Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Architects-Frank Freeman

The Behr Mansion. Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Part of the fun in researching the architects and building styles of Brownstone Brooklyn is in piecing together an architect’s style by looking at the buildings he has designed. Many architects often found what they did well, and kept doing it, until that style fell out of favor, or they stopped designing. The best of them often kept with a specific style, but exercised great variety within that style, and then moved on as the markets changed.

Unfortunately, some of the best of Brooklyn’s architects left behind great works, and next to no information about themselves. Frank Freeman, who the AIA Guide’s Norval White called Brooklyn’s finest architect, is one of those men.

We know he born in 1861, in Ontario, Canada, and shows up in the Brooklyn directories as an architect at the age of 24, in 1885. His education and apprenticeship remains a mystery, but two years later, he begins a string of successful large projects that would do any architect proud today. He kept an office in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, but he lived in Brooklyn Heights, and was a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church.

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Photo via Brooklyn Life

Most of his best known projects were in the Heights/Downtown/Fulton Landing area, although he designed buildings in Bushwick, Park Slope, and Riverside Drive, in Manhattan. In 1888, he designed one of Brooklyn’s largest and most beloved apartment hotels, the Hotel Margaret, on Columbia Heights and Orange St. Photographs show a towering large hotel with Romanesque Revival details, terra-cotta and pressed tin ornament and what looks like a ballroom or public rooms on the top floor, with what must have been stunning river views. Sadly, it burned down in an immense fire in 1980, and was replaced by a modern apartment building for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

His other great commission of 1888 is still standing, and is a favorite of Brooklyn architecture buffs- the wonderful Herman Behr Mansion, on the corner of Pierrepont and Henry. This house is a riotous combination of Romanesque Revival design, in brick, rough cut brownstone, terra-cotta and stained glass.

The house we see today has been enlarged, and the canopy over the doorway is not original, but a recent cleaning emphasizes the whimsical menagerie of creatures cavorting over Freeman’s original facade. Look closely for dragons, lizards and lions in the most unexpected places, executed along with a staggering amount of terra-cotta trim, by anonymous masters of their craft. Speaking of cavorting, the Behr Mansion was perhaps most famous as a house of ill repute in the 1920’s, when the rear addition was added. Ironically, it later became home to the Franciscan Brothers of nearby St. Francis College, before being converted into apartments.

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Montrose Morris, the Parfitt Brothers and William Tubby, Freeman was a master of the Romanesque Revival style. His use of the characteristic soaring arches and massed shapes is best seen in his two most famous buildings still standing: the Brooklyn Fire Headquarters (1892) on Jay St, and the Eagle Warehouse and Storage Building on Old Fulton Street. (1893).

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Fire headquarters. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

After 1893’s World’s Columbia Exhibition, in Chicago, American architecture took a keen interest in the Classical tradition, with its light colored buildings with motifs and design elements influenced by traditional Greek and Roman architecture. Some architects, like Montrose Morris and Frank Freeman, adapted this style to their own repertoire, and from this period comes Freeman’s Crescent Athletic Club, (1906), on Pierrepont and Clinton, now St. Anne’s School, and the Brooklyn Union Gas Company Building, (1914), on Remsen St. between Court and Clinton, now St. Francis College, which installed the ecclesiastic stained glass panels on the ground floor.

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Crescent Athletic Club, 1910. Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Brooklyn Savings bank, 1912. Image via eBay

Unfortunately, most of Frank Freeman’s other buildings which added so much to Brooklyn’s civic life have not survived. We no longer have the Thomas Jefferson Association Building, which stood at Boerum Place and Fulton St, the Germania Club, which had a large 1000 seat theatre, on Schermerhorn between Smith and Boerum, the Brooklyn Savings Bank, on Pierrepont and Clinton, the Bushwick Democratic Club on Bushwick and Hart, or the Guido Pleissner House, on Plaza St and Lincoln Place in Park Slope. In Manhattan, he was responsible for the now demolished Samuel Gamble Bayne House on Riverside Drive and 108th St, and opposite that, on the same intersection, the Henry F.S. Davis House, also replaced by apartment buildings.

Although appreciated and lauded by contemporary and modern architecture critics, Frank Freeman is not a household name, except among his many Brooklyn fans. He died in 1949, and days before the late architectural historian Alan Burnham could reach them, Freeman’s family threw out all of his records and papers.

In 1995, Andrew Dolkart, one of today’s most important architectural historians, and chair of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program in the School of Architecture, curated an exhibit of Frank Freeman’s work, a modest show of photos and text, in Brooklyn Heights. Had it not been for the admiration of Prof. Dolkart, and fellow architectural historians, such as Elliot Willensky and Norval White, of the AIA Guide to NY, and Francis Marrone, author of An Architectural Guildbook to Brooklyn, as well as the preservation efforts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and concerned residents, we may not have been introduced to what remains of the work of one of Brooklyn’s best.

Check out historical and contemporary photos of Frank Freeman’s architectural works on Flickr. Sources for this piece: F. Marrone’s Guildbook to Brooklyn, AIA Guide to NY, and the NY Times.

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Hotel Margaret, 1952. photo via Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn History -- Architect Frank Freeman

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

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