By Gerard T. Mundy
Demolition activity has commenced on a roughly 235-year-old Gravesend, Brooklyn, New York building with an extraordinary past and now revealed to have been called “Spook Hall” by 19th century-era locals for alleged eerie happenings within this American monument. Real estate speculators are in the process of razing this historic American structure, which served as both the town hall and town school for the once rural, autonomous Town of Gravesend, often considered to be the first American settlement founded by a woman, the Lady Deborah Moody, over 375 years ago.
Unearthed findings appearing first in this piece, gleaned from months’ long research of newspaper archives, primary documents and hundreds-year-old testimonies and records, reveal additional unreported facts to append to the rich history of this structure that is recorded as having greeted President George Washington to town in 1789.
The historic building, which stands today at 32 Village Road North, is sometimes referred to as the “Charles M. Ryder House,” but this monument has a much more significant history than just this name suggests. Primary document research results in a more fitting and fully-encompassing name for this historic 18-century circa American monument: “Spook Hall: The Gravesend Old School and Town Hall.”
A long history, including a visit by George Washington
Foreshadowing the portending destruction of “Spook Hall: The Gravesend Old School and Town Hall,” which dates to the American Framing Period, the same speculators behind an LLC ownership of the Hall also took possession of the neighboring, aesthetically charming, Brooklyn Dutch-style house on the adjoining lot, the Ryder-Van Cleef House. The speculators demolished the Ryder-Van Cleef House in the first days of February, according to sources and subsequent visits by this writer. The Ryder-Van Cleef House, often claimed to be around circa 1840 and captured in its heyday in a 1922 photograph, sat on the next lot east of, and contiguous with, Spook Hall.
In October 2022, the LLC also demolished, without a permit, the 80-year-old, 240 square-foot stone former Christian chapel that was located in the back of the Ryder-Van Cleef lot, as reported by sources and confirmed by this writer during multiple visits. As a 1946 newspaper story describes, the chapel was built by a young Protestant clergyman in divinity study, the Rev. William G. Luger, whose family lived in the Luger House (which is also in the process of being demolished by the same speculators).
As it stands today, the exterior of Spook Hall is in remarkably similar condition – considering the years of disuse as speculators left it vacant – to a city tax photograph taken between 1939 and 1941. As evidenced in a photograph accompanying a 2014 newspaper story, the Hall was presumably occupied and was in excellent exterior condition for a building dating from the American Framing Period.
The Hall’s commission date was 1788 (it is possible, based on a primary document reference regarding building materials, that construction could have continued into the early part of 1789). The Hall, at any rate then, has been standing in what is today the neighborhood of Gravesend, for about 235 years.
Spook Hall began as the second school house for the Town of Gravesend, a small, autonomous, rural outpost, one of the original towns of Kings County founded in the 17th-century and often argued to be the first settlement in America founded by a woman. Spook Hall stands – and the Ryder-Van Cleef House sat – within the center of the original Town of Gravesend, the patent for which was granted to Lady Deborah Moody in 1645 by the Dutch governor of New Netherland.
In October 1931, a letter writer to The Brooklyn Daily Times penned a well-written narrative of the historic town center and its relationship with centuries of American history: “I can hear the bugles blowing and the drums rolling. I can see the ‘Spirit of 76’ marching down those quaint old streets. The ghosts of our forefathers answer.”
An 1884 history of Gravesend, written by the pastor of the town’s First Reformed Dutch Church, the Rev. A.P. Stockwell, provides reputable secondary source testimony that in October of 1789, President George Washington arrived in front of Spook Hall, when the structure was the town’s second public schoolhouse, in order to greet its pupils who were dismissed from the school to greet Washington.
As Stockwell chronicles, the town’s first public schoolhouse was built in 1728 and served the small town’s children until 1788, when the larger Spook Hall was commissioned. Spook Hall, details Stockwell’s monograph, served as the Town of Gravesend’s second public school house for about the next 50 years. Subsequently, around 1838, this schoolhouse was re-purposed as Gravesend’s Town Hall and served in this capacity for about the next 35 years.
When Spook Hall was Gravesend’s Town Hall, from roughly 1838-1873, it was witness to public criminal punishment. Stockwell details that the primary mode of punishment for petty crimes in the community – going back perhaps to at least 1650 when records show that the town court officially promulgated the law – was reprobate by the community at the town hall stocks: “There are those still living among us who remember well the old stocks, which were placed near the town-hall, where prisoners convicted of petty crimes were made a public show, and were hooted at and pelted by the boys of the neighborhood” (original emphasis).
In 1873, the Town Hall was sold at auction to townsman Charles M. Ryder. Ryder moved the Hall to his land just around the corner on Ryder Place (Village Road North), where it stands today, and eventually re-purposed the structure for living.
From public school (1788-1838), to town hall (1838-1873), to Charles M. Ryder House (1873-1876), To Spook Hall (1876-)
The notable history of Gravesend’s Hall, however, did not end in 1873.
