Past and Present: Cadman Plaza

A Look at Brooklyn, then and now.

In 1953, the prominent Brooklyn based critic, Louis Mumford, wrote that the Civic Center /Cadman Plaza area was “covered by grimy buildings waiting for vandalism or fire or the wrecker’s crowbar to level them.” He wasn’t being prophetic, as the entire area was in the process of becoming the largest post-World War II civic center urban renewal projects in the country. The idea for a new civic center of some kind had been bandied about since the 1930’s, but it wasn’t until the 1950’s that the plan kicked into full gear.

The area just in front of the steps of Borough Hall was a densely built up series of buildings of varying heights, styles and functions, all dominated by the presence of the El tracks snaking their way down Fulton Street, around Borough Hall, and down to the Brooklyn Bridge. The area was dirty, noisy, and crowded. To urban planners, the whole area was a commercial slum, with no redeeming features. The El came down in the early 1940’s, which just by itself, opened the area up to light, and cut down tremendously on the noise and pollution, but it wasn’t enough. Planners, foremost of which was Robert Moses, wanted much more.

The new civic center, to be called Cadman Plaza, after Brooklyn preacher S. Parkes Cadman, would be, in the words of Robert Moses, “to Brooklyn what the great cathedral and opera plazas are to European cities.” The new architectural masterpiece of this enormous swath of parkland and open streets would be the new Supreme Court building, to rise near Borough Hall, the Brooklyn Courthouse, and the Municipal Building; the civic heart of the borough.

To that end, over three hundred buildings were torn down. The period photo was shot from the roof of the Brooklyn Eagle Building, which stood across the street from the Post Office on Johnson Street, and was itself torn down for the project. It was taken in January of 1955. The area shown would become the new New York State Supreme Court Building. The photo shows the demolition of the Fulton Savings Bank, which is in the center background. Most of the area has been demolished already, leaving what was then the Con Ed headquarters on the far left, the domed Court House in the center, the Municipal Building just next door, and Borough Hall in the right hand corner of the photo, in front of the Municipal Building. The Court House would fall to the wrecker’s ball itself, in 1968, torn down for the Brooklyn Law School building.

Today, it’s hard to imagine what this area must have been like before the Plaza. Unfortunately, a number of architecturally important buildings also bit the dust, and at least one of them, the Brooklyn Eagle Building, was situated in a place where it could have been saved. It was not in the path of the Plaza itself, but it was in the way of the design for the sprawling, and frankly, uninspired Court House. The Eagle Building was designed by George Morse, architect of the nearby Temple Bar Building and the Franklin Trust Building.

The new Court House was designed by the firm that gave us the brilliant, and now iconic, Empire State Building. By the 1950’s, Shreve, Lamb & Harmon must have been running on empty, as this must be one of the least loved public buildings in Brooklyn. The Eagle Building’s signature zinc eagles now roost at the Central Library, at Grand Army Plaza, the last remnant of a lost neighborhood. Cadman Plaza, this end of it, anyway, is today a successful urban center, a crossroads and park for pedestrians and lunch crowds, and a busy home to Greenmarkets, street fairs, festivals, book fairs, and political rallies. One can’t even now imagine the sprawl of buildings that preceded it. GMAP

Cadman Plaza area, taken in 1955. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Cadman Plaza in 2011. Photo: Googlemaps

18 Comment

  • I find that one of the reasons I like going to that area is to see the older remaining buildings. That grassy area and plaza is charmless and devoid of any warmth. It is reflected in the feel of the entire new Brooklyn downtown with its arena and all.

  • minard

    This was one of the biggest urban renewal projects in the country. In addition to the new courthouse and park it also included the three highrises along Henry Street and several clusters of modern row houses. Fifty-some years later, the project, for all its shortcomings is viewed as one of the most successful urban renewal projects of that period. It was also the last gasp. The tide was turning in urban America towards Jane Jacobs’ ideals and the concept of recycling rather than destroying old buildings.
    Nice picture. The old courthouse with its egg-shaped dome must have been terrific, that was one of the worst losses.

