Walkabout: The Brooklyn Architect Smack-Down, Part 1

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this story.

I have an informal roster of about ten top Brooklyn architects from the late 19th, early 20th century, who come up quite often on my pages. These are the men who designed many of the homes, houses of worship, commercial and civic buildings that make Brooklyn what it is, and has been for the last hundred and fifty years; a great looking city.

Rudolf L. Daus is on that list and with good reason – he was extremely talented and extremely well connected in Brooklyn’s building and political worlds.

One of those attributes would keep you in beer and skittles, both give you the power and talent to get top commissions, top money, and keep you in champagne. The bubbly must have been flowing at the Daus house.

Daus was born in Mexico City to German parents in 1854. Many German Catholics immigrated to Mexico and Texas during the mid-19th century, the same time other large groups were also immigrating to New York City.

The Daus family came from wealth, and young Rudolph was educated in the United States, Germany and France. He studied at the famous L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he won top honors, including the coveted Achille LeClerc Medal, as well as other prizes.

In 1879, he came back to NY, and worked at the studios of two American L’Ecole alumnae, Richard Morris Hunt and George B. Post, both extremely significant architects in their own right. Hunt was one of the premiere architects of the Gilded Age, who designed Carnegie Hall and Biltmore, the Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, NC, while Post was the designer of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the NY Stock Exchange.

Daus set up his own practice in 1884 in downtown Brooklyn, and worked there until he retired because of ill health, at the age of 54.

Once he was settled in Brooklyn with his own practice, the commissions began coming in. He also began courting the powerful men of Brooklyn’s political world, and his cultured, Old World charm and American style brashness and talent proved to be a winning combination.

He must have been quite the man about town, able to speak at least four different languages, an avowed Francophile, and accomplished amateur painter, getting down and dirty with Brooklyn’s version of Tammany Hall; uneducated Irishmen from the docks who had worked their way up the ranks of power, and their counterparts, the wealthy Republicans who spent their free time and money trying live like the sophisticated Europeans they both admired and despised, Europeans a lot like Rudolf Daus.

He was courting the politicos, but he was also working. His row houses in Bedford and Park Slope are some of the most architecturally extravagant and interesting row houses around.

He designed the 13th Regiment Armory on Jefferson Avenue in Bedford for the city, and the Lincoln Club on Putnam Avenue in Clinton Hill for that neighborhood’s Republicans. He was well connected with the Catholic Church, and designed several fine churches in Brooklyn, as well as the massive St. John’s Orphan Asylum that stood in Crown Heights.

He designed several other large charitable buildings, a couple of hospitals, and made his career with the Beaux-Art masterpiece that is the New York and New Jersey Telegraph and Telephone Building on Willoughby, in Downtown Brooklyn. He repeated it in New Jersey.

His political connections paid off when he got the 13 Regiment Armory job. He made a lot of enemies on that one, and the story of the building of this huge structure can be found in three episodes called “Clash of the Titans” beginning here.

The year between 1899 and 1900 found him appointed to the position of Surveyor of Buildings for Brooklyn. He sat on the architect’s board for the Carnegie Libraries, charged with choosing architects to design Brooklyn’s Carnegie funded libraries.

There were quite a few, and it was only right and fair that four of them found their way to the Daus practice. He did a great job, of course. His appointments continued.

He was the Secretary of an 1898 Commission overseeing the building laws in New York City, and he was president of the Brooklyn chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), a member of the Society of Beaux Arts Architects and a member of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science’s Architectural Department.

He was also a member of the Atlantic Yacht Club, the Brooklyn Club and the Drug and Chemical Club of Manhattan.

All that to say that Rudolf L. Daus was THAT guy; The one who had an “in”, the man who knew all of the insiders, the politicians and the players, and the one who usually seemed to get the prize. And to add insult to injury, he was probably the best one for the job, and the most talented, anyway.

It must have been galling to his fellow architects, many of whom were equally talented in their own unique ways. From the encounters that Daus had that made the papers, a sense of the man himself comes through: R.L. Daus thought quite highly of himself, and was an arrogant, and often condescending man who thought he should be given carte blanche on all of his undertakings, with no questions asked. Just keep the checks coming. A great talent can’t be hampered by such mundane things as budgets.

Mr. Daus had a lot of very public problems in building the 13th Regiment Armory, a project that began in 1890, and wouldn’t be finished for six years. His arguments with the commander of the unit, Colonel David Austen, were loud, acrimonious, and printed with great glee, word for word in the newspapers.

A blind competition had been undertaken to choose an architect for this very important and lucrative building project, and Daus’ design was deemed the best, and also the most suited to a scale down, if the budget got tight. Colonel Austen did not like Daus’ design, and had been rooting for another architect, a man in his regiment, who had also submitted a design, made the semifinals, and lost.

