Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Municipal Building
Address: 210 Joralemon Street
Cross Streets: Corner Court Street
Neighborhood: Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1923-26
Architectural Style: Neo-classical
Architect: McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin
Other Buildings by Architect: Barclay-Vesey Building (Verizon Building), 1 Wall Street, Salvation Army HQ on 14th St. – all Manhattan
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Skyscraper HD (2012)
The story: Every city needs some kind of municipal building, a place where different city agencies, services and public records can be accessible in one fell swoop. No matter how big or small the municipality may be, a concerted effort has always been made to make a civic building of such importance as beautiful, grand or impressive as possible. It’s great if one manages all three, but grand and impressive is usually a must.
This Municipal Building is the second such building Brooklyn built; the first was in this same location. It was built in 1876-78, a period of great growth for the city, and when Brooklyn was really feeling its oats as one of the nation’s cities, quite separate from New York City, across the river. That building, designed by Ditmars & Mumford, was a smaller, four story, and marble-clad Second Empire styled building.
It had mansard roofed towers on the sides and center portions, and was studded with dormers all around the top floor. The largest tower in the center faced out on Joralemon, and also had a mansard roof, atop of which the architects inexplicably stuck a really unnecessary dome. A photo is below. That Municipal Building, along with its neighbors, the Brooklyn Court House and the Hall of Records, plus City Hall across the street, all formed the heart and soul of Brooklyn’s government. Today, only City Hall remains.
By the late 1920s, Brooklyn was, of course, now a borough of NYC, not an independent city, but it still needed to house important records and departments. A larger, more modern building was needed; one that would have three times the height and size of the old building. The old building was torn down in 1915. The design of the architecture firm of McKenzie Voorhees & Gmelin was eventually chosen over designs by McKim, Mead & White and Lord & Hewlett. McK, V&G were a venerable Manhattan firm, founded as a solo operation in 1885 by Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz, son of prominent architect Leopold Eidlitz.
In 1900, Eidlitz added partner Andre C. McKenzie. Eidlitz left the firm in 1910, and was replaced by Stephen Francis Voorhees and Paul Gmelin. Right before this building was finished, McKenzie died, and Ralph Walker, who was already working at the firm, was elevated to name partner, and the firm became Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker. During the first half of the 20th century, they were responsible for some of NYC’s most important Art Deco Buildings, many of them for the phone company, including what is considered their masterpiece, the Barclay-Vesey Building in Lower Manhattan, which now houses Verizon.
The new Municipal Building was built to complement Borough Hall. It does so well, actually providing a rather sheltering backdrop to the much smaller building. The firm specifically designed the building to complement our former City Hall. Several design elements, such as the high central section and flanking end pavilions echo the design of Borough Hall, as do the cupola on top and the massive classical colonnade on Joralemon Street.
I have to admit always being impressed to come up out of the subway underneath that colonnade. It told you that you were somewhere of importance, passing through columns that would make any Roman proud. It’s not surprising to learn that this was intentional, and the subway entrance under the building was always a large part of the design. Well, it works.
The Municipal Building houses the Brooklyn Finance Offices, the Sheriff’s Office, the Department of Buildings, Probation and Environmental Protection. It also holds the County Clerk’s Office, where marriage licenses are issued, and there is always a bridal party or two or five coming or going, plus a small sidewalk industry selling silk wedding bouquets and wedding tchotchkes. Recently, in the last year, and after years of speculation and haggling, retail stores took over the ground floor on the Court Street/Joralemon corner. More stores are coming.
The building was not intended to become the back wall of Cadman Plaza, because when it was built, the entire Cadman Plaza area was a mass of elevated tracks and Victorian era buildings. But its clean modern lines do work with the mid-century design of the State Supreme Court Building. Which goes to show that great architecture can hold its own, no matter what the century or the surroundings. The firm went through many more partners, but still exists, and is now an internationally renowned firm called Haines, Lundberg & Waehler. (HLW) GMAP
(Photo:Bridge and Tunnel Club)