Past and Present: 44 Clinton Street

1921 Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

I wish this one was still with us. It’s a delightfully inventive building designed by an important and imaginative architect, and it would be fun to just be able to walk by this one, on one of Brooklyn Heights’ premiere streets. But, alas, it’s gone, leaving this photograph as the only visual evidence that on this site, at 44 Clinton Street between Pierrepont Street and Cadman Plaza West, once stood the Brooklyn College Club.

In 1919, a group of alumni from Brooklyn Preparatory School and College wanted to start an alumni club. The college was not the Brooklyn College we know today in Midwood, which wasn’t established until the 1930s, but was part of the exclusive Jesuit school in Crown Heights, whose campus buildings now makes up the core of Medgar Evers College.

After meeting in various places on campus for a few years, the club began publically looking for a new location, and bought 44 Clinton Street in 1921. They paid $40,000 for this six story building, measuring 25 by 100 feet, and began to renovate it for their use, installing bowling alleys, a restaurant, a full gymnasium and a roof garden. When they opened, they had over 600 members, as the club was open to all alumni of the prep school or college.

The architect of this neo-Tudor confection was James Sarsfield Kennedy, who went by J. Sarsfield. He was an inventive architect, a fast-moving and fast-talking diminutive man who was well on his way with a lucrative career as one of Brooklyn’s busiest and best architects of the period. He is best known for his “Gingerbread House,” the Arts and Crafts stone cottage he built in 1916 for Howard and Bessie Jones in Bay Ridge.

He also has many other fine buildings in his portfolio, including the fairytale castle of a boathouse he designed for the Crescent Athletic Club, which incidentally, is just next door to 44 Clinton. The walls of that most exclusive of Brooklyn’s athletic clubs butt up next to this house on the left, and can be seen in both the period and modern photographs. Kennedy was an active member of the Crescent and was a star on their hockey team.

During this time in Kennedy’s career, he and his partners were busy buying up Brooklyn Heights residential properties, renovating and “modernizing” them for resale as apartment buildings. That’s right — we can blame this guy for removing stoops and period detail in many houses in the Heights. I’ll be writing more about that soon.

He often redid facades as well, but rarely to the extent of this house, which makes me think it was an infill new build. I was not able to find any record one way or another. At any rate, Kennedy and his partners owned the building and are the sellers of record when the club purchased it. Whether he redid the façade, or it’s a new building, it’s a highly inventive take on a Tudor theme, with half-timber and stucco trim and wonderful large multi-paned leaded windows.

Alumni activities at the club included boxing matches and basketball games; both the prep school and college had strong teams in both sports. The club also hosted alumni fund raisers, lectures and other events. But that only sustains a building so much, and bills need to be paid, so mostly the Brooklyn College Club rented out its space to other colleges, clubs and athletic concerns. They hosted charity events like the annual Brooklyn Heights Society Circus and the annual dances for the girls of nearby St. Francis College.

There are literally hundreds of entries in local papers with the BCC name attached, and most of them are in reference to the boxing matches and basketball games that took place there. Most of the games were amateur matches between other sports clubs, and college alumni teams. With the Crescent Club right next door, the BCC was also used by their boxing team for training and matches.

But all of this wasn’t sufficient for very long. By 1924, the club was petitioning the court for permission to sell, a condition of its not-for-profit status. The building was too small for their needs, they said. The boxing and basketball matches were its lifeblood, and there just wasn’t enough room in what was essentially a house for spectators and participants. They also said that the club was not located in a good place for them: It was too far away from where most members lived, and they wanted to relocate back to the area around the campus in Crown Heights.

Permission was granted, and the club building was sold. There are conflicting newspaper accounts as to who actually bought it. One paper I referenced, the Brooklyn Standard Union, says that the buyer was John Kay, who planned to turn the club into apartments. The Brooklyn Eagle said that an undertaker named William Boardman bought it for a mortuary chapel. I would need to dig further into records not available online to determine what happened to the building next.

Whoever did buy it, and whatever they or subsequent owners did with it, by 1964 it would be gone, torn down with the rest of the block for the Cadman Plaza urban renewal project. (This took place sometime in the 1950s or a bit later.) The apartment building that is there now was built in 1964. The garage door leading to underground parking is at the site of the Brooklyn College Club. The Crescent Club is still here, thank goodness, and has been the home of St. Ann’s School since 1966. GMAP

1921 Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

Photo: Google Maps

Crescent Athletic Club, on corner of Pierrepont and Cllinton. The Brooklyn College Club is only a few pixels at the rear of the club, along the rowhouse block of Clinton Street. None of those buildings survived. Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

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