Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Former Grace Church Reading Room, now co-op apartments
Address: 62 Joralemon Street
Cross Streets: Hicks and Willow Place
Neighborhood: Brooklyn Heights
Year Built: 1895
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival
Architect: Washington Hull and James Hewlett of Lord, Hewlett & Hull
Other Buildings by Architect: William Clark mansion, Manhattan (demolished), 70th Precinct in Kensington, mausoleums in Woodlawn Cemetery, the Bronx, and several suburban mansions.
Landmarked: Yes, part of Brooklyn Heights Historic District (1966)
The story: This morning, in my Walkabout column, I began the story of the life and career of Washington Hull, one of Brooklyn’s many forgotten architects. He didn’t design very much in Brooklyn, but he was a part of the large architectural community that was quite busy at the turn of the 20th century. One of his few Brooklyn buildings was this Reading Room, designed for Grace Episcopal Church in Brooklyn Heights. It was designed by Hull, along with one of his partners, James M. Hewlett, of Lord, Hewlett & Hull. The three principles of the company had all worked together at McKim, Mead & White when they decided they had the experience and talent to go out on their own. This was one of their first commissions.
James Hewlett and Washington Hull were both from Brooklyn, and were cheered by the press as representing the borough in the high stakes game of big time architecture. They, along with Austin Lord, were coming down from a second place win in an important competition to design the new Philadelphia Museum of Art. They came back to Brooklyn with a $3,000 consolation prize, and were awarded the design for the Reading Room.
The funding for the project came from William Low, the stepson of Abiel Abbott Low, one of Brooklyn’s city fathers, and step-brother of Seth Low, former mayor of Brooklyn, current President of Columbia College, and future mayor of New York City. Mr. Low wanted to give his church, Grace Episcopal, a fine reading room and library building that could also house greater community events and programs for children. He purchased a nice 39 foot wide lot located around the corner from the church.
The building sits on a granite basement, and is made of brick, with Tennessee marble trim. The building was the first in Brooklyn to be built with a new fire retarding building system called Columbian fireproofing. The first floor held the super’s office, a coat room, and a gymnasium, complete with locker rooms, dressing and shower rooms. The entire second floor was taken up by a large auditorium. It measured 23×54 feet, and would be used for meetings as well as boy’s drill exercises.
The reading room and the library were located on the third floor, and the top floor was reserved for a music room and two classrooms. The tower held a staircase that led to the flat roof. It had a parapet around the perimeter, and since the building was taller than most of the surrounding row houses, offered viewers an unparalleled view of the harbor, Manhattan and beyond.
The Brooklyn Eagle article that described the building also noted that the interior would be furnished simply and practically. The floors in the most trafficked areas were to be paved in a smooth brick. The cost of the building, including furnishings, was estimated to be around $100,000. A fine gift, indeed. The Low family and their descendants owned the building, and leased it to Grace Church for $1 a year for 90 years.
By the 1940s, the building had been subleased to other non-profit organizations. During this time, it was known as the Low Memorial Building, and was headquarters to South Brooklyn Neighborhood Houses, originally the Little Italy Neighborhood Association, founded in 1904. They were one of the many settlement houses organized to aid poor children and their mothers with meals, activities and classes. They were a popular and successful charity among Brooklyn Heights’ elite, with many fund raising events such as Manhattan theater parties and dinners at the Hotel Bossert and the Hotel St. George.
In 1969, South Brooklyn Neighborhood House and Colony House, another settlement house, merged to form Colony South Brooklyn Houses, which is now located at 297 Dean Street. (Another BOTD) The building was rented to the YMCA, which operated here from 1970 to 1985. In 1981, the last surviving child of William Gilman Low died, leaving the building to Grace Episcopal.
By 1985, the church felt that the sale of the building, which was deteriorating faster then they could repair it, would allow them to afford to do some much needed repairs to the church. The Grace Church Reading Room was sold for $400,000 to a developer who converted it to four large co-op apartments. The YMCA used their ouster to consolidate all of their facilities, which were all over Brooklyn Heights, into one large new facility, now on Atlantic Avenue. William Low’s lasting gift was a win-win for all concerned.
(Photograph: Scott Bintner for PropertyShark)