Past and Present: Christmas at Borough Hall

Cadman Plaza Christmas, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The holiday season in Downtown Brooklyn is a festive mass of commerce, kitsch and tradition. The stores put out their holiday best sellers, street vendors everywhere are hawking their wares, and elaborate lights fixtures are set up to hang across the streets, bringing snowflakes, holiday greetings and candy canes to life, both day and night. No civic Christmas celebration would be without the greenery of the season either. Wreaths, swags and garlands of pine branches, both real and artificial, with huge red bows, hang from the halls of government, from street lamps and in doorways. And for many municipalities, a Christmas tree is usually the jewel in the crown. Brooklyn has been no different.

Our photograph from the past this week is from 1936. It shows Borough Hall’s official Christmas tree, just after it had been delivered and set into the ground. The guy wires have been put in, and the tree looks like the ropes or whatever they used to keep the branches close to the trunk have not been removed, or were just removed, and the branches haven’t fallen away from the trunk yet. The lights and decorations had not yet been hung. This was still a very Great Depression tree.

Borough Hall has had bigger and better trees, but I chose this photo to highlight the changes in Downtown Brooklyn. There are many aspects of the “old” Brooklyn that I wish I could have seen, including some buildings that I wish were still standing. But one thing I don’t miss, or wish was still there, and that is the Fulton St. El train. That’s what’s dominating the background of this photograph. The El was loud, polluting, all encompassing, light blocking, and did I mention loud?

Downtown Brooklyn’s streets had been laid out before the El, and many of its buildings were also built before it was erected, so the El train had to be laid along Fulton Street in such a way as to avoid Borough Hall, the old Court House, the theaters, stores and office buildings of Downtown Brooklyn. The El was too important to not have, as this line made its way from the far reaches of Brooklyn all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan. The stops in the Downtown shopping and civic areas were important to commerce and government, and helped build the modern city. But that came with a price.

The elevated tracks were laid way back in 1888, believe it or not, during Brooklyn’s heyday as a prosperous and independent city. The first leg of the Fulton line ran from the Sands Street station at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, and traveled up Fulton Street, which used to continue from City Hall and run all the way down to the Ferry. It turned right before City Hall, and then continued along Fulton Street, through the shopping and theater district, and then continued out to Flatbush Avenue, and beyond.

The El had several stations in the Downtown-Civic Center area. The station that is visible in the background was the Court Street/Myrtle Avenue station. As you can see, the tracks and the terminal took up quite a bit of space. It’s hard to imagine what this area looked like before it was all torn down, and then when Cadman Plaza, the parks and the new courthouse were built. But photographs show an extremely crowded urban landscape, with long-gone streets lined with all kinds of buildings, great and small.

Rising behind the El is the Brooklyn Eagle Building. It was one of the better buildings lost in the construction of Cadman Plaza. The great Brooklyn architect George L. Morse designed this office building which housed Brooklyn’s largest daily newspaper, as well as general office space. Morse had his own offices here. The building was built in 1892, and stood on the corner of Washington and Johnson Streets. The Eagle building was an instant landmark, famous for the great bronze eagles that flanked the entrance on the corner, as well as for its tower, which rose above most of the other buildings in the area.

The only building on Washington Street that came close to it for height was the General Post Office, which in the photograph peeks out from behind the Eagle Building. Today, everything in this picture, the El, the Eagle Building, and the kind of sad looking tree, is long gone. Only the Post Office remains. The El took its last passengers to their destinations on May 31, 1940, and was torn down soon afterward. The IND and IRT subway lines had made the El redundant. I’m sure people were shocked to realize how much light and air was made available on the street.

After World War II, plans went forward for changing the face of Brooklyn’s Civic Center. The demolition of all of the buildings on Washington Street, now Cadman Plaza East, proceeded in the early 1950s, with the sole exception of the Post Office. The Brooklyn Eagle Building did not survive. Cadman Plaza was carved from the rubble, and in 1957, the new New York State Supreme Court Building was built, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the same firm that gave us the Empire State Building, some thirty years before. I find the building quite disappointing. But that’s what we’ve got.

Today, the holidays look quite different than in 1936, with a completely different background for today’s festivities. Past and Present will be back in 2014 for another year of contrasting what was with what is. Thanks for reading, and I look forward to comments and suggestions. Happy holidays to everyone. GMAP

UPDATE: On Tuesday, in my Walkabout column, I wrote about a mock trial in Troy, N.Y., which would determine who wrote the famous poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” aka “Twas the Night before Christmas.” A New York City Biblical scholar named Clement Clark Moore has always been given credit as the author, but another man, Poughkeepsie gentleman farmer James Livingston has also been cited as the more probable author. The poem was first published in the Troy Sentinel in December of 1823, so Troy was the perfect place to determine who wrote the poem.

The trial took place Wednesday, December 18, and was a wonderfully entertaining and educational courtroom drama. Both Moore and Livingston were on hand to testify, and the real lawyers, judge and courtroom staff were there to keep it legal. They were all great, and who knew trial lawyers could be so funny? A standing room only crowd was on hand, and after some great courtroom testimony from both parties, the six person jury could not determine the authorship. A hung jury means we’ll probably have to do it again next year. The event got a lot of local press and TV coverage, which can be found here, and here, among other places. It was a great event, and could start a wonderful new holiday tradition here in Troy. And in the words of the poem, no matter who wrote it, “happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Christmas at Borough Hall, 1936. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Christmas at Borough Hall, 1936. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Present day Cadman Plaza from the same angle. Photo: Googlemaps

Present day Cadman Plaza from the same angle. Photo: Google Maps

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