Past and Present: The Thomas Jefferson Building

1905 Photograph: New York Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

The Republican Party ruled Brooklyn for most of the latter part of the 19th century, and their clubs, like the Union League and Lincoln Clubs, were large, in-your-face kind of places, reminding everyone who was boss. So you have to admire Brooklyn’s Democrats for going big when they built their own party headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn. In 1888, the Kings County Democrats voted to build a permanent headquarters for the party, established the Thomas Jefferson Association under which the building would be financed, and bought a choice lot directly across from City Hall, a place they hadn’t called home for quite a while.

They engaged the services of Frank Freeman, one of Brooklyn’s most prominent architects, a man who was quite adept at building impressive Romanesque Revival structures. Freeman had already designed the Eagle Warehouse in Dumbo and the Behr mansion on Pierrepont Street. Only in his early 30s during this time, he also designed the headquarters for the Brooklyn Fire Department on nearby Jay Street, a building with similar proportions.

Most of Freeman’s great buildings are gone, but at the turn of the 20th century, downtown Brooklyn was home to not only the Fire Department headquarters, but also the Thomas Jefferson Association Building, and his Germanic Club, a block over on Schermerhorn, where the courthouse is now. This building and the Germanic Club were very similar in style, height and materials. Freeman loved those arches, and stacking shapes on top of each other, and used both ideas liberally.

The Jefferson Building’s cornerstone was laid by former president Grover Cleveland in 1889, and the building finished a year later. It rose high over its brownstone neighbor at eight stories, with Democratic Party headquarters on the first two floors. A huge party hall took up the first floor. It could seat 900 people and was furnished in polished oak. Offices for the party took up the second floor. A restaurant was in the basement level, and the rest of the building was rented out as general offices.

The building’s ground floor was made of rusticated sandstone imported from Scotland, including the two large entryway arches. Above, the building was brick with terra-cotta pillars, terra-cotta trim, and large three story arched window bays. At the very top of the building was a niche with a bust of Thomas Jefferson.

The Democrats maintained their headquarters there until 1951, when the cost of upkeep proved to be too high, and the building was sold. They moved on to a smaller headquarters. In 1960, the City decided to create an arterial road to lead to the Brooklyn Bridge from Atlantic Avenue, creating Boerum Place, a multi-lane road with a center island running down its length. The creation of this roadway caused the destruction of fifteen buildings along its path, including the Thomas Jefferson Building, as well as all other buildings also on this block.

Across the street, where the Law School now stands, the large Hall of Records was also torn down. Today, as one races against traffic at Fulton Street, to get across the expanse of Boerum Place, no one knows, or remembers, what once stood there only fifty-two years ago. GMAP

1905 Photograph: New York Public Library

Photo: Google Maps

1898-1899 map: New York Public Library

Photo: Wikimedia

Photo: Brooklyn Public Library

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