Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Brooklyn Lyceum, formerly NYC Public Bath # 7
Address: 227 4th Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner President Street
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