not to care very much about their cultural heritage. Sad, but it’s a fact. I’ve had to deal with this myself, trying to save some historically valuable 1960’s architecture in San Francisco. A losing battle and a lot of aggravation… I’ll never try it again.

  • A “former residence” of McCay? That might be significant, or might not. It could be interesting if it were one of only two or three homes in his life, and he’d stayed in each of them for years. Even better would be if it were a home in which he had spent many years and also produced his most famous work.

    However, if he travelled a lot and stayed in many homes over the decades, and only a short while in those homes, than it wouldn’t mean much at all. So much more study needs to go into this, before anyone starts talking about giving any such property the “sainthood” status of historical preservation.

  • Most people in the area don’t know who McCay is, so they’ll never support the idea of a museum dedicated to him. And I don’t think they go out of their way to ignore him because he’s an animator, as someone suggested. They wouldn’t care if he was a great inventor, or found a cure for shingles. If anything he’s better remembered as a great comic strip artist. The idea of a McCay Museum, while high-minded, is an invitation to failure. I can’t see anyone trucking out to this neighborhood to support it. The area has lost much of its charm and the great restaurants that once were a big draw like “Lundy’s”, for example are all gone or going out of business. It’s not as simple as “If you build it they will come.” Most people don’t care about cartoon history. Ever watch your friends who don’t work in the industry glaze over when you talk about cartoons?
    Why not restore it as a Community Center for Adults and children? From the comments I’ve read from residents there it sounds like they’ve got a real polarization problem brewing. Maybe a Community Center can help bring them together. And they can dedicate it to McCay. Maybe even name it after him, and display his work from time to time.

  • One Hour Hollanderizing

    This was indeed Mc Cay’s residence during the most successful period of his life. It is of historical significance and it should be preserved. A plaque was put on the St. Joseph’s hospital room where Walt Disney expired. No one has yet suggested that it be rented out as a condo.

  • Brian O.

    Put your money where your mouth is then, people.

    Find out the assesseed value of the property and also check into the selling price. Then raise money to buy the property and get all your historical landmark registrys in order. Get as much money as you can from the fat cats (the artistic elite, etc) who support such ventures for restorations. The number one thing that will sink such an idea is if the asking price is way up there.

    Want a museum? Turn it into ASIFA Animation Archive East. Want a school? Have animation courses there. Have a few dorms for students.

    Go re-read some of the latest interviews with Ralph Bakshi where he talks about the need for kids to start studios of their own. It’s pretty inspirational. In the inner city there are a ton of people needing an outlet to express themselves. So much untapped and wasted talent. Discipline will be one of the biggest hurdles but that’s about anywhere.

    Good Lord, there are so many trivial things that receive state and federal funding and grants that getting money to do something worthwhile with this property isn’t impossible.

  • Wow, I must have passed the house a thousand times (back in my Brooklyn days) without realizing it’s history. It’s next to the Q & B trains, easy access if it becomes a landmark/museum.

  • dan

    thad is probably right.

    it would make sense to turn it into a homeless shelter, because if mcCay were alive today he’d be an out-of-work animator and need a place to live.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Much of what vince m and Pilsner Panther said is very true. The fact most animation/anime/video game fans have to contend to is “Nobody cares but you!” I’ve already learned that about 5 years ago, and the reason why I hardly bother doing anything I know would only matter to me and like-minded types. If it had been turn into some community/outreach center, it would be nice if some mention of McCay’s life or the act he lived there was made available as a plague near the entrance, if only as something you saw at a glance walking in (much like what happened to one high school’s trophy case now on display at a Big Boy’s in town, long story there).

  • Charlie Judkins

    John R. Bray did that graffiti!!

  • I just had a (perhaps useful) thought: maybe the Hearst Corporation would be interested in restoring this building? If not as a Winsor McCay museum, then maybe as a community center or a school with his name on it, as Brian O. and vince m. have suggested.

    I know nothing about the general condition of the neighborhood, as I haven’t lived in N.Y.C. for well over a decade. But if the subway is close by, it might work. Who doesn’t want to go to the Cloisters, just because it’s a long subway ride from midtown and another long walk up a steep hill?

