Editor’s Note: This post originally ran in 2015 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.
Sailors from all over the world stepped onto Brooklyn’s shores along the Red Hook waterfront. Sailors have often lost themselves in more ways than one on the piers of foreign ports, and Brooklyn was as tempting or as frightening a place as anywhere else.
Some of the local churches saw these sailors as a worthy social and religious harvest of souls, and established mission churches and chapels near many different parts of the Brooklyn waterfront. Here in Red Hook, the evangelical zeal was provided by members of the Methodist Episcopal Church.
Many of the sailors, as well as local workers, were Scandinavian. The Bethelship Norwegian Methodist Church and the Brooklyn and Long Island Church Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church established a mission in a much older church building and rectory at this location at 46 Sullivan Street in 1911. In 1918, the Bethelship Branch of the YMCA was established here.
By the 1920s, the mission had vastly outgrown the old church, and needed to expand. The Young Men’s Christian Association wanted to build the first YMCA specifically for merchant seamen here at this location. The cornerstone of the building was laid with great ceremony in July of 1921.
The official name of this building was the James Harvey Williams Memorial Hall. The money for the building was donated by William’s widow and their son. J.H. Williams Junior laid the cornerstone brick with a silver trowel at the event.
The building was to be equipped with 95 dormitory rooms, a restaurant, billiards room, showers and baths, reading and writing rooms, and classrooms for religious education, an employment office, and other activity rooms to keep a sailor on shore and out of trouble. A room cost 45 cents a night, or $2.80 per week.
The facility also had an infirmary, a barbershop, tailor’s shop, athletic facilities, and a locker room for storing one’s possessions. If a sailor died while at shore for any reason, the Hall could also arrange burial or transport, and notification of relatives.
The Bethelship Seamen’s Branch, as most people referred to it, opened in the spring of 1922. A plaque honoring the merchant marine sailors who died in World War I was installed as well. The names of the men from the Bethelship who died at sea during the war were engraved on its face.
The Branch was active from 1922 to the early months of 1948. By then, the changing demographics of the Red Hook piers and the shipping industry as a whole had taken its toll on the resources of the Branch. The arrival of the BQE didn’t help either.
Many of the services of Bethelship were taken over by other agencies and other YMCA branches. The building was sold, and later in 1948 reopened as the Sullivan Hotel. Local histories also say it held government offices as well, after the hotel closed.
But by the end of the 1970s, and into the early ’80s, it was just another abandoned wreck. A Red Hook native commented on the Forgotten NY website that he and his friends used the abandoned building as a clubhouse when they were kids. The 1982 tax photo from the Municipal Archives bears that out.
The building was purchased for $5,000 by Mathew Coleman, a Con Ed mechanic, in 1983. He eventually sold it, hopefully at a great profit, and today, it’s housing. The building now has 20 apartments. I think the building should bring back the name “The Bethelship.”
In 2013, an arts project called the National Register of Historic Places, 2013 Additions, Brooklyn, N.Y., placed faux historic plaques resembling real National Register bronze plaques on 10 buildings throughout Brooklyn. All were forgotten historic buildings or places. This was one of them.
This building is a great addition to the city, and it would be wonderful if it could really be put on the Register. It was declared eligible for the Register, but not listed, in 2016. I hope the artists commemorate many more forgotten places with plaques.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
- The Slow Decay of a 19th Century Grain Storehouse in Red Hook
- Still Hard to Get To, but No Longer Red: How Red Hook Got Its Name
- Walkabout: The Brooklyn YMCA