Building of the Day: 999 St. Johns Place

Photo: Hiroki Kobayashi

(Photo: Bridge and Tunnel Club)

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: St. Gregory the Great R.C. Church
Address: 999 St. Johns Place
Cross Streets: Corner of Brooklyn Avenue
Neighborhood: Crown Heights North
Year Built: 1915-1916
Architectural Style: 5th Century Roman Basilica
Architect: Frank J. Helmle
Other works by architect: Boathouse and Tennis House, Prospect Park, St. Barbara’s RC Church, Bushwick, Bossert Hotel, Brooklyn Hts.
Landmarked: Yes, part of CHN, phase II (2011)

The story: My neighborhood of Crown Heights North is blessed with some of Brooklyn’s finest churches, built by different denominations, architects, and at different times, giving rise to a very varied and beautiful collection of houses of worship. St. Gregory’s is certainly one of the best, while also being one of last of the great churches to rise here in the neighborhood. To enter St. Gregory’s is to go back in time, and travel halfway around the world, back to the great basilicas of Rome, in the fifth century.

Frank J. Helmle, one of the most talented architects to make his mark in Brooklyn, was inspired by San Clemente and Santa Maria in Trastevere, two of the oldest basilicas in Rome. St Gregory’s is built of white brick and granite with terra-cotta and marble trim. The impressive Ionic columned portico of the front façade is topped with a huge wheel window, with niches and statues flanking the window. As impressive as that is, the seven story campanile tower that rises from the rear of the church on Brooklyn Avenue can be seen for miles around.

Helmle was a graduate of Cooper Union, and received further education from the School of Fine Arts of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, now the Brooklyn Museum. They had a first class architectural department, with many of Brooklyn’s finest architects on their staff and in their mentoring programs. Helmle went from there to the offices of McKim, Mead, and White, before striking out on his own. He was a master of re-interpreting the great building styles of Europe, especially in the classical vein, and all of his buildings, whether recreated, like St. Gregory’s, or original, like the Bossert, show great mastery of his craft.

As impressive as St. Gregory’s is from the outside, the visual treat from inside is breathtaking. The 5th century Roman basilica is also recreated here, with an open, wooden beamed ceiling, a narthex with massive side columns in marble, and magnificent stained glass, mosaics, stenciled ornament, and mural work. It is truly a magnificent work of art.

The church’s original congregation was Irish and Italian, today the church serves an African-American and Caribbean congregation, a very active congregation that has done its best to preserve the church and grounds, and the church is used to many community activities and programs. Helmle, along with his partners, also designed the adjoining rectory and school, both built in the 1920’s. Together, the church complex is a spiritual and physical anchor to the community, a great place to give thanks, in this season of giving. Happy Thanksgiving to all. GMAP

Photo: Hiroki Kobayashi

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