Walkabout: Favorite Brooklyn Buildings – Reader’s Choices

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Every Tuesday and Thursday, Montrose Morris writes a guest post about Brooklyn architectural history…Continuing December’s topic of Favorite Brooklyn buildings, today’s choices have been supplied by the Brownstoner readership. Our reader’s favorites this week are all counted among the best buildings of any kind in Brooklyn. They all date from a time when Brooklyn was coming into its own as a great city in its own right, and show the world that the architects who chose Brooklyn as their base were as talented and innovative as any in Manhattan, or the rest of America. Reader Roby F’s favorite is the Boys High School, and from Minard Lefever, his namesake’s Packer Collegiate and the Fire Headquarters Building of Frank Freeman.

Public education for students above elementary school was a new concept for Brooklynites in the late 1800′s. When the Bklyn Board of Education established a high school system in 1878, new schools needed to be built. The Superintendent of Buildings at that time was the highly talented Irish born architect, James Naughton, who designed both the Girls High School at Nostrand and Macon in 1886-6, and his masterpiece, Boys High School, several blocks away, at Marcy Avenue and Putnam Street. Boys High opened in 1892, and is one of the most highly regarded examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the city, characterized by round arched openings, contrasting smooth and rough surfaced stone work, and most of all, powerful massing, often swelled with rounded bays, dormers, and towers. As impressive as it is, the details still delight, especially the sculptured heads of schoolboys on the Marcy Ave. façade. The school counts as alumni such greats as Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov, William J. Levitt of Levittown, and iconic Miami Beach architect, Morris Lapidus. The school was landmarked in 1975, and was restored in the 1990′s, and just had some more major work done this year. It now houses two charter schools. For more on James Naughton and his schools, read my Walkabout post from September.

While Brooklyn led the nation in advances in public education, private schools have long been available to the wealthy. Brooklyn Heights’ Packer Collegiate Academy was established in 1853, literally upon the burned ashes of the Brooklyn Female Academy. After a disastrous fire burned the school down that year, a new school for girls was funded by Mrs. Harriet Putnam Packer. Her only stipulation accompanying her gift was that the school be named after her late husband. A design competition was held, and the winning design was submitted by Minard Lefever, a talented architect best known for his nearby Brooklyn churches, Holy Trinity, now St. Anne’s and Holy Trinity, on Montague and Clinton, and his Church of the Saviour. Packer Collegiate was Lefever’s last design, and the school’s doors opened in September 1854, two weeks before his death. This is a great Tudor Gothic building, set back behind a beautiful cast iron fence, with towers, buttresses and magnificent two story windows. The right tower once had a revolving dome, which was removed when the subway was constructed underneath Joralemon St, and over the years additional wings and have been added, and nearby St. Anne’s church, designed by Lefever contemporary, James Renwick has been incorporated into the school complex. The school remained an all girl’s school until it went co-ed in 1972. A longer article is planned for Minard Lefever and his work. He was one of Brooklyn’s best.

The Romanesque Revival style of architecture was seen as the most appropriate style for important civic buildings in the 1880′s and ‘90′s. Like Boy’s High School, the Brooklyn Fire Headquarters, on Jay Street, near Willoughby, is a massive Romanesque building. Its architect was the Canadian born Frank Freeman, whose other surviving great public building is the Eagle Warehouse and Storage building, featured on Tuesday. As with the Eagle building, the Fire Headquarters’ most impressive feature is the enormous brick archway, a signature of the Richardson Romanesque style, as is the massive tower with its impressive additional large arched window, and the architectural surprise that is the wide eyebrow window at the base of the central peaked roof. The building was built in 1892, and served as the headquarters for the City of Brooklyn’s Fire Dept, but for only six years. In 1898, Brooklyn became part of greater New York City, and the headquarters became just another fire house, albeit the best looking one in the entire city. In the 1980′s the building was converted into housing for the formerly homeless. Sadly, the city doesn’t seem to have kept up with maintenance, and the roof looks like it is torn away in places, and the building’s general condition doesn’t look too good. With all of the construction in downtown Brooklyn today, thank goodness this important masterpiece is landmarked, and hopefully funds can be found to restore it to its former glory. More will be written about Frank Freeman in the future, as well.

I had originally planned to feature the Brooklyn Historic Society and the Montauk Club today, but space does not permit. They will be featured next Thursday, along with other reader’s favorites. Please check the Flickr page for some great historic as well as contemporary photos of the buildings featured today.

0 Comment

  • I always get so excited when I read MM’s articles. And the photos tantalize my eyes.

  • Wow, Boys High school looks insanely impressive in the first photo.

  • Montrose:

    Go Moderne. Write about the Williamsburg Houses, one of the first public housing projects in America and still one of the fullest expressions of architectural modernism in the city.

    The domestic equivalent of Rockefeller Center (its designers included Shreve Lamb and Harmon, architects of the Empire State Building), the project is generally overlooked.

    It’s in Brooklyn. It’s historic. And it would make a nice side trip for any Brownstoner. (If we love broken down old buildings from 1900, why not ones from 1930?)

    Nostalgic on Park Avenue

  • Agreed, that school is an absolute knockout.

  • rf

    Wow, Boys High school looks insanely impressive in the first photo.

    Posted by: Joe from Brooklyn at December 10, 2009 11:16 AM

    It’s just as impressive in person. You should take a look!

  • Thank you Montrosse, excellent as always.
    I understand that the funding has been approved for the restoration of the Jay Street Firehouse. So that is good news.
    The original Packer building was beautifully restored about fifteen years ago by the Albany restoration firm of Cohen Mesick Waite Architects. Old St Ann’s was adaptively reconfigured inside for use as a school and that work was done by the Manhattan firm of James Polshek Associates.
    I always like to give credit to the contemporary architects who restore, and in some cases rebuild, these ancient buildings. Restoration credit is something one sees at historic sites in Europe. These buildings do not magically last forever on their own and the public at large should be made of aware of the effort it takes.
    thank you once again.

  • MM,

    Boys High School is one of my favorites as well. It’s a gem.
    I would love to see interior details of the towers, must be amazing.
    Thanks for the excellent write-up.

  • Minard, you are so right. If I had become an architect, I would have been interested in firms that do restoration and adaptive re-use. Whenever I find any info on that nature, I’ll include it.

    Legion, I would love to have an in depth tour of Boys High. I’ve only been in the auditorium, which is beautiful.

    NOP, as soon as I can get over there, I’ll check it out. Williamsburg is completely new territory for me. Thanks.

  • my grandfather went to high school here… thank you MM