A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
Abiel Abbott Low was one of 19th century Brooklyn’s leading citizens. As the clerk at the Canton, China, headquarters for the mercantile company, Russell & Company, he learned the shipping business, and made a fortune from it, as well as from his participation in the opium smuggling business. With this success, he came back to New York City, and set up his own shipping and import business. He had a fleet of fast clippers, and made another fortune beating slower ships back to America from the Far East with teas and other perishable goods.
Here in Brooklyn, he built a palatial brownstone home on Pierrepont Place, which overlooked the bay and his ships, and like many wealthy men, was active in both profit-making and philanthropic endeavors. He son Seth grew up in this house, and would one day become mayor of first the City of Brooklyn, then the entire expanded City of New York, among other great accomplishments. A.A. Low invested in local real estate, and with an interest in seeing downtown Brooklyn become a major financial hub, he had at least two significant buildings built in the Court/Montague Street area. One of them, the Garfield Building, was one of the area’s most recognizable buildings.
Low commissioned up and coming architect Josiah C. Cady to design an appropriately impressive building for the prominent corner of Remsen and Court Street. This area was becoming home to large insurance companies, banks, trusts and real estate concerns, as well as a hub for governmental and court related businesses and offices. Right around the corner on Montague was the Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as prominent social clubs and hotels.
Cady was a very talented architect who designed the south wing of the Museum of Natural History and the old Metropolitan Opera House, in Manhattan. He also designed New York Presbyterian Hospital and the Belleview Medical School. Here in Brooklyn he would design two important churches; the New York Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church in Crown Heights, and Williamsburg’s St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Even more locally, he designed the Brooklyn Art Association building around the corner on Montague Street, one of his first commissions as a young architect, designed in 1869. Abiel Low had been very vocal in his admiration of the building, and twelve years later, was able to hire Cady to do his magic again.
The building Cady designed in 1881 dominated the corner, and the entire street. The large clock tower at the corner was the tallest thing around, and the whole building had that classic 1880s sturdy, blocky and heavy Romanesque Revival solidity to it, with arched ground floor entrances, arched upper windows, and a pitched Mansard roof with rows of recessed dormer windows.
Low named the building for President James A. Garfield, who had been tragically assassinated that same year. This being Brooklyn, some objected to the name, telling the newspapers that they didn’t think it was appropriate for a building to remind people of Garfield’s “mortal agony and unnatural cruel death.” Low countered that the Garfield name would be an inspiration, commemorating the deeds of the man, not his manner of death. The name stuck.
The Garfield Building soon became full of tenants. The railroad companies kept offices there, as did the Brooklyn Republican Campaign Committee. Colonel Charles L. Fincke, the commander of the 23rd Regiment kept an office here, joining countless lawyers, architects, insurance men and the Phenix Patent Office. As the years passed into the 20th century, the building stayed full, as Court Street saw taller and taller buildings being built, beginning with the Temple Bar Building of 1901, a block away, topping off at thirteen stories; for a hot minute, the tallest building in Brooklyn.
Abiel Low died in 1893, and the building passed to new owners. In 1906, it was offered in auction by the Brooklyn Real Estate Exchange. The Temple Bar Building was the beginning of the end for Court Street’s old Victorian-era piles. The skyscraper was coming, modern new buildings that utilized new construction and engineering qualities that enabled them to reach higher than ever thought possible. Six story buildings like the Garfield were hopelessly outmatched.
In 1925, the Garfield was torn down, and replaced by the Court and Remsen Building; more commonly called 26 Court Street. It was designed by the firm of Schwartz & Gross, and rose 30 stories above Court Street. Soon it too was filled with lawyers, insurance men and architects. Some things just don’t change. It’s too bad we lost one of J. Cleaveland Cady’s great buildings. He’s one of those important architects whose buildings always seem to be in the way of progress. Fortunately, many of those that remain are landmarked, and will be protected for future generations to enjoy. GMAP