12/19/14 3:00pm

201-249 Lexington Avenue, SSpellen 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Row Houses
Address: 201-249 Lexington Avenue
Cross Streets: Bedford and Nostrand Avenues
Neighborhood: Bedford Stuyvesant
Year Built: sometime between 1880 and 1886
Architectural Style: Neo-Grec with Queen Anne details
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: We have a mystery here. The 1880 Bromley Atlas for the City of Brooklyn clearly shows elevated tracks along Lexington Avenue in Bedford. Yet a history of that elevated line states that the trains didn’t start running until 1885. Perhaps they were building them, or were going to start to build them back in 1880, so they put them on the map. Who knows? What is more interesting is the development on Lexington Avenue itself.

We know today that a street with trains rumbling by overhead is not seen as prime real estate, or having optimal living conditions, with noise, lack of sunlight and soot. But back then; this was new technology and new opportunities for public transportation. In 1880, the Bromley Atlas shows there was no development on the north side of the block of Lexington between Nostrand and Bedford. Not a single building. The south side had only one group of row houses, in the middle of the block. What a difference six years makes! (more…)

12/19/14 10:45am

Eastern Parkway, at Franklin Ave, Composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

It’s relatively easy to imagine Brooklyn before the Dutch took over. The land probably looked like undeveloped virgin land anywhere in New York State. There were woodlands, hills and valleys, streams and fields. The Canarsee people who were here when Henry Hudson sailed into Coney Island harbor were primarily hunters and gatherers. Their villages and small agricultural fields did not make much of an impact on the land. Then the Europeans came.

Fast forward several hundred years, and Brooklyn is a city. The land was farmed, and then leveled for development. But as we all know, some parts were developed faster than others. We generally think of the spread of urban Brooklyn to be like a wave washing out into the rest of Brooklyn from its origins in Brooklyn Heights, but that’s not the whole story. There were six original towns in Kings County, not just Brooklyn, and some of those towns had smaller villages, as well. Growth occurred in pockets and spread out, meeting other pockets, and filling in, until the entire city was developed. In general, this took time. But sometimes…. (more…)

12/18/14 3:00pm

154 Lawrence Ave, 70Pct, KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally 72nd, then 74th, now 70th Precinct House, NYPD
Address: 154 Lawrence Avenue
Cross Streets: Ocean Parkway and Seton Place
Neighborhood: Kensington
Year Built: 1904
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival/Beaux Arts
Architect: Washington Hull
Other Buildings by Architect: Grace Church Reading Room in Brooklyn Heights, Clark Mansion in Manhattan (demolished)
Landmarked: No

The story: Architect Washington Hull only designed a few buildings in Brooklyn. This was one of them. He won the commission in 1902, but the precinct house, prison and stable complex for the 72nd Precinct did not go into construction until 1904. Ironically, one of the first buildings in this young architect’s career turned out to be one of his last. Here’s the story:

The old 72nd Precinct house was on Coney Island Avenue and was thought by many to be haunted. Many officers there swore that the building was a “hoodoo station,” as they called it, with a curse on it that had caused the deaths of several patrolmen over the years. They said the building was haunted by the ghosts of past prisoners, and they pointed to the recent death of the precinct’s Captain Short, while in command of that station, as proof of the curse. Sources show the captain died from more mundane causes, but why let that interrupt a good story? (more…)

12/18/14 10:45am

Wash Hull, Muni Building, Arch and Design, 1903

In 1903, a young architect born and raised in Brooklyn won the most important architectural competition of the new century. Against all odds, this relative newcomer beat out well-known and experienced architects like the Parfitt Brothers, William Tubby and Rudolfe L. Daus, and was awarded the commission to design the Borough of Brooklyn’s new Municipal Building. Washington Hull was the talk of the town.

You can catch up on Mr. Hull’s upbringing and early history in Part One of this story. He was still establishing his solo career after working as a draughtsman and head of that department for McKim, Mead & White. He left that firm along with two co-workers, and they started their own office as Lord, Hewlett & Hull.

