Chances are you have never heard of Julian Brown of Syracuse.
But if you lived in the city between 1911 and 1952, you certainly would have. Few natives of the city, except for politicians or athletes, had more Syracuse newspaper space devoted to them at that time than Brown.
Like his famous father, Alexander, he was an inventor, maybe best known for designing a revolutionary vehicle that would later become the model for a popular Volkswagen car. And he also built Syracuse’s most outrageous nightclub in 1931.
Newspaper reporter Mario Rossi, who covered him for years, wrote in 1985 that Brown was “bright and innovative,” and was a “colorful, likable and somewhat-eccentric millionaire and man-about-town.”
But financial problems, four marriages, and a habit for losing interest in what he started, torpedoed his career.
A PATTERN EMERGES
Alexander Brown was very much Syracuse’s version of Thomas Edison.
He helped start Brown-Lipe-Chapin Co., which became General Motors in Syracuse. He invented the Smith Premier typewriter, the LC Smith breech-loading shotgun, and the Dunlop “clincher” bicycle tire. He owned more than 300 patents, including a device for making split-bamboo fishing rods and the automatic telephone switchboard.
His oldest son, Charles, was an accomplished engineer and was awarded 43 patents.
Then there was Julian.
Born on March 29, 1887, Julian Stephen Brown left a college education aside to join the fledgling automobile industry.
He opened a garage on West Genesee and North Franklin streets in 1908 at just 20 years old. It was a failure and went no where.
In 1911, Brown started another factory, this time to build a gas motor he had invented.
The newly christened Julian Motor Company would produce an engine which Brown had “been perfecting for years” and would be the “highest priced motor made in America.”
In September 1913, the company declared bankruptcy, leaving behind only a 15-acre factory, a prototype of the motor, and $24,942 in liabilities.
“Julian S. Brown has completed the organization of the Julian Brown Development Company which will continue the work of developing his new six-cylinder, air-cooled automobile,” the Herald announced on April 18, 1923, adding that the experimental car would be finished at a plant at 601 Fayette St.
When the car, which Brown named after himself, “The Julian,” was unveiled at 633 S. Warren St. on March 13, 1925, it was considered a “radical departure” from all other automobiles.
An article in the Syracuse Journal described its innovative features:
“An automobile which has its power plant and main units suspended over the rear wheels. The motor has six cylinders and is of the radial, air-cooled type, used for airplanes of high-power design. It is a part of one unit which includes differential and transmission and is suspended on springs over the rear wheels.”
The car was 50 horsepower and was “easily capable of maintaining” 60 miles-per-hour. Designed to be a sports-coupe, “The Julian’s” driver sat in a front center seat, with passenger seats tucked in behind it.
Brown eliminated 500 parts which appeared in other automobiles and the Journal said that the new car would offer “easy riding and easy handling.”
“Julian Brown was a visionary,” automotive reporter Bill Vance wrote in 1994. “A few years later, Ferdinand Porsche would follow the same air-cooled, rear-engined path in developing his Volkswagen ‘people’s car,’ which would go on to become the most popular car in automotive history.”
But after this first preview in 1925, “The Julian” largely disappeared from local newspapers and just a “Julian,” owned by Brown himself, was ever made.
“THE HALF-MILLION DOLLAR FLOP”
On Jan. 31, 1929, Alexander Brown died. He left his two sons each $3.5 million.
Six months later, Julian Brown’s second wife asked for divorce and sought $3,500-a-month in alimony, roughly $60,640 in today’s money. At the same time, he was being sued by his first wife, who thought their divorce was illegal.
Nevertheless, he went on something of a shopping spree.
With his brother, he purchased 300 acres near Bridgeport on Oneida Lake. He owned parcels of land on James Street, Erie Boulevard, and six large apartment houses. He had a yacht named “Bubbles.”
On Sept. 5, 1931, amid the Great Depression, he started his most flashy venture yet.
The Café DeWitt, on State Street and Erie Boulevard, was billed as the “most elaborate night club in the East.”
