Building of the Day: 101 Willoughby Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Formerly the Long Island Headquarters of the New York Telephone Co., now BellTel Lofts
Address: 101 Willoughby Street
Cross Streets: Corner Bridge Street
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1931
Architectural Style: Art Deco
Architect: Ralph Walker, of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker. Condo conversion: Beyer Blinder Belle
Other buildings by architect: Walker designed the Barclay-Vesey Building for New York Telephone and the Western Union Building in Manhattan. Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker designed the Municipal Building in Downtown Brooklyn
Landmarked: Yes, individual landmark (2004)

The story: Although the majority of the buildings in Brownstone Brooklyn and suburban Flatbush were built in the 19th and early 20th century, we still have a rich heritage of buildings built after that date that are worthy of our attention. The Art Deco period of the late 1920s and early 1930s is well represented here, especially in Brooklyn Heights and Downtown. For many people, Art Deco IS New York City; some of our most iconic buildings are from that period, most notably the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building and the Chanin Building. Brooklyn has her share, too, and they are all quite good. Art Deco lends itself well to tall skyscrapers, so it’s not surprising that the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building at Hanson Place and this one are the most impressive of Brooklyn’s Art Deco buildings.

The communications industry is on fire now, with many different carriers, as well as ways to receive and make calls, but at the turn of the 20th century, all telephone service was under only one company: Bell Telephone. Reorganized in 1899 as the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), the phone company was divided into regional districts, with one district covering all of New York City and Long Island. This division was called the New York Telephone Company. By the late 1920s, the telephone company building down the street on Willoughby, built for the old New York & New Jersey Telephone Co., was too small. A rapidly growing population of phone users needed a new building to house more equipment, offices and a customer center.

The firm of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker (then McKenzie, Voohees & Gmelin) had landed the lucrative job of designing new buildings for the phone company. By 1912, they had designed twenty phone buildings in the region. Ralph Walker joined the firm in 1919, and was the architect for the Barclay-Vesey Building on West Street in Manhattan (1923), his first Deco masterpiece for the phone company. This building was extremely well received, and launched his career and a partnership in the firm when McKenzie died in 1926. He became the expert for AT&T’s buildings, and would go on to design several other buildings for them, including this one. Almost all of his Deco skyscrapers of this period are now landmarked. You may not know his name, but his buildings are a part of the New York skyline.

Walker’s buildings are so good because of his mastery of materials, massing, and the play of light and shadow. Art Deco lends itself well to buildings that had to conform to new rules set in 1916 regarding setbacks on buildings over a certain number of stories. Its angular style is perfect for tall buildings, and the setbacks enabled Walker to play with shapes and color, all through his use of different shades of brick.

The façade ripples with different colors of brick carefully laid in gradations of color, like a brick drapery. Walker used patterned brickwork and bronze grilles at the ground floor doorways and windows, which make the building seem to rise from a lacework frame. In reality, this building is as solid as a rock, all 27 stories. The brickwork on this building is just amazing, and worth a close up look to see all the subtleties involved.

When I first moved to Brooklyn in 1983, I would occasionally pay my bill here. I remember a classic Deco interior and customer counter. The phone company moved elsewhere, of course, and the building was converted into condominiums beginning in 2002. The well-known firm of Beyer Blinder Belle was responsible for the designs and the conversion. We are fortunate that this important building was landmarked and saved. GMAP (Photo: BrooklynVegan)

Photo: Scott Bintner for PropertyShark, 2007

Photo: Cityrealty.com

Photo: Joe David on Flickr

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