Building of the Day: 3902 3rd Avenue

Illustration from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1893

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Eighth Ward Bank, now mixed-use commercial and residential
Address: 3902 3rd Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner 39th Street
Neighborhood: Sunset Park
Year Built: 1893
Architectural Style: Romanesque/Renaissance Revival
Architect: William H. Beers
Other works by architect: Liebmann Building, Downtown Fulton Street, 87 Remsen Street and other row houses in Park Slope, factory buildings in Williamsburg and Sunset Park
Landmarked: No

The story: The behemoth superstructure of the BQE has taken the charm out of 3rd Avenue, which was always an important commercial street in the Gowanus and Sunset Park areas. At the turn of the 20th century, the street had the same kinds of fine buildings that were seen on the other commercial blocks, like 4th and 5th avenues. But as the shadow of the highway, and the noise of industry overpowered charm, the street lost a lot of its architectural interest. But here and there, a trace of what was still remains, although now covered with, well…stuff. This building fared a bit better than most, and it’s still here, and has a great story to tell.

The three-story building was built for John C. Kelley’s Eighth Ward Bank. Kelley was an Irish immigrant who turned himself into one of those great American success stories. He was born in Galway in 1839, and came here with his parents as a child. He came to New York City as a teenager, eager to make his fortune. He ended up in the water meter manufacturing business, and being of a mechanical mind, he invented his own version of the water meter.

This was around 1869. The Civil War was over, and Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds. The city fathers had figured out a new way to put money in city coffers, and that was to charge for water usage for businesses. Every commercial building had to have a water meter installed. It just so happened that Kelley’s meter was superior to most, and in 1870, he became president of his National Water Meter Company. He made a fortune.

He took some of his money and had a fabulous mansion built on Hancock Street, in Bedford, for his very large family. It was designed by Montrose Morris, and is one of Bedford Stuyvesant’s most famous buildings. Like any good capitalist of his day, the next stop was either politics or a bank. Kelley did both. In 1893 he founded, and was the president of the Eighth Ward Bank.

The bank opened in a building at 3rd Avenue and 49th Street, for a while, the first neighborhood bank in South Brooklyn. Kelley was only at this location until his new bank, designed by William H. Beers was completed. Kelley must have been pleased, as Beers went on to design a large new factory for the National Water Meter Company two years later, only a few blocks away, at 42nd Street and 1st Avenue.

The bank was located in the heart of South Brooklyn’s business district, according to the Eagle. It was near the ferry to Manhattan, and the new factories and warehouses growing up along the waterfront. Kelley and his board, which included a lot of old Brooklyn money, was counting on the business of these growing companies, as well as the patronage of the homeowners of the nearby town of New Utrecht, now parts of Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. This was the only bank in the area at the time.

To that end, Beers designed a handsome bank for this corner. The sketch in the Eagle, shown below, illustrates what the building used to look like, a handsome structure of Roman brick, Indiana limestone and terra-cotta, with many details on the façade that are long gone. The bank’s entrance was on 3rd Avenue, through a tiled vestibule, and the interior was furnished with quartered oak, and had an office for the president and the cashier in the front.

In the back was the teller’s booth, with a large vault visible to all, behind the teller’s station. The bank advertised that it had an electric alarm system that was connected to the police station, which would respond to any attempts at tampering or breaking in. There were more offices and rooms at the rear of the building. The bank only occupied the first floor, the top two floors were rented out as flats. Tenants entered on the 39th Street side of the building. The bank building had its grand opening on Dec. 31, 1893.

The Eighth Ward Bank did as well as expected for several years. John C. Kelley went into politics, and was appointed as Vice President of the Brooklyn Board of Education, and was later appointed Revenue Collector of New York City’s First District by President Grover Cleveland. He later became President of the Board of Education of the entire City of New York under Mayor Seth Low.

The bank had an interesting future, which I plan on exploring in my Walkabout column. Long story short, it was acquired by the Borough Bank of Brooklyn in 1903. The Borough Bank went down in flames in 1914, due to a massive bank scandal. John C. Kelley also died in 1914. The building was sold in auction in 1923. By this time, Bush Terminal had grown to be one of the city’s largest employers, with thousands of men looking for relaxation and entertainment after work.

In 1926, this was the Blue Ribbon Pleasure Club. In February of 1926, the place was raided, and police arrested 14 people, and turned out 140 others from the club, busting the place for illegal gambling, liquor and narcotics. When the police burst in, they found the club full of people around roulette wheels, blackjack and card tables, and they busted a woman on the third floor smoking opium, with opium pipes all around, and a large quantity of alcohol and drugs on the premises. There’s probably more to this part of this building’s interesting history to be discovered.

Today, it’s a store, and still has tenants above. It had its pyramid shaped tower up until the 1980s, at least, when the tax photo was taken. Too bad that’s gone. It narrowly missed being destroyed, as it sits on the corner where the ramp from the BQE comes down to deliver eager shoppers to the bargains at Costco. Who knew this building had such a history? GMAP

(Photo: Kate Leonova for PropertyShark)

Illustration from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1893

Illustration from the Brooklyn Eagle, 1893

1980s tax photo: Municipal Archives

1980s tax photo: Municipal Archives

Photo: Kate Leonova for Property Shark

Photo: Kate Leonova for PropertyShark

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