  • daveinbedstuy

    I believe I stay in one of those high rises now, Minard. BTW are you close by?? we could have coffee.

  • daveinbedstuy

    I believe I stay in one of those high rises now, Minard. BTW are you close by?? we could have coffee.

  • daveinbedstuy

    The park is actually quite nice and there are a lot of cherry trees just about to bloom along Cadman where the row houses are. Can’t wait to see the view of the park when the trees are full and also with a carpet of snow on the ground. The whole area seems to be very clean.

  • daveinbedstuy

    The park is actually quite nice and there are a lot of cherry trees just about to bloom along Cadman where the row houses are. Can’t wait to see the view of the park when the trees are full and also with a carpet of snow on the ground. The whole area seems to be very clean.

  • Samuel Parkes Cadman (December 18, 1864 – July 12, 1936), better known as S. Parkes Cadman, was an American clergyman, newspaper writer, and pioneer Christian radio broadcaster of the 1920s and 1930s. He was an early advocate of ecumenism and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and racial intolerance. By the time of his death in 1936, he was called “the foremost minister of Congregational faith” by the New York Times. – Wiki

    I’m sure I’ll write about him in depth, at some point.

  • Samuel Parkes Cadman (December 18, 1864 – July 12, 1936), better known as S. Parkes Cadman, was an American clergyman, newspaper writer, and pioneer Christian radio broadcaster of the 1920s and 1930s. He was an early advocate of ecumenism and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and racial intolerance. By the time of his death in 1936, he was called “the foremost minister of Congregational faith” by the New York Times. – Wiki

    I’m sure I’ll write about him in depth, at some point.

  • MM, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was diminished in stature by the consolidation of New York City in 1898. The newspaper’s finances were made worse by its acquisition of the Brooklyn Times-Union in 1936 and the paper was bought out of bankruptcy in 1940. After a long American Newspaper Guild strike, the Eagle went out of business in 1955, the year its namesake building was demolished.

    The loss of the borough’s (nee city’s) daily newspaper was as palpable a sign of Brooklyn’s decline as the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles. Although the Eagle building could have been physically saved, as you point out, I have always theorized that part of the rationalization for demolishing it was to remove a symbol how far Brooklyn had fallen.

  • MM, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was diminished in stature by the consolidation of New York City in 1898. The newspaper’s finances were made worse by its acquisition of the Brooklyn Times-Union in 1936 and the paper was bought out of bankruptcy in 1940. After a long American Newspaper Guild strike, the Eagle went out of business in 1955, the year its namesake building was demolished.

    The loss of the borough’s (nee city’s) daily newspaper was as palpable a sign of Brooklyn’s decline as the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles. Although the Eagle building could have been physically saved, as you point out, I have always theorized that part of the rationalization for demolishing it was to remove a symbol how far Brooklyn had fallen.

  • minard

    I am among the few defenders of the supreme court building. As MM points out, it was designed be a very important design firm and is late Moderne style -not International style more common at the time. It has an interesting facade unlike most government buildings of its era. Check out the bas reliefs at the entry. The facade is dirty and should be cleaned. The window trim looks like gold patinated metal so the facade should gleam white and gold. Interesting. It needs to be cleaned. Another good example of modernism nearby is the white marble bank on the corner of Court and Montague -good candidate for BOTD. Its prismatic piers and formal geometry remind me of the contemporaneous Lincoln Center. Take a second look.

  • minard

    I am among the few defenders of the supreme court building. As MM points out, it was designed be a very important design firm and is late Moderne style -not International style more common at the time. It has an interesting facade unlike most government buildings of its era. Check out the bas reliefs at the entry. The facade is dirty and should be cleaned. The window trim looks like gold patinated metal so the facade should gleam white and gold. Interesting. It needs to be cleaned. Another good example of modernism nearby is the white marble bank on the corner of Court and Montague -good candidate for BOTD. Its prismatic piers and formal geometry remind me of the contemporaneous Lincoln Center. Take a second look.

  • minard

    Actually, the plaza in front of the courthouse is called Columbus Park, isn’t it?
    There is a story about the statue of Columbus visible in the photo but I forget what it is.