They seemed to be golden, winning a couple of good commissions, including a Reading Room building for Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights and a precinct house in Kensington. They also came in second in a competition to design the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And then they landed the big one: the multi-million dollar mansion for Senator William Clark on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan; a building that was to be the largest, most expensive house in New York City. (more…)

12/17/14 3:00pm

697-703 Bushwick Ave, CB, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Tenement buildings
Address: 697-703 Bushwick Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner Suydam Street
Neighborhood: Bushwick
Year Built: 1889
Architectural Style: Queen Anne
Architect: Theobald Engelhardt
Other Buildings by Architect: In Bushwick – Ulmer Office and Brewery, Arion Hall, St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School, Frederick Cook house, Bossert house, and many more row houses, churches, tenements, mansions, breweries, banks, hospitals, factories and warehouses in the old Eastern District and elsewhere in Brooklyn
Landmarked: No, but part of a proposed Bushwick Avenue Historic District

The story: By definition, a tenement is a building with multiple tenancy, nothing more sinister that that. In 1867, the New York State defined it as “any house, building, or portion thereof, which is rented, leased, let, or hired out to be occupied or is occupied, as the home or residence of more than three families living independently of one another and doing their own cooking upon the premises, or by more than two families upon a floor, so living and cooking and having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, water-closets, or privies.” The term became forever attached to horrible, crowded and substandard slums populated by the poorest of the poor, giving a stigma to all multiple unit dwellings that wouldn’t disappear until the first quarter of the 20th century. (more…)

12/16/14 3:00pm

62 Joralemon Street, SB, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former Grace Church Reading Room, now co-op apartments
Address: 62 Joralemon Street
Cross Streets: Hicks and Willow Place
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1895
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Washington Hull and James Hewlett of Lord, Hewlett & Hull
Other Buildings by Architect: William Clark mansion, Manhattan (demolished), 70th Precinct in Kensington, mausoleums in Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, and several suburban mansions.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights Historic District (1966)

The story: This morning, in my Walkabout column, I began the story of the life and career of Washington Hull, one of Brooklyn’s many forgotten architects. He didn’t design very much in Brooklyn, but he was a part of the large architectural community that was quite busy at the turn of the 20th century. One of his few Brooklyn buildings was this Reading Room, designed for Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights. It was designed by Hull, along with one of his partners, James M. Hewlett, of Lord, Hewlett & Hull. The three principles of the company had all worked together at McKim, Mead & White when they decided they had the experience and talent to go out on their own. This was one of their first commissions.

James Hewlett and Washington Hull were both from Brooklyn, and were cheered by the press as representing the borough in the high stakes game of big time architecture. They, along with Austin Lord, were coming down from a second place win in an important competition to design the new Philadelphia Museum of Art. They came back to Brooklyn with a $3,000 consolation prize, and were awarded the design for the Reading Room. (more…)

12/16/14 10:45am

Wash Hull, composite

This story is the stuff of novels and movies. A hometown boy, educated in Brooklyn schools, goes on to college and returns home, ready to perform Great Deeds in his chosen profession. He has some initial success working for the top company in his field, he gets married to a beautiful woman and has five lovely children, and he is recognized in his profession as a rising star. One day he is asked to join a competition. If he wins, he will achieve one of the greatest pinnacles of his profession’s success, and he will be a household name. Against all odds, and against incredible competition, he wins, and his name is plastered all over the papers. But before he can proceed with his project, he is shot down by political machinations, his name is stepped on, and his star falls rather rudely to earth. What happens next is both tragic and mysterious. That, in a nutshell, is the story of Brooklyn architect Washington Hull. (more…)

12/15/14 3:00pm

226 Nevins Street, SSPellen 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former City of New York Water Supply-Distribution, Gowanus Station
Address: 226 Nevins Street
Cross Streets: Corner of Butler Street
Neighborhood: Gowanus
Year Built: Around 1911 for Butler St. Nevins street building, after 1916.
Architectural Style: Late 19th-early 20th century brick factory style buildings
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: Everyone who loves all kinds of industrial architecture should wander around Gowanus. Perhaps you should do it sooner rather than later, if recent rumors of mass construction prove to be true, especially in the outer parts of the district, away from brownfields and the canal. In a car, Gowanus can be a maze of one-way streets and short streets with familiar names that are suddenly blocked off by other streets, the canal, or housing projects. But walking – that’s where you can really get a feel for the Gowanus that was, a hub of industry and manufacturing, with layers of history stacked on top of each other, with buildings that span the businesses that thrived from the last quarter of the 19th century, to the present day.