In 1876, according to newspaper accounts, about three years after Ryder bought the Old Town Hall, locals re-named this historical monument yet again – this time, to “Spook Hall.”
As a story in the December 16, 1876 Kings County Rural Gazette reveals, one of Charles Ryder’s employees, Charles Thombs, who was living in the Hall, was awakened to a loud thumping sound on the floor of the attic above him. Frightened, Thombs ran into the street undressed and screaming for help. Neighbors U. J. Ryder and John Butler came to Thombs’ assistance, as did Charles Ryder.
Thombs wanted Charles Ryder, who was armed with a revolver, to shoot into the attic, although Ryder declined. Rather, a search of the attic was made but no thing that, and no person who might have made the noise was found.
Following the unsuccessful search, the bed in Thombs’ room, claimed the men, began to levitate at least one foot from the ground. The newspaper states that these details were corroborated by Charles Ryder, U. J. Ryder, and John Butler. The news story ended with the following: “When people go past that place now in the dark, they whistle loud.”
In January 1877, a routine town news story in the Gazette makes a reference that would be indecipherable had the story of the alleged thumping and levitation been unknown to the reader. The story refers to the Hall, which had most recently been known as Charles M. Ryder’s House, now being called “Spook Hall” by locals. As announced in the story: “Outdoor relief [a term rarely used contemporarily meant to denote either charity or welfare to the needy] is now given every Friday in the famous ‘Spook’ Hall, next to Chas. M. Ryder’s butcher shop, but we don’t think spirits is on the list of supplies.”
Later, in August of 1877, there is another similar reference in the Gazette. Following a report of some type of collision in the area, of the ensuing extremely loud noise, the paper comments cheekily that the noise had a hand in “reviving memories of the noisy ghost of the old Town Hall.”
The alleged happenings in the Gravesend Hall did not, however, deter Ryder. An announcement in April 1879 says that Ryder was expanding Spook Hall: “Chas. M. Ryder is refitting his house. They say he expects to raise the old town hall a story higher, and let it out.”
Charles M. Ryder would die in 1917 a resident, as obituaries announce, of the Hall, the building from which he was waked. Gertrude M. Ryder, Charles’ wife, died in 1916, and, likewise, obituaries say, died a resident of the Hall and was waked from there.
In the same year of Gertrude’s death, a Brooklyn Daily Eagle piece on the history of Gravesend’s public school, and referring to the 1788 Hall origin date, says of the structure in which she was waked: “[I]t still stands doing duty after 128 years of active service.”
Charles’ and Gertrude’s daughter, Nellie May Ryder Bennett, born in 1873, would become an author and poet. A wedding announcement in 1899 declared the wedding between Nellie May and Edward Bennett in Spook Hall. “The marriage took place at the beautiful home of the bride’s parents, on Ryder lane (sic),” the story declared. “The house was beautifully decorated with flowers, potted plants and evergreen,” the announcement continued.
In turn, Nellie May’s daughter, Gertrude Ryder Bennett, sharing her grandmother’s first name, would become an even more noted poet and author. Gertrude Ryder Bennett had two of her poems published in the Brooklyn Daily Times in July of 1926, and one can only surmise if the talk of alleged “spirits” may have been inspired by legends told to her by her mother or grandparents:
At night I lie awake sometimes,
And through the awful stillness hear
From far away cathedral chimes,
Ringing low, and slow, and clear.
The strangest thoughts come over me.
I hold my breath, and all the while
A host of spirit folk I see
Walking down the vaulted aisle.
I see the haggard moon come peering
Through tracery of ancient glass,
So timid, white, as if half fearing
To watch the shadow people pass. …
A vanishing Brooklyn history
As a Christian pastor, it would be likely that Stockwell would not mention the “spook” happenings, as, for serious Christians such claims are not to be taken lightly. It can, however, be inferred that Stockwell’s obvious status placed to the Hall was emblematic of the overall notoriety of this building, as reference to its status of note in the town’s consciousness can be found over the centuries in multiple types of sources.
Stockwell reported at the time that Spook Hall has “ke[pt], for the most part, its old outward form and appearance, [and] after almost a hundred years, we find it still doing faithful service in furnishing shelter to this remote generation.”
Writing almost a century and a half ago, Stockwell continued:
“Thus it stood on one of the most public sites in all the town, a familiar object to the eyes of nearly three generations. The whipping-post and public stocks, which formerly stood beside it, had long since disappeared, leaving the old building alone to tell the story of the past (original emphases).”
Will “Spook Hall: The Gravesend Old School and Town Hall” be saved so that it may continue, in Stockwell’s words, “to tell the story of the past” – a past that now numbers 235 years?
Gerard T. Mundy is a writer and teaches philosophy at a college in New York City. Mundy was born, raised and lives in Brooklyn.