Building of the Day: 191 St. James Place

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally Nassau Gas Light Company, now Trinity Holy Church
Address: 191 St. James Place
Cross Streets: Gates Avenue and Fulton Street
Neighborhood: Clinton Hill
Year Built: 1877
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival
Architect: Napoleon LeBrun & Sons
Other Work by Architect: Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, Madison Square, Manhattan; numerous fire houses, Manhattan; Mohonk Mt. Lodge, New Paltz; Academy of Music and other buildings in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania
Landmarked: Yes, part of Clinton Hill HD (1981)

The story:
Gas, that is manufactured coal gas, was the primary source of energy for artificial lighting from the mid-19th century forward, until eclipsed by electricity. Energy is a lucrative business, so here in Brooklyn, many small gas companies sprang up, each covering a specific part of the city. There were six companies that covered the area from Williamsburg to Park Slope, Bedford to Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. The Nassau Gas Light Company was founded in 1870 to provide gas to parts of Clinton Hill, most of Bedford, and what is now Crown Heights, down to Empire Boulevard, then Malbone Street. This building was one of their offices, and also served as a small shop for the manufacture of gas meters.

Nassau Gas Light was one of the larger and stronger of these independent companies, so it’s not surprising that they would engage the services of a well-known architect. And Napoleon LeBrun & Sons were well known, first in the Philadelphia area for their churches and civic buildings, then in New York City, for their early skyscrapers, such as the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, the firm was awarded the contract as architects for the city’s Fire Department, and they designed all of the firehouses in Manhattan built during that time. They also designed the eclectic Mohonk Mountain Lodge, which hugs the Catskill Mountains at New Paltz. They were good.

The building at 191 St. James is elegant. It’s got all of the solid massing of the Romanesque Revival, but is not a slave to the lavish arches that characterize the style in most cases. There are arches, but they are subtle and slightly squared-off, surrounded by stone transoms with only slightly larger keystones. The one over the door has the initials “NGL CO” prominently displayed in terra-cotta. Upstairs, the windows have molded brick edges with drip lintels, terra-cotta trim, crowned with a very handsome cornice featuring round arches and lion’s heads. Unfortunately, the very top of the cornice is now gone. The details can best be seen in the 1958 photograph below.

In 1879, the Fulton Municipal Gas Company was founded, with the backing of Standard Oil, Charles Pratt’s company. Instead of carving a niche in the Brooklyn market, like the other companies, they began selling to all of Brooklyn, aided by their new and much more efficient process called “water gas” which burned brighter and was cheaper to boot. They soon took over the market and had all of the other companies buying from them. Nassau Gas Light held out the longest, but eventually it succumbed and started buying from Fulton. It was inevitable that these small companies would have to consolidate in order to survive, and in 1895, the Brooklyn Union Gas company was founded. One by one the buildings of the Nassau Gas Company were modified, or sold.

At some point during the early 20th century this building was sold. It eventually became a church, and by 1958 was the Glover Memorial Baptist Church. In 1966 the building was sold to the Trinity Holy Church in whose hands it’s remained for the last fifty-some years. The whole building has a solid character one would like a company dealing with a dangerous substance like gas to have had, and the solid dignity of a house of worship works as well today. It fits into the streetscape nicely, as one more of the extremely interesting buildings on this eclectic and architecturally significant block. GMAP

(Photo:Googlemaps)

Photo: Scott Bintner for Property Shark. Panoramic view.

1958 Photograph: Brooklyn Historical Society

Detail of terra-cotta trim with company intitials on keystone over doorway.

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