The Colonel felt that the choice of Daus had been made because of Daus’ relationship with “Boss” McLaughlin, the powerful Democratic Party leader of Brooklyn, a Tammany Hall man. Austen was very vocal on that point.

He also said that Daus would take the project way over budget, making his design no more special than the others. He may have been right, but it crying for the horse long after it had left the stable. Daus kept the contract, went over budget, as predicted, but the armory was eventually built, no help from Austen, and became one of the crowning glories of his career.

It also ended up costing twice as much as the original budget. Daus had done it again!

Other important Brooklyn architects had competed for the armory, and other important projects that went to Daus. So it comes as little surprise that in 1900, when the Borough’s Hall of Records, on Fulton Street across from Borough Hall, needed to be enlarged, three architects put their design bids on the table, but the plans of Rudolf Daus were chosen.

But unlike the armory, which was far out in Bedford, this project was across the street from Borough Hall, and near the Court Street offices of half the architects in Brooklyn. Whatever Daus could concoct this time would be right under their noses.

The Hall of Records no longer exists, but used to stand on the corner of Fulton Street and what is now a much wider Boerum Place. It was a large limestone and marble Beaux Arts palace that housed records as well as a courtroom, and was next door to the old Brooklyn Courthouse, and the old Municipal Building, both of which are also gone.

Today, the Brooklyn Law School and half of Boerum Place stand where the Hall of Records once stood. The building, designed by William Mundell, had been finished in 1887, but only thirteen years later, needed to be expanded. Brooklyn was bursting at the seams with records.

The State Legislature had passed a resolution allowing for the expansion of the Hall back along Boerum Place all the way back to Livingston Street. The space was an occupied lot, so no buildings would be torn down.

The current Hall was a two story building, the resolution allowed for it to be expanded to four stories, along with the new extension. The legislature approved a budget of $400,000. The first plans were drawn up by three architects: J.G. Glover, who was working here with John J Petit, the firm of Johnson and Helmle, and Rudolf L. Daus. Architect Glover was interviewed by the Eagle, and he sounded like a man with the winning plan.

His new Hall of Records would extend the lines and design of the current building back towards Livingston, and he planned to put a mansard roof on the new stories to tie the design together, which would also reference the mansarded Municipal Building on the other side of the Courthouse.

He went on to tell the paper how the new building would have new offices for the County Clerk and other officials, a sunlight top story for those clerks who toiled all day copying records, a new courthouse, much larger record rooms, new sanitary facilities, and the whole thing would be decorated with the appropriate plaster trim, woodwork, etc.

The old building would be made more fireproof, and all of the latest in building technology would be put to use in the new building, with fireproof materials, new heating ducts, plumbing and water, etc, etc. This would be a Hall of Records that every municipality would envy. Mr. Glover was sure that he would begin work soon.

On October 31st, 1900, the Eagle printed a rendering of the new Hall of Records. It was a large Renaissance Revival structure, very City Beautiful, made of white limestone, with classical columns, pediments, carved ornamentation, and a Mediterranean style peaked roof.

After looking over the plans of the three contestants, the Deputy Commissioner of Buildings, James Kerwin, under the advisement of his boss, the Commissioner, Henry Kearny, had chosen the plans of not John Glover, or Frank Helmle, but ……Rudolph L. Daus. His plans, Kerwin said, best met the needs of the city.

The old building would be retained, but would be fitted out with new systems, and joined to the new building seamlessly, creating a wonderful new whole. The new budget would be upped to $500,000. Architect Daus was very pleased and honored to get the job. Let the building, and the problems begin.

Next time: The new Hall of Records is under construction. But almost immediately Daus has issues with the old building, the new concrete, and the budget. Still seething from the rejection of his plans, Frank Helmle complains that his ideas for the building were appropriated by Daus. He’s not going to sit and watch, he takes action, and brings Daus before the AIA. John J. Petit, Axel Hedman, William Tubby, George Morse, and more familiar names are mentioned or involved in Daus’ activities. The architect smack down will continue.

Clash of the Titans, Part One
Clash of the Titans, Part Two
Clash of the Titans, Part Three

(Rendering of Daus Hall of Records. Brooklyn Eagle, 1900)

Hall of Records on far left, next to the Kings County Courthouse, with the old Municipal Building to the right. Photo, 1906

Hall of Records on far left, next to the Kings County Courthouse, with the old Municipal Building to the right. Photo, 1906

13th Regiment Armory, Sumner Ave at Jefferson Avenue, Bedford. Postcard, 1906

13th Regiment Armory, Sumner Ave at Jefferson Avenue, Bedford. Postcard, 1906

Telephone Building, at 61 Willoughby. Photo: NY Public Library

Telephone Building, at 61
Willoughby. Photo: NY Public Library

Daus houses on St. Johns Place, Park Slope

Daus houses on St. Johns Place, Park Slope

Daus house at 74 Halsey St. Bedford Stuyvesant.

Daus house at 74 Halsey St. Bedford Stuyvesant.

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