Building of the Day: Prospect Park Boathouse

Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Audubon Center at the Boathouse, formerly the Prospect Park Boathouse
Address: Prospect Park
Cross Streets: Near the Lullwater
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1905
Architectural Style: Renaissance Revival/Beaux Arts
Architect: Helmle & Huberty, 1999 restoration – Ralph Carmosino
Other buildings by architect: Tennis House in PP. St. Barbara’s Church, Bushwick. St. Gregory’s Church, Crn Hts North. Bossert Hotel, Bklyn Hts.
Landmarked: Yes, Individual landmark 1968, National Register of Historic Places, 1972.

The story: If I could ever decide on a definitive list of the ten best buildings in Brooklyn, I’d have to find room for this one. It’s simply, and in the best sense of the word simply, magnificent. It also has a great history, and we are very lucky that it’s still here. When Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed this great park, they built man-made structures to enhance the natural beauty of the park, and provide places to congregate for events, or sit and enjoy the natural preserve. The first boathouse, built in 1876, sat on piers, and faced south. In 1905, this Classically inspired, terra-cotta encased building was designed to replace it. It faces west, purposefully placed to catch the sunsets over the water.

Frank Helmle and Ulrich Huberty are among Brooklyn’s finest architects, both producing excellent work, mostly in the White Cities, City Beautiful, Beaux Arts style of the early 20th century. Frank Helmle worked in the offices of McKim, Mead & White, who were masters of the style, where he obviously paid attention. He landed a lot of city contracts as Superintendent of Public Buildings in Brooklyn, a post he held from 1902 until at least 1913. This building was built during that time.

The partners based the design on the first floor of Jacopo Sansovino’s design for the Library of St. Mark, a 16th century building in Venice. It is much simplified from the original, showing Helmle’s expertise at taking inspiration of the great buildings of the past, without slavishly copying them. His St. Gregory and St. Barbara churches are also a fine testament to his skill in that regard. The building is clad in gleaming white terra-cotta, and positively glows in the sunlight. Historians have postulated that Olmsted and Vaux would have hated this building, as it is very reminiscent of the English folly tradition of putting classical temples in the landscapes of their estates, and does is not an organic structure, like their buildings and tunnels. Be that as it may, this remains one of the park’s most popular destinations.

We almost didn’t have it to love. During the 20th century, the boats were moved elsewhere, and the building was used for a number of purposes, and was not maintained, and was horribly rundown, a story repeated in all of our public parks’ histories. In 1964, Brooklyn poet Marianne Moore, and other preservationists rallied to save the boathouse, and managed to do so literally 48 hours before it was scheduled to be torn down. The Landmarks Law was passed in 1966, and the Boathouse was declared a city landmark in 1968, even before the park itself was landmarked in 1975. The Boathouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.

In 1971, the building received a new terra-cotta façade, but it was a botched job that used non-waterproof materials, and the building had to be closed in 1997 due to extensive water damage. In 1999, a $5 million dollar restoration was done to the entire building, in the process, creating the Audubon Nature Center, the first urban nature center of its kind. The restoration was designed by the Prospect Park Alliance Design and Construction team, including architect Ralph Carmosino, landscape architect Christian Zimmerman and construction supervisor Paul Daley. Well done, and thank you! GMAP

Photo: Prospect Park Alliance

Original Boathouse, 1904 postcard

Postcard from 1911.

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