The exterior was built of manufactured white stone. Inside it was illuminated by “an ingenious system of color combinations that will lend an exotic effect of a subdued quality.”
“The modernistic note is carried out throughout, inside and outside of the building,” the Herald reported the day before the club opened.
“The panels, of exquisite design, are in black, and silver. The railing along the balcony skirting the hall is of twisted iron also in silver and black effect. Black velvet curtains of a rich quality cover the walls.”
One of Brown’s representatives told the paper:
“The purpose is to give Syracusans a place for an evening’s relaxation in refined and congenial surroundings. It was Mr. Brown’s purpose from the start that the club should be of the finest type, yet informal—a place where the patron can be at perfect ease and enjoy the surroundings.”
Food would be prepared by Carlos Alvarez, who had once cooked for Spanish nobility.
Newspaper accounts say that Brown had spent between $500,000 and $1 million on Café DeWitt.
(That is roughly between $9.7 to $19.5 million today.)
He told reporters it was his attempt “to defeat the Depression.”
“The man has courage,” columnist Fred Betts wrote. “At a time when many gentlemen who have fat bank accounts and study stock market tabulations until they strain their eyes and have to call in an eye specialist, he takes a hot weather plunge into the chilling hazards of a substantial night club investment.”
Every seat was sold on opening night, 620 people, with more than 500 turned away.
But in less than a year the club was in the hands of receivers.
On Aug. 29, 1938, its furnishings were auctioned. The club’s grand piano, purchased for $1,200, sold for $170.
The Journal called the Café DeWitt the “half-million-dollar flop.”
‘ONONDAGA COUNTY’S ALL-TIME ACE LITIGANT’
Undeterred, Brown kept swinging.
In 1933, promising something “different from anything” on the market, Brown opened the Electri-Craft Corporation in Eastwood, which manufactured a “new type” of rechargeable motor for small fishing boats.
It was probably Brown’s most successful venture, Electri-Craft boats were used by anglers into the 1960s, but he would see little of its success.
Soon, he would be bankrupt again, his company and assets auctioned off.
It would probably be impossible to recount here all the court cases and litigation which Brown went through from the 1930s to 1952.
At a hearing in 1936, Brown admitted that his total assets had dwindled from $1,029,239 to $40,000 in just six years.
By 1937, he had been through three expensive divorces and had declared bankruptcy.
Syracuse Judge Ernest Edgcomb said of Brown in 1941:
“He has a mechanical turn of mind, but he has never been able to put his genius to such use that it brought him in any steady income. He has never exhibited any business ability. He is not a man of expensive clothes. His chief extravagance seems to have run in hiring too many lawyers and in acquiring too many wives.”
When he inherited $500,000 after his mother’s death, he attacked the validity of her will, started an expensive lawsuit, then settled for the original $500,000.
In 1941, his beloved yacht “Bubbles,” his $85,000 camp at Brewerton, and the Electri-Craft Plant were sold at public auction to satisfy creditors.
“I don’t think I know the legal effects of anything,” he once said in court.
His bankruptcy cases took 16 years to settle, and The Post-Standard wrote in 1952 that “the volumes of testimony and argument of counsel in the many and varied court actions that made Mr. Brown Onondaga County’s all-time ace litigant would fill many five -foot shelves.”
The Herald-Journal called Brown in 1939, “Syracuse’s most-investigated citizen.”
In the end, after countless appeals, Brown agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars to Syracuse attorneys on April 15, 1952.
Julian Brown died on April 4, 1964 at Daytona Beach after a short illness. He was 77 years old.
He was buried at the family mausoleum at Oakwood Cemetery.
In his garage, the original “Julian” car was found. After changing hands, it was restored and was part of the William Harrah automobile collection in Reno.
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This feature is a part of CNY Nostalgia, a section on syracuse.com. Send your ideas and curiosities to Johnathan Croyle at [email protected] or call 315-427-3958.