Classical Judgement: The Courthouse of Sunset Park

Editors note: This post originally ran in 2011 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

Sunset Park is a great neighborhood that has very few remaining civic buildings, and this courthouse at 4201 4th Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd streets, is one of the best. The courthouse was built to house the magistrate and municipal courts.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

Before all the courts were centralized downtown in 1962, Brooklyn had at least four different neighborhood courthouses that handled a good amount of the local arraignments and court business for the borough. (One of them was the Gates Avenue Courthouse in Bedford Stuyvesant).

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

The 1930s were a boom time for New York City courthouse building, probably due to the Great Depression, and this building was deemed necessary to law and order in this part of Brooklyn. Like most city courthouses, it was affiliated with a nearby police station. The 68th Precinct was just across the street.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

The courthouse in 1933. Photo via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Classical-style buildings lend themselves well to civic structures; there’s something about the columns, the classic temple shape, that adds gravitas and the weight of law to these structures. The architect, Mortimer Dickerson Metcalfe, designed a very nice building indeed. Construction began in 1930 and the building was completed in early 1933.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

Sunset Park was a bustling industrial part of Brooklyn then, with Bush Terminal and the piers only blocks away from here, with lots of maritime and manufacturing business. But beginning in the late 1940s, the 3rd Avenue El was torn down, the subsequent building of the BQE isolated the neighborhood, manufacturing started to disappear, and the maritime jobs moved to New Jersey.

The courthouse was closed in 1962. Community Board 7 and various other community and social service entities used the building for many years, with little or no upkeep or improvements.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

By 1987, the place was a mess, and the City finally allocated some renovation money. But it wasn’t until 1996 that Helpern Architects finished an extensive exterior renovation. They cleaned and repointed the stone, replaced the windows, added air conditioning, and restored the facade, copper flashing and roof. The Police Department then moved in with their Applicant Processing Division.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

The building was designated an individual landmark in 2001. Today, the building is still in good shape. There is something in the New York City water that makes the City put the same ugly doors on every building they control, old or new, but all in all, the courthouse is still a fine reminder that good architecture can survive and be repurposed.

brooklyn architecture 4201 4th avenue courthouse sunset park

[Photos by Susan De Vries]

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