Building of the Day: 227 4th Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Brooklyn Lyceum, formerly NYC Public Bath # 7
Address: 227 4th Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner President Street
Neighborhood: Gowanus
Year Built: 1906-1910
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Raymond F. Almirall
Other buildings by architect: Bklyn Public Libraries: Park Slope , Pacific, & Eastern Parkway Branches, St. Michael’s RC Church, Sunset Park, Seaview Hospital, Staten Island
Landmarked: Individual landmark, 1982. National Register of Historic Places, 1985.

The story: This building represents one of New York City’s great public health experiments: the public bath. Even by the end of the 1800′s, the city’s millions of tenement apartments were not required by law to have indoor toilet facilities or any kind of bath facilities. Late 19th century immigration, as well as city growth, caused an overflow of people in crowded, unsanitary living conditions. By the end of the 19th century, public health advocates had finally convinced the powers that be that the public health of the entire city was in danger. This was not just a poor or immigrant problem, it was everyone’s problem, and something had to be done by the city. The public bath was one of the results of this health reform. If you are interested in more information on this topic, please see my Walkabout piece on “Taking the Waters.”

In Brooklyn, this public bathhouse, the seventh and most elaborate of the borough’s bathhouses, was begun in 1906. Like all of the city’s public baths, this one was located near a concentration of tenements and poor people, in this case, the tenements of the Gowanus area, home to a large poor, often immigrant population, many of whom worked in the factories and docks of the nearby Red Hook/Sunset Park harbor area.

Reformers and commissioned architects worked hard on developing the best public bath system. Large rooms with rain showers were considered to be very efficient and cost effective in bathing large numbers of people. In an effort to live up to the “cleanliness is next to godliness” motto of the baths, they were built to be beautiful buildings, inspiring and inviting to be in, and use. In that regard, Classical details, light colored stone and brick were used to be sanitary, clean and bright. In this regard, New York City had the finest public bath system in America by the first decade of the 20th century.

Public Bath #7 was the last of Brooklyn’s baths, and the most ornate. It was the only one with a plunge pool, basically a large swimming pool. It was also the finest of the Renaissance Revival bathhouses. Raymond F. Almirall, the architect, was a L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts graduate, and very familiar with this type of building. He was a Brooklyn boy, and much of his surviving work is here, most of it civic and public projects, such as this bath, as well as libraries, churches and hospitals. He built a fine building with separate entrances for men and women, with a central reception area in between. The pool was in the basement, and above, the waiting rooms and offices, and a balcony that looked down into the pool area. There were showers on this level. Above that, on the upper floor, were more shower facilities for men and women, as well as bathtubs.

My photograph, taken only last week, does not show much of the elaborate, and often witty, terra-cotta detail on the façade. This includes colored stucco and terra-cotta, dolphins, urns of flowing water, and images of Triton, the father of the sea-god Poseidon. All in all, the building is a very elegant and well-designed Renaissance palazzo, dedicated to public health. There are some fascinating black and white photographs of the abandoned interior, taken in 1895, a part of the National Register designation. Here’s the link.

Ironically, but typically New York, by the time the bath opened, the tenement laws had been changed, and bathtubs and toilets were required in all new tenements, and retrofitted in the old. This building had missed the boat. The baths were no longer quite as necessary, as originally planned. This building became a gymnasium in 1937, a sensible transition. It was placed on the National Register for Historic Places in 1985, and had been landmarked a couple of years before. The building was sealed and abandoned at that time. It was purchased in 1994, and work began again. It became the Brooklyn Lyceum, a concert, gym, and events space, several years ago. Thank goodness. GMAP

Photo: Kate Leonova for Property Shark, 2006

Photo: Early 1980′s tax photo, via Property Shark

1922 shot, with a flooded 4th Avenue. Bath #7 in background. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

14 Comment

  • Nice to know that 4th Ave flooded even in 1922!

  • Nice to know that 4th Ave flooded even in 1922!

  • it’s unfortunate that the building looks worse now, than it did in the 80′s tax photo.

  • the building looks underused and under-maintained.
    a shame

  • Been to some interesting events in the Lyceum but wish they would raise more money and work on the building.

