Walkabout: A Lesson in Civics

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    On a cold day in January 1892, a group of students at the elite Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn were celebrating their senior year by instituting what one excited alumnus would call the first college dance ever held in Brooklyn.

    The occasion was the opening of the new building of their campus on Livingston Street, and it was a time to make merry in the scholastic halls and waltz in the gymnasium, as the Brooklyn Eagle would enthuse. One of the committee members for this dance was a young Raymond F. Almirall, a recent alumna of the school and an 1891 graduate of Cornell University.

    Raymond was a son of Brooklyn, born in 1869 and raised in privilege as the son of Joseph J. Almirall, who made a fortune in the tobacco business. Perhaps he wanted to do one last event with his alma mater and old school chums before heading off to Paris to study at the L’ecole des Beaux-Arts.

    This famous art and architecture school, whose American graduates would become household names, was his home for the next three years.

    4th Ave Library, HDC.BPL 1905 1

    Interior of the Pacific Street Branch Library

    In 1896, Almirall returned to the United States and began his practice of architecture as a junior partner to John V. Ingle. Their first joint project was City Hall, in Binghamton, New York, in 1900. Soon after the Binghamton job, Almirall set out on his own and opened his practice.

    In New York City, in 1900, the design philosophies and practices of the Beaux-Arts were shaping the public and private architecture of the day. Fellow graduates Charles Follen McKim, Stanford White, C.P.H. Gilbert, Rudolph Daus, Carrere & Hastings, Richard Morris Hunt, Daniel Burnham, Cass Gilbert and many others were creating the City Beautiful.

    New York City, they hoped, would be the gleaming architectural, cultural and financial capital of the world. Raymond Almirall jumped right in, spending much of his professional career designing primarily public buildings, office buildings and churches.

    Among his first commissions would be a branch library in Brooklyn for Andrew Carnegie. Almirall’s Pacific Street Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, at 25 Fourth Avenue, was built in 1903. Two others would follow, the Park Slope branch in 1906 and the Eastern Parkway branch in 1914.

    St. Michaels, 4th Ave, 1

    St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Sunset Park

    A devout Roman Catholic, he designed several churches and chapels in Brooklyn and Queens for the Diocese of Brooklyn. St. Michael’s on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park was first, in 1905. It towers over the neighborhood with its iconic beehive dome, derived from the designs of Byzantine and Middle Eastern architecture.

    He returned to this theme for the Mortuary Chapel at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, designed in 1909. The Byzantine church was again his inspiration for the Church of the Nativity of Our Blessed Lord, in Bedford Stuyvesant, built in 1915, now the Elim Pentecostal Church.

    In a rare move for an American architect, Almirall was chosen to design Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston, Jamaica. This 1909 design was also highly influenced by the Middle East, and is now famous for its domed and painted interior, a masterpiece of sacred artwork.

    Almirall took his civic buildings seriously, investing in them design and construction concepts that were meant to last and inspire.

    Public Bath no 7, brooklynlyceum.com 1

    Public Bath No. 7 via Brooklyn Lyceum

    Between 1905 and 1910 he designed Harlem and Fordham Hospitals, Public Bath #7 on 4th Avenue (the Lyceum), structures on Randall’s and Welfare Islands, and the New York City Municipal Lodging House, one of the city’s first homeless shelters for both men and women.

    He was responsible for the design of several dormitory buildings at the Farm Colony on Staten Island, a work farm for indigents. His biggest project of this nature was the Seaview Hospital complex, next door to the Farm Colony, both now a landmarked ruin.

    Seaview was the largest TB hospital in New York, designed to provide fresh air and comfort for the many victims of tuberculosis that plagued the early 20th century. Almirall’s designs for this complex were in the Spanish Revival mode, with large windows and light.

    Many of the buildings are also filled with life-sized terra-cotta mosaics on the walls of the halls and public rooms, showing doctors and nurses caring for their patients, as well as floral and seashell motifs depicted in rich polychrome terra-cotta, all designed by Almirall, and cast in Delft, Holland.

    Most of these mosaics, as well as the buildings they are in, are in danger of being totally lost.

    Emigrant Industrial SB, beyondmyken for wiki

    Emigrant Savings Bank. Photo via Wikipedia Commons

    Almirall’s fame may have been made by his largest building: the headquarters for Emigrant Savings Bank, a Beaux-Arts triumph at 51 Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. Both the building and the ground floor bank space are now landmarked, preserving it for future generations.

    The building is unique for its H shape, and for its hundreds of windows, allowing light into the building. Originally, it had a bank on the ground floor and their corporate offices above, as well as other businesses’ offices. Almirall himself had his own office in the building.

    Today, it belongs to the city, which is warehousing the offices, and trying to figure out what to do with the bank space, which was once used as courtrooms for traffic court.

    In 1905, Governor Theodore Roosevelt appointed Raymond Almirall to be one of the members of the Tenement House Commission, responsible for setting laws and policy governing regulations for tenement buildings. Almirall seemed destined for greater civic glory.

    Almirall’s crowning achievement in Brooklyn was supposed to be a large new library for Grand Army Plaza which would begin construction in 1909. It would be his best Beaux-Arts design. He couldn’t wait to get to work.

    [Top photo: Pacific Street Branch, Brooklyn Public Library via Historic Districts Council]

    Read Part 2 of the story here.

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