Walkabout: Frank J. Helmle, Architect

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

As a fan of Brooklyn’s architecture, it never ceases to amaze me how many fine architects put their mark on our fair city.

Some, like Frank J. Helmle, have works scattered all over Brooklyn, so many, that we don’t even realize how often we are passing one of their buildings, or how their talent makes our daily commute, or even daily walk, so much more pleasurable.

Frank Helmle, either on his own, or with several different partners, designed some of our most iconic buildings built between 1888 and 1930.

He was born in Ohio, and came to NY to study at Cooper Union, where many of our finest architects have studied. He also received training from the Architecture Dept. of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science, the precursor of the Brooklyn Museum.

In 1890, he went to work at the prestigious Manhattan firm of McKim, Mead and White, where he stayed for at least 5 years.

Towards the end of that decade, he set out on his own, opening an office in Williamsburg, where he partnered with C.L. Johnson. The Nassau Trust Co. at 134 Broadway in Williamsburg was one of his first projects, designed in 1888.

He also designed two twin rowhouses, # 903 and 905 St. Marks Avenue, at the corner of Kingston Ave, in the the St. Marks District. Theses houses were designed in 1901, still stand, and have never been altered.

What followed in the coming years was a wealth of interesting and varied design, some of it quite spectacular. His partnership with Johnson dissolved, and after going on his own, he partnered with Ulrich Huberty, who had previously been a draughtsman in master architect Frank Freeman’s office.

They sometimes designed together and sometimes took on another partner to design as Helmle, Huberty and Hudswell. They designed several churches, mostly Catholic, which remain some of their finest work.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, on Bedford and Hewes, in Williamsburg, was designed in 1896. Later comes what many consider his masterpiece, the Spanish Baroque style St. Barbara’s Church in Bushwick, built in 1903.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

Financial institutions joined the churches, with the Greenpoint Savings Bank, on Manhattan Ave, in 1908, the Williamsburg Trust Company, now Holy Trinity Church, designed in 1906, and alterations and expansions to the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which took place in 1906, and again in 1925.

St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, Helmle and Huberty’s other church masterpiece, on the corner of Brooklyn Avenue and St. Johns Place in Crown Heights North, was designed in 1916.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Earlier, in 1902, Frank Helmle was appointed Superintendent of Public Buildings of Brooklyn. During his tenure, he designed some really good park buildings, as well as fire houses and fire command stations.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

The gleaming white terra-cotta clad Boathouse in Prospect Park, came first, in 1905, followed by the Tennis House, designed to shelter players of the popular game of lawn tennis, which was built in 1910.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo via eBay

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo via Brooklyn Public Library

That same year, in Greenpoint, he designed the shelter in what is now Monsignor McGolrick Park, and in Stuyvesant Heights’ Fulton Park, he designed a pavilion and shelter.

1912 brought him a commission for 42 new firehouses in New York City, of which 15 were in Brooklyn. He shared that contract with two other firms, as the city sought to modernize their fire facilities, which now included motorized firetrucks.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo via Google Maps

In 1913, he designed the landmarked Brooklyn Central Office, Bureau of Fire Communications Building, located at Empire Blvd and Washington Street, at the end of the Botanic Gardens.

He would leave his position with the city, and return to private practice. More iconic buildings would be designed, including the Long Island Storage Company and Jenkins Trust Building, on Gates and Nostrand, from 1906, the Hotel Bossert, on Montague and Hicks, begun in 1908, houses in Ditmas Park, the Coney Island branch of Kings County Hospital in 1910 (gone), St. Athanysius RC Church in Bensonhurst, from 1914 (also gone), and a mansion now housing the Park Slope Montessori School, at 105 8th Avenue, built in 1916.

He and his partners also designed several buildings in Manhattan, the best known being the landmarked Bush Tower, for a minute, Manhattan’s tallest building, built on 42nd St, between 6th Ave and Broadway, begun in 1916 and finished in 1921.

Frank J. Helme, Architect -- Brooklyn History

Photo by Suzanne Spellen

The Bush Tower was built with Frank J. Helmle’s last partner, Harvey W. Corbett. Their last project together would be one of Helmle’s best, the aptly named Master Building, one of NY’s finest Art Deco apartment buildings, but at 310 Riverside Drive, in 1928-29. Frank Helmle retired in 1928, and died in 1939.

Most of Frank Helmle’s buildings are in the Renaissance Revival style. He was highly influenced by the White Cities Movement, which came out of the World’s Colombian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.

Most of his works are in white, or light colored building materials, and feature fine detailing, often in terra-cotta. One of his signatures was the use of diamond shaped brick patterns, which show up in the Bossert Hotel, as well as in the Jenkins Trust Building.

He and his partners were also very adept in adapting classical and historic styles into contemporary design. St. Barbara’s Church is a transplanted Spanish Baroque church, while St. Gregory the Great’s Italian basilica could have been airlifted from a Roman street.

They were excellent at adapting the classical columns and colonnades of ancient Rome in their park pavilions, while the Prospect Park Boathouse is a 16th century Venetian palazzo, and the Pantheon was channeled in their Greenpoint bank building.

The talent in this is not mere copying, but in their ability to use the best of these various influences and traditions in new, early 20th century ways, with a contemporary use of new materials and construction practices, as practiced at that time.

The pleasing results are evident in the number of Helmle and Co’s buildings which are now landmarked. They are in many of our neighborhoods, so take a closer look as you pass by on the street, or in a park.

See Flickr for more photographs of buildings mentioned and not mentioned in this article.

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