Walkabout: Peter J. Lauritzen, Architect

I would love to find out who designed all of the great old buildings that grace our neighborhoods. This will never happen. Sadly in our great city, records are incomplete, records are missing, or mis-filed, or they just don’t exist.

Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and a name will be mentioned, perhaps in a puff piece, or an announcement of intent in the Brooklyn Eagle, or the New York Times. Sometimes you come across a work order in a folder, or that miracle of miracles, the blueprints to a building, and there, in the corner…..is the name of the architect.

This happened to me recently at the DOB. I had compiled a list of buildings, none of which were landmarked, in several neighborhoods, and I asked for the files at the DOB.

After explaining that I was doing research, and after being told that these files were all in the dirty basement, which the clerk would have to dig for, and after waiting quite a while in the land of chaos, the clerk, who was really very nice and helpful, came back with only one of the addresses I had requested. To my great surprise, the house I was investigating, as well as its companion next door, was designed by Peter J. Lauritzen. I should have guessed.

Peter J. Lauritzen, although not as well known, or as prolific as some of his contemporaries, was an exceptionally fine architect. It turns out he was also a really interesting guy, too. He was born in 1847, in Jutland, Denmark, and was educated in Copenhagen.

Peter J. Lauritzen Architect

Photo via the Landmarks Preservation Commission

He immigrated to Washington, DC, in the late 1860’s, and worked for the supervising architect of the Treasury Dept. In 1875, he was appointed architect for the city of Washington, DC, and from 1875 to 1883 did double duty as the consul for the Danish government.

He left DC in 1883, and came to NY, where he headed the Jackson Architectural Iron Works, an old and successful producer of iron building components. Two years later he opened his own architectural firm. Although he was not invited to participate, he submitted a proposal anyway, and won the commission for the Manhattan Athletic Club, which used to stand on Madison and 45th St.

This boldness, and a great design, led to many buildings in Brooklyn during the late 1880’s and 1890’s.

Peter J. Lauritzen Architect

His two most well known buildings are the Union League Club, on Grant Square, at the corner of Dean Street and Bedford Avenue, in Crown Heights North, which was built in 1889-90, and the Offerman Building, on Fulton Street, in Downtown Brooklyn, built from 1890-93.

The Union League Club was built for the powerful Republican Party, as a place for the pleasant discharge of civic duty. It was a place for Republicans to gather and have fun, and network.

The large Romanesque Revival building is best remembered for the busts of Lincoln and Grant, and an enormous eagle corbel holding up a bay, all on the Bedford Avenue facade. When it was built, and for many years afterward, the club sported a corner tower and observation deck, dormer eyebrow windows and a Mediterranean tile roof, all of which were removed in the 1970’s.

It was one of the most photographed buildings in Brooklyn, appearing on scores of postcards and in guidebooks, and was an anchor for Grant Square, so named for the William Ordway Partridge sculpture of Ulysses S. Grant on horseback, which stands in the traffic island directly opposite the club. The Union League Club commissioned and installed the statue in 1896.

Inside, the club had dining rooms, reception rooms, a library, and its own electric plant in the basement, which had 2 engines and 2 dynamos, an amazing feature for the time. It also had its own bowling alley and shooting gallery as well.

The Club’s members included some of Brooklyn’s most influential and powerful men, and in an advanced move for the time, also allowed women as members. The Brooklyn Eagle is full of references to the many speakers, and events that took place there, and the names of the members who attended.

It reads like a Who’s Who of turn of the century society. Montrose Morris was a member, as was Peter Lauritzen himself. In the early part of the 20th Century, the Republican Party split, and the resulting acrimony caused the club to lose so many members that it could not continue.

In 1913, it was sold to the Unity Club, a Jewish organization, and the building later became a yeshiva. Many years later, in the 1970’s, it became a senior citizen center, which it is today. It was landmarked when Crown Heights North, Phase I was designated in 2007.

Lauritzen’s other large public work was the Offerman Building, on Fulton Street, in the shopping district. Today it is better known as Conway’s Dept. Store, and the façade of the lower floors has been much altered over the years.

The Offerman building was built for Henry Offerman, a wealthy sugar magnate, who commissioned it for the S. Wechsler and Brother Store, in 1890. Offerman was also a Union League member and lived near Lauritzen in Williamsburg.

The building sits on an irregular sized lot, and is actually much larger than even the impressive 100′ Fulton St. façade implies, with an even longer side facing Duffield Street.

It is a huge Romanesque Revival building, with multi-story arcades, limestone face, and beautiful Byzantine Leaf trim, some of which spells out the name of the building and the date. Inside, even today, you can get an idea of the vastness of the space, with impressive columns and parts of the original ceiling still showing.

Originally, the store had five arches on the ground floor, with customers entering through the center arch. When it was built, this was one of the tallest buildings in Brooklyn. In 1946-47, architect Morris Lapidus installed the first floor polished granite arch and window grids, as well as a modern ground floor interior.

Lapidus, who went on to fame for his Miami Beach hotels, worked for Martins for ten years. After the renovations, the Brooklyn Eagle said gushed that these modifications did away with the gimcracks of the Victorian era.

S. Wechsler closed its doors in 1897, and the building was rented out to other retail concerns, the most famous, and long lasting being Martin’s Department Store, which occupied the space from 1924 to 1979.

Martin’s was one of the premier stores in the downtown area, with a well known bridal department, but its owners decided in 1979 that the store no longer related to the surrounding shopping area.

The building was slated to be torn down, but fortunately, it never was, and was later rented to Conway’s, and for upper story office space. It is in no danger of being torn down now, as it was declared an individual landmark in 2004. See more photos on Flickr.

Next: Conclusion club reno’s, firehouses, and private houses. Sources for this article are the LPC Designation reports for the Offerman Building and Crown Heights North, as well as the Brooklyn Eagle.

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

What's Happening