Walkabout: Favorite Brooklyn Buildings – Reader’s Choices

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Montrose Morris writes a guest post about Brooklyn architectural history…Continuing December’s topic of Favorite Brooklyn buildings, today’s choices have been supplied by the Brownstoner readership.

Our reader’s favorites this week are all counted among the best buildings of any kind in Brooklyn. They all date from a time when Brooklyn was coming into its own as a great city in its own right, and show the world that the architects who chose Brooklyn as their base were as talented and innovative as any in Manhattan, or the rest of America.

Reader Roby F’s favorite is the Boys High School, and from Minard Lefever, his namesake’s Packer Collegiate and the Fire Headquarters Building of Frank Freeman.

Brooklyn History -- Favorite Brooklyn Buildings

Public education for students above elementary school was a new concept for Brooklynites in the late 1800’s. When the Bklyn Board of Education established a high school system in 1878, new schools needed to be built.

The Superintendent of Buildings at that time was the highly talented Irish born architect, James Naughton, who designed both the Girls High School at Nostrand and Macon in 1886-6, and his masterpiece, Boys High School, several blocks away, at Marcy Avenue and Putnam Street.

Boys High opened in 1892, and is one of the most highly regarded examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the city, characterized by round arched openings, contrasting smooth and rough surfaced stone work, and most of all, powerful massing, often swelled with rounded bays, dormers, and towers.

Brooklyn History -- Favorite Brooklyn Buildings

As impressive as it is, the details still delight, especially the sculptured heads of schoolboys on the Marcy Ave. façade. The school counts as alumni such greats as Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov, William J. Levitt of Levittown, and iconic Miami Beach architect, Morris Lapidus.

The school was landmarked in 1975, and was restored in the 1990’s, and just had some more major work done this year. It now houses two charter schools. For more on James Naughton and his schools, read my Walkabout post from September.

While Brooklyn led the nation in advances in public education, private schools have long been available to the wealthy. Brooklyn Heights’ Packer Collegiate Academy was established in 1853, literally upon the burned ashes of the Brooklyn Female Academy. After a disastrous fire burned the school down that year, a new school for girls was funded by Mrs. Harriet Putnam Packer.

Brooklyn History -- Favorite Brooklyn Buildings

Her only stipulation accompanying her gift was that the school be named after her late husband. A design competition was held, and the winning design was submitted by Minard Lefever, a talented architect best known for his nearby Brooklyn churches, Holy Trinity, now St. Anne’s and Holy Trinity, on Montague and Clinton, and his Church of the Saviour. Packer Collegiate was Lefever’s last design, and the school’s doors opened in September 1854, two weeks before his death.

This is a great Tudor Gothic building, set back behind a beautiful cast iron fence, with towers, buttresses and magnificent two story windows.

The right tower once had a revolving dome, which was removed when the subway was constructed underneath Joralemon St, and over the years additional wings and have been added, and nearby St. Anne’s church, designed by Lefever contemporary, James Renwick has been incorporated into the school complex.

Brooklyn History -- Favorite Brooklyn Buildings

The school remained an all girl’s school until it went co-ed in 1972. A longer article is planned for Minard Lefever and his work. He was one of Brooklyn’s best.

The Romanesque Revival style of architecture was seen as the most appropriate style for important civic buildings in the 1880’s and ‘90’s. Like Boy’s High School, the Brooklyn Fire Headquarters, on Jay Street, near Willoughby, is a massive Romanesque building.

Its architect was the Canadian born Frank Freeman, whose other surviving great public building is the Eagle Warehouse and Storage building, featured on Tuesday.

Brooklyn History -- Favorite Brooklyn Buildings

As with the Eagle building, the Fire Headquarters’ most impressive feature is the enormous brick archway, a signature of the Richardson Romanesque style, as is the massive tower with its impressive additional large arched window, and the architectural surprise that is the wide eyebrow window at the base of the central peaked roof.

The building was built in 1892, and served as the headquarters for the City of Brooklyn’s Fire Dept, but for only six years. In 1898, Brooklyn became part of greater New York City, and the headquarters became just another fire house, albeit the best looking one in the entire city.

In the 1980’s the building was converted into housing for the formerly homeless. Sadly, the city doesn’t seem to have kept up with maintenance, and the roof looks like it is torn away in places, and the building’s general condition doesn’t look too good.

With all of the construction in downtown Brooklyn today, thank goodness this important masterpiece is landmarked, and hopefully funds can be found to restore it to its former glory. More will be written about Frank Freeman in the future, as well.

I had originally planned to feature the Brooklyn Historic Society and the Montauk Club today, but space does not permit. They will be featured next Thursday, along with other reader’s favorites. Please check the Flickr page for some great historic as well as contemporary photos of the buildings featured today.

[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]

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