Building of the Day: 762 St. Marks Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Apartment building
Address: 762 St. Marks Avenue
Cross Streets: Nostrand and New York avenues
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1931-32
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Architect: Cohn Brothers
Other buildings by architect: Apartment buildings all over Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx. On this block alone, the Betsy Ross, the Carolyn Apartments, and 748 St. Marks.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Crown Heights North HD, Phase 2 (2011)

The story: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the blocks of St. Marks Avenue between Nostrand and Brooklyn Avenues were filled with mansions. Today, for the most part, they are filled with medium and large sized apartment buildings. Between 1920 and 1940, only twenty years, the mansions fell to the wrecking ball, one by one. This area had been one of the wealthiest parts of Brooklyn and had inspired a new neighborhood name, the St. Marks District, but changed dramatically in that time span due to a fleeing upper class, and its own popularity. Everyone wanted to live in the St. Marks District.

If you look at it objectively, it makes sense. What better place to build large apartment buildings than on blocks where giant white elephant mansions stood? These grand houses had been sold cheaply by their owners, who decamped to the new luxury apartments of Park Avenue or the suburbs of Long Island and Westchester. A large lot that once housed one family and some servants could now house over a hundred families. These new middle class families, the successful children and grandchildren of immigrants who had been crowded into tenement neighborhoods, were looking for the good life in a large apartment with all of the modern conveniences. And St. Marks Avenue delivered.

Of all of the impressive apartment buildings along St. Marks Avenue, this is the only pure Art Deco one. The architects of this building were the Cohn Brothers, of Brooklyn. They opened their offices in Flatbush in 1910, and were going strong until the 1950s. They specialized in apartment buildings, and most of their best work was during the 1930s and ’40s. On these two blocks of St. Marks alone, they are responsible for four apartment buildings, including this one, plus two more nearby on Park Place. Their buildings can be found in Flatbush, especially along Ocean Avenue, as well as in Jackson Heights and other parts of Queens, and in the Bronx. Find an area in these boroughs with a lot of ’20s-’40s apartment buildings, and you can bet a Cohn Brothers building is among them.

The Cohns understood their market — especially Benjamin Cohn, the principal designer. Upwardly mobile strivers wanted buildings that spoke to Old World traditions and upscale trends. Some of their buildings, like the Betsy Ross, just across the street from here, evoke the traditional Colonial Revival style, elegant and very American. Others, like Haddon Hall over on Park Place, 770 St. Marks, and the Carolyn Apartments, only a few doors down, evoke Elizabethan and Tudor England, complete with heraldic-themed lobbies that look like a Hollywood castle and Tudoresque half-timbered details. But this one is very different.

This building is pure Art Deco, with the geometric patterns and linear design that evoke Pre-Columbian design, not Tudor England. The brickwork is masterfully executed here, bringing the classic Art Deco shapes to the building. The entrance features a chamfered design with abstract sunflower, sunburst and frozen fountain detailing above and around the doorway. Above, near the roofline, are the best details, pure Deco goodies in patterned brick.

Surrounded by a free standing house, one of the last mansions on St. Marks, on the west, and the firm’s 1929 Carolyn apartments on the east, this Deco gem gets overlooked a lot. It shouldn’t. It’s really a fine building. There are other great Art Deco buildings in Crown Heights North, and this one stands proudly among them, helping to make the neighborhood one of the most interesting architectural collections in Brooklyn. GMAP

(Photographs: Christopher D. Brazee for Landmarks Preservation Commission, 2011)