  • Disclaimer: Owner here.

    Have worked on and in the building for 15 years and have seen it change from a gang hangout/cache of 300+ pigeons/auto chop shop/rave location to a place where the likes of Cyro Baptista, Yo La Tengo, Fiona Apple, Yo La Tengo and the Polyphonic Spree grace the stage. Even had a month long workshop of Rocky:the musical last year. It is coming along slowly, but definitely coming alone.

    For those who think it is underutilized you don’t get out very much, even on the internet ;)

    http://www.brooklynlyceum.com

    As for the repair status, don’t we all wish we had more $$. I do. But work entailed in resuscitating this beast would swamp anything any rowhouse/brownstone owner ever did. There are tales that would curl your toes. And, especially with a landmark building that is all windows you don’t want to waste the $$ on any significant interim solution.

    Maybe you should stop by the Brooklyn Mutt Show in a few weeks and take a look around. Generally one of the most fun weekend of the year.

  • onthegrowl,

    arent you like millions of $ in the hole to your mortgagor and in the advance stages of foreclosure. Rumor has it your space will be condos before long.

    • Jeez, fsrq, give the guy a break. I’m sure he’s aware of who he owes money to, and bad enough that it’s public record, for all of us to see. I give him major props for having a vision, working his tail off, and basically dedicating his life to this building. If we want independent, funky, and quirky venues that aren’t super slick and cost an arm and a leg to attend, we should support places like this. If we want people to take an interest in, and do something to preserve our landmarks that no one else is interesting in keeping, we should also support him. I don’t know him from Adam, btw, but I think what he’s doing is great.

  • onthegrowl,

    arent you like millions of $ in the hole to your mortgagor and in the advance stages of foreclosure. Rumor has it your space will be condos before long.

  • Sorry MM but borrowing millions of dollars against your building during a credit bubble and then not paying it back (or using the $ to appreciably fix up the building) isnt exactly my idea of noble historic preservation. Nor do I happen to think it is a very ethical think it is to do either. No matter how many interesting “cultural” events someone may schedule.

  • Come see Brave New World Repertory Theatre in residence April 1 – May 13
    http://bravenewworldrep.org/current-season/
    http://bravenewworldrep.org/studio/

    Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (Terrace)
    Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation or the Re-Education of Undine
    Classes for children
    Spring Break Camp
    7 Readings from Moliere to Chekhov!

    If you want to help two GREAT Brooklyn institutions come support The Brooklyn Lyceum and Brave New World Rep!

  • As a kid I played ball in front of that building (circa 1981), and the old Strober Brother building on the other side of President Street.. Hit many balls into the building when there was no windows. It had a couple of fires, sometimes the trash that used to be dumped between the building and the metal fence on President would be set on fire. There was always an abandoned car in front of it, usually with no tires. Most people on President tried to avoid parking close to 4th Ave., because there was a good chance your car might not be there the next morning. I remember a teenager stole my bike right in front of the stairs on 4th Ave. On the day of the marathon, we would stand on the front stairs and watch the runners go by.

    At the time as a kid these things were normal, so we never questioned any of them. Most people would think that it must had been a bad place for a kid, but it was great place to grow up. Everyone on the block knew each other and all the parents kept a watchful eye. Most families on the block had been there for at least a generation, sometimes several generations. Now the entire neighborhood seems more transient, people are always moving in and out. There doesn’t seem to be the bond between neighbors that there used to be.

    My kids are having a different childhood, different but I fear not better.

    Just some thoughts.

  • Re, top photo: Nice ‘do!
    And, MM writes: “Ironically, but typically New York, by the time the b
    ath opened, the tenement laws had been changed, and bathtubs and toilets were required in all new tenements, and retrofitted in the old.” This happened between 1906 and 1910? Benson must have stolen my paper. Christopher

  • Re, top photo: Nice ‘do!
    And, MM writes: “Ironically, but typically New York, by the time the b
    ath opened, the tenement laws had been changed, and bathtubs and toilets were required in all new tenements, and retrofitted in the old.” This happened between 1906 and 1910? Benson must have stolen my paper. Christopher