As times change, so too do the functions of these buildings. Some are easily converted into new kinds of businesses, while others don’t do so well. Some could be, and have been, converted into new housing, or event spaces, restaurants and galleries, while others can’t be imagined as anything but an empty lot upon which new buildings can be built. I always enjoy wandering around Gowanus, because I don’t know it well, and am always surprised when I run across a building that I’ve never seen before. Like this one, the former City of New York Water Supply, Distribution – Gowanus Station. (more…)

12/12/14 3:00pm

759 President St. KL, PS

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Built as the Skene Sanitarium, now apartments
Address: 759 President Street
Cross Streets: 6th and 7th avenues
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1884, with addition added in 1902, and another in the 1930s
Architectural Style:Italianate
Architect: Original architect — R. B. Eastman, others unknown
Other Buildings by Architect: Hospitals and other public buildings in Brooklyn and Vermont
Landmarked: No, but in proposed expansion district for the Park Slope HD

The story: Alexander J. C. Skene was the descendant of Scottish lairds. His family story extended far back into Scotland’s history and included participation in many famous battles and encounters with historical figures. But young Alexander wanted to expand his horizons beyond the Highlands, and came to the United States at the age of 19 to further his education and to study medicine. He enrolled in the University of Michigan and completed his medical studies at the Long Island School of Medicine in 1863. The Civil War was raging on at the time, and Dr. Skene enlisted and served as a doctor for the Union Army, seeing the aftermath of some of the worst battles in the war.

After the war, he returned to Brooklyn, and became an adjunct professor at LICH. He soon gained great renown for his skills as a diagnostician. The horrors of war may have influenced his move into the relatively new field of gynecology and women’s medicine, and by the 1880s, he was one of the most influential doctors in the field. (more…)

12/12/14 10:45am

Brighton Beach hotel, composite

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Even though winter has not even officially begun, already we are getting nostalgic over the thought of summer. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a luxurious summer resort by the sea, where you could have accommodations worthy of your pocketbook and status? There you could be waited on hand and foot, enjoy fine dining, be entertained by the biggest stars of the day, and best of all, enjoy the cool, salty breezes and one of the finest beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. Would you have journey to Palm Beach or some Caribbean Island? Nope, you could take the subway. Because the beach resorts of Gravesend, Brooklyn were the place to be back in the latter quarter of the 19th century.

It all started with a man named William A. Engelman, who had made a fortune during the Civil War selling horses to the Union Army. He took some of that money and bought several hundred acres of beachfront property in Gravesend for the princely sum of $20,000. This was in 1869. He had big dreams, and he named his beachfront property Brighton Beach, after the famous resort town in England, a popular summer destination for British royalty and the aristocracy. (more…)

12/11/14 3:00pm

56 Court St. Christopher D. Brazee for LPC 1

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Originally the “Collegiate Building”, now mixed-use commercial/residential
Address: 56 Court Street
Cross Streets: Joralemon Street and Aitken Place
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights border/Downtown Brooklyn
Year Built: 1926-1927
Architectural Style: Neo-Gothic
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: Yes, part of the Brooklyn Skyscraper District (2012)

The story: Court Street has a fascinating history, and is one of Brooklyn’s most important streets. In the 19th century, the blocks that run through Downtown, and make up Brooklyn Heights’ northern border were a mixture of commercial and residential buildings. This address was part of a group of mid-19th century four and five story brownstone buildings that had retail stores on the ground floors and residential or office space above.

The blocks between Joralemon and Atlantic had all kinds of things going on in them, including theaters, assembly halls, offices, shops and rooming houses. The two buildings that stood on this location prior to this one had a very musical heritage. This address was home to the Mollenhauer Conservatory of Music in 1874, as well as Smith and Bunce Pianos, later in the century, and in 1907, Muller’s Orchestra. There were also rooms for rent. In 1921, a distraught man who worked as a plumber, and who rented a furnished room here, committed suicide by inhaling gas from a tube. He left a note to his mother saying that life was not worth the struggle. (more…)

12/11/14 10:45am

Isaac Reynolds, 196-202 Mac D St. CB, PS

Isaac Delamater Reynolds began his career at a time when many of our row house blocks were not designed by architects as we know them now. They were designed and built by builders, carpenters and masons who used plan books and their own extensive experience to build this mostly speculative housing. Sure, there were architects around, but they were busy with other things, like churches, banks, schools and other commercial buildings, or were designing homes for the wealthy. Some of them, like Minard Lefever and Alexander Jackson Davis, were also busy writing those plan and style books that the builders were using.

Reynolds was a contemporary of Amzi Hill, and both men designed in the same neighborhoods. They got their training before the Civil War, and both began practicing in Brooklyn in the early 1860s. Isaac Reynolds didn’t leave much of a personal footprint, unlike later architects like Montrose Morris,William Tubby and Rudolfe Daus, but he left a legacy of buildings that can be matched by only a few. (more…)