Courting History in East New York

Editor’s note: This story is an update of one that ran in 2013. Read the original here.

If you look in the frieze above the columns on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of this building, you can still see the faded ghosts of the “Magistrate’s Court” signage. This handsome Greek temple at 135 Pennsylvania Avenue in East New York was once the courthouse for this busy neighborhood. Pennsylvania Avenue was once the grand boulevard of East New York.

As you proceed down the street, from Atlantic Avenue, large bank buildings, this court house, the old police precinct, and fine homes still line the street. Many of these buildings have been greatly altered, and none of them have their original function, but they are still there, reminders that this neighborhood was once the fastest growing section of Brooklyn, the prosperous and busy 26th Ward.

135 pennsylvania

Even before Brooklyn became part of greater New York City, the magistrate courts were used in both cities. They were the police courts, where low level criminals were arraigned, and cases heard. Brooklyn had several of these courts, the most notable being the Magistrate’s Court on Gates Avenue, in Bedford, and the Magistrate’s Courts on 4th Avenue in Sunset Park, and the one in Coney Island, on West 8th Street.

All of these courthouses had precinct houses very close by. The Gates Avenue court was just down the street from the precinct, Sunset Park was across the street, and the Coney Island precinct was in the same building. The precinct house for this courthouse in East New York was also not too far away, on Liberty and Miller.

135 pennsylvania avenue

Boro President Byrne at the cornerstone ceremony in 1929. Photo via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

By 1918, there were 31 magistrate’s courts in the entire city. A growing metropolis meant a growing crime rate. In the late 1920s, early 1930s, the city built 11 court buildings, among which were the Magistrate’s Court at 4201 4th Avenue and this one. The East New York Court was built in 1929; the Sunset Park building was built two years later, in 1931. Both employed the same architect; Mortimer Dickerson Metcalf. Both buildings are also very similar in design.

135 Pennsylvania avenue

Metcalf was born in 1880, and worked for a time for the prestigious firm of Warren & Wetmore, the architects of Grand Central Terminal. He would have been well trained in the classically inspired designs of the Beaux-Arts period. He split his career between buildings here and in Palm Beach, Florida, where he was responsible for the Palm Beach Hotel, and several other significant buildings. He eventually retired permanently to Florida, where he died in 1957.

The Magistrate’s Court on Pennsylvania Avenue was in use as a traffic and criminal court until 1962, when the city court system was reorganized and centralized, and all of the local magistrate’s courts became obsolete. Today it is home to the Police Athletic League, the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Community Center, and the offices for Community Board 5.

135 Pennsylvania avenue

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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