Building of the Day: 130 Clinton Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former insurance building, now co-ops
Address: 130 Clinton Street
Cross Streets: Corner Joralemon Street
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1925-26
Architectural Style: Gothic Deco
Architect: Mortimer E. Freehof
Other Work by Architect: Medical Arts Building next door, 35 Pierrepont, 25 Monroe Place, all in Heights. Community Building, Temple Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, among others.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights HD (1965)

The story: In the 30 years preceding the Great Depression, Brooklyn still enjoyed her status as a major city where business took place. The marginalizing of Downtown and the Heights was yet to come. She was also still a fine place to live, and the Heights saw some of its grand mansions replaced by elegant apartment buildings and co-ops, providing their residents with the same kind of amenities that were enjoyed across the river in Manhattan. Happy indeed, during this time, was an architect who could deliver both kinds of buildings: commercial and residential. Mortimer E. Freehof must have been quite a happy guy.

His name is not a household one today, but if you live or work in Brooklyn Heights, you pass at least one of his buildings all the time, if not more than one. His large apartment buildings can be found at 35 Pierrepont Street, 124 Clinton Street, and 25 Monroe Place. In 1925, he was commissioned to design this building, called the Insurance Building, built to be a commercial office building for insurance companies.

Insurance has always been one of Brooklyn Heights’ and Downtown Brooklyn’s biggest industries, with branches of both Brooklyn and Manhattan-based companies on Court, Joralemon, Montague and other streets. This building was designed for mostly back-office work, with twelve stories of offices within it.

Freehof, who got his training at Columbia, and worked for a time as a draftsman for the firm of Lord & Hewitt, had imagination. The building could have been a much more utilitarian office tower, but he tied it into the streetscape by referencing the Gothic towers of St. Anne’s Church just across the street. He gave the building just enough Gothic tracery to make the point, within an Art Deco shell, but not overwhelm the building or the streetscape. He also recessed the entryway, giving many a person over the years shelter from inclement weather — and also giving them a chance to really look at the detail of the building.

After the Insurance Building was finished, he was busy on the Medical Arts Building next door, at 142 Joralemon. That one was finished in 1927, and has a much more Art Deco feel, yet is quite appealing next door to the Gothic Insurance Building. Mortimer Freehof’s office and apartment buildings are also found in Manhattan, and his Community House for Temple Beth Elohim in Park Slope is also landmarked, as are many of his buildings.

Mr. Freehof was also an art lover, and to this day, the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan bestows a Freehof prize for excellence in painting. He had a long time to enjoy his successful life: He lived for 93 years, from 1893 to 1986. In 1976, the Insurance Building was converted into co-ops, with 89 units and commercial space. It’s still one of the Heights’ most interesting buildings. GMAP

(Photo:Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark, 2012)

Photo: Christopher Bride for PropertyShark

One Comment

  • What an awesome article!!!!! Mort was my grandfather!! Here’s a bit of information about him that I’m sure not many knew… He would never sell himself out. Over the years he had been offered extraordinary amounts of money to build certain things, and he refused because he said he felt like he would have been selling himself out doing something that didnt have his soul in it.