Past and Present: Brooklyn Borough Hall and Plaza

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

There are dozens of postcards from the late 19th and early 20th centuries that depict Brooklyn’s majestic City Hall and the plaza that surrounded it, but I hadn’t seen this one before. Many of the other cards have Borough Hall masked by the el train tracks that ran alongside it, or try to cram every building in the area into one shot, resulting in an urban mess that shows exactly why city fathers were happy to create Cadman Plaza fifty years later. I like this shot, because it shows clearly which buildings and features are no longer there, and would be unimaginable to us today.

Where to begin? Let’s start with Borough Hall, once Brooklyn’s City Hall. The postcard’s stamp was cancelled in 1910, but this photo is much earlier. In 1895, the wooden cupola atop City Hall burned down. It wasn’t rebuilt until 1898, the same year Brooklyn ceased to be a city, and became a borough. There is no cupola in this photo, so it dates sometime in the three years between 1895 and 1898.

We get a glimpse of lost Brooklyn here, as all of the municipal buildings in this photograph, with the exception of Borough Hall, are now gone. Ranged along Fulton Street in front of Borough Hall from left to right were the Hall of Records, the domed courthouse, and the mansard roofline of the old Municipal Building. Today, two buildings stand in their place: the Brooklyn Law School and the new Municipal Building, the one built in 1927.

Snaking around the side of Borough Hall are the elevated tracks of the Fulton Street line, which crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan at Park Place and travelled down Fulton Street through the heart of the shopping district before continuing on through to Flatbush Avenue and into Brooklyn. The photo, taken from somewhere high up, doesn’t give proper scale to the height of the el, which would have been very intrusive to those on the street.

And finally, none of the buildings on the left side of the el survived. They included office buildings, theaters, large department stores and assorted places of business — even the headquarters of the Brooklyn Eagle, although that building is not in this picture. They were all razed for Cadman Plaza in the early 1950s. GMAP

Postcard: Ansonia Philatelic via eBay

Photo: Google Maps, 2011

4 Comment

  • Cadman Plaza laid to waste the original downtown Brooklyn, an area which, had it been allowed to survive through to the age of reclamation that took hold the 1980s, would have undoubtedly blossomed in the Millennial renaissance of commercial neighborhoods with as much or more flourish than Tribeca, Soho, or Dumbo. I think it’s only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the loss of the original Fulton street, one of the nation’s first commercial thoroughfares, ranks as Brooklyn’s version of the loss of Penn Station or the Singer Building. Anyone delving even superficially into early Brooklyn history cannot help but feel the loss of this significant stretch of our city. Everything, but everything, revolved around Fulton Street from the ferry landing to City Hall. Now it’s not only gone but renamed. As though it never existed in the first place.

    Some earlier images and histories of City Hall Square can be found here: http://www.whitmans-brooklyn.org/category/city-hall-square/

    • I literally walked up old fulton just now, and just passed one of the only gas powered street lamps left in the city, I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully City planners can try to recapture some of it, a BB Park becomes more popular.

    • I literally walked up old fulton just now, and just passed one of the only gas powered street lamps left in the city, I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully City planners can try to recapture some of it, a BB Park becomes more popular.

    • I agree that the loss of the buildings themselves is a terrible shame.
      But the reason they had deteriorated is the same reason why i disagree that this “core” would’ve ever redeveloped completely. Downtown
      Brooklyn as a center of commerce had been in decline for 50 years; then the depression hit and it was over. Still, even if the neighborhood changed, it would’ve been nicer get to the complete kind of changeover that happened
      in dumbo instead of a nondescript park and the stalinist apartment blocks along the Brooklyn Heights side.