    A permanent exhibit of surviving (genuine) artwork from the McCay era of pioneering animation just might turn out to be a successful attraction. Add some large video screens in a screening room with about a dozen seats, showing some of the early cartoons, too.

    This would be a gamble, perhaps— and such a project would have to wait for a significant U.S. economic recovery (always promised, but it never arrives).

  • Are we sure this is is the actual house? After extensive research over the years I have only been able to confirm his address on Vorhees Avenue to have been at 1901.

    He is listed on Vorhees Avenue in the 1910 census, but that form does not list a clear address — it’s rather blurry.
    The 1920 census, and his 1934 obituary both specifically list 1901 as the address. (I concede that there is also the possibility that street numbers have been re-assigned since that time as well.)

    I do not debate that fact that if the home was indeed McCay’s, everything should be done to see it saved.

  • 1901 was the address he moved to in 1910. That house was demolished a few years ago. The house at 1811 was a rental, and it is my suspicion that, given the opportunity he would have liked to have bought it. Quite frankly, the house at 1901 Voorhies was rather ordinary compared to this one.

    There are a number of photographs in John Canemaker’s biography that show the house. One gets the impression that he enjoyed living there.

    The space is perfect for an animation museum. The building stands out, and restored to its condition in 1909 could be a representation of McCay’s work environment. Other exhibits regarding his NYC contemporaries could also be part of the house’s layout as well.

  • Chris Sobieniak

    I think an animation museum would be a perfect idea if it wanted to cover the earliest period of animation’s past in the first half of the 20th century. From the silent to sound era, perhaps focusing on the East Coast side of things.

  • That was basically what I was thinking.

    The current owner feels burnt, because he’s not being allowed to demolish so he can build a condo structure at that location. He might be willing to sell at a loss, the purchase has given him nothing but trouble.

    The perception that some have that Sheepshead Bay is a “decaying” area couldn’t be further than the truth. Developers are dismantling the neighborhood and its history and replacing beautiful old homes with condos and McMansions. The house at 1811 is a reminder that at one time that rich people can have taste.

    Restored, it would be a beaurtiful showcase for presenting the history of the early period of American animation, much of which occurred in NYC.

  • Pez

    I wonder what type of are it is located in. Maybe it is unsafe? Lets have a fundraiser for the house to save it

  • marbpl

    Most of the developers of the condos and McMansions are Russian immigrants who don’t know and don’t care about McCay or any other piece of history.

    Sheepshead Bay is an incredible overdeveloped eyesore and the odds of this house not being knocked down are close to nil (unless Brough President Marty Markowitz can get some publicity or money out of it).

  • It’s already been denied permission by CB15 and the DOB to demolish for replacement by condos.

    Russian immigrants aren’t the only ones trying to demolish the neighborhood. Sheepshead Bay has a pretty mixed demographic. Russians comprised a large number of people here, but there are other groups here as well. What we are lacking these days is a significant number of long time residents that are willing to stand up and fight for the neighborhood.

    But that too might change…

  • I lived in Brooklyn in the ’80s, right down the street from the McCay house. My wife and I used to pass by it all the time. Somebody was living there; there were always bicycles, boxes, all sorts of stuff on the decaying lawn. I used to cringe at the sight; such flagrant mistreatment of an obvious landmark house. Whoever lived there then just didn’t care. What an eyesore.

    I was aghast at the sight of the house with all of the writing on it. What a shame. What a crying shame.

  • marbpl

    Lisanne — I lived in Sheepshead Bay for 29 years. It seems that most of the longtime residents have either died or moved away. Perhaps with new zoning laws, the condo madness can end, but there seems to be a dearth of individuals who truly care about how the place looks. And forget about cultural landmarks…

  • The local organizations are still maintained by long time residents. And some of the newer residents are starting to realize that mass construction is strangling the neighborhood.

    Perhaps this house can be a symbol for those who want to see some of the original neighborhood preserved.