It is a bit of a surprise when one stumbles across it on Manhattan Avenue in the heart of Greenpoint — a wood-frame building with a Greek name and a bit of Swiss design flair. Keramos Hall, at 857-861 Manhattan Avenue, was a center for social activity in the late 19th century, suffered a wretched defacement in the 20th century, and was given a new life with a 21st century restoration.
This rather unusual building was constructed in 1886-1887 by Thomas C. Smith. While Smith was a builder — he developed property on Milton Street around the corner, including his own house at 136-138 Milton Street — he was also active in Greenpoint affairs and, notably, operated Greenpoint’s Union Porcelain Company, which made practical and decorative ceramics.
The ceramics business explains the name given to the building: Keramos is Greek for potter or pottery (and the word “ceramics” is derived from keramos).
From the start, the building was a mix of commercial on the ground floor and offices above. Local organizations such as the Greenpoint Hebrew Civic Council had offices in the building, and it was a popular spot for local business and community groups, such as the Greenpoint Taxpayers and Citizens Association and the Sons of Veterans, to hold banquets, dances and annual meetings.
By the 1880s, the Seventeenth Ward Young Men’s Republican Club was headquartered there. The club was described by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1892 as being “the swellest” — and its “dancing receptions” at the hall were part of the “club’s ceaseless round of entertainments.”
By the time of the designation of the Greenpoint Historic District in 1982, which includes the building, it was covered with siding and the distinctive tower roof and cornice were missing.
Despite being covered by siding, some details remained visible, including the blue and white Union Porcelain Company tiles facing the risers of the steps.
The building was restored to its full whimsy by Kamen Tall Architects in 2012. It received the Lucy G. Moses Award for the restoration and the Excellence in Preservation award from the Preservation League of New York State the following year. The project restored the splendor of the fretwork — including the griffins sitting sedately in the gables — and re-created some of the missing elements like the gable-capped roof on the square tower and the bracketed cornices.
The Wooden House Project conducted a fascinating interview about the restoration with the architect and the owner of the building, who acquired it in 1962.
The beautifully burnished Stick Style structure sits on the corner of Manhattan and Milton Streets and just across the street from another Greenpoint landmark, St. Anthony of Padua, built in 1873.
Pretty much everything about Keramos Hall is unusual, at least in today’s Brooklyn: The whimsical Swiss-style decorations, the use of wood for a large commercial building, and the Stick Style architecture.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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