Building of the Day: 500 State Street, From Funeral Home to Zen Retreat

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Our neighborhoods evolve over time, and a building built for one use can be repurposed for something the builders never would have imagined.

Name: Row houses, then funeral parlor, now Zen temple
Address: 500 State Street
Cross Streets: Nevins Street and 3rd Avenue
Neighborhood: Boerum Hill
Year Built: Probably 1850s
Architectural Style: Originally Anglo-Italianate
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The architecture
Boerum Hill is one of Brooklyn’s older row house neighborhoods. The houses on these blocks represent development taking place from the 1840s until about 1870.

492-500 State Street — originally a group of five 15 foot wide houses — was probably built in the late 1850s to early 1860s, when the Anglo-Italianate style of architecture had a brief popularity.

These were the first “English basement” houses, with low stoops, leading into an ornate reception area and the central stairs. The kitchen and mechanicals were also down here behind closed doors. Guests would go upstairs to the parlor level. Above that were the bedrooms floors and private parlors.

498 and 500 State Street were combined in 1924 to create the State Street Chapel. Up until the early decades of the 20th century, funerals were generally held at home.

496 State St, NS, PS

496 State St. Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark

The rise of the modern funeral parlor
The profession of funeral director or undertaker was an old one. They took the bodies and prepared them for the funeral. Embalming became standard practice for most after the Civil War. But funerals were always held at the deceased person’s house, or the home of a relative.

This was no problem if you had a large home, but even people of lesser means had funerals in their flats. But by the 20th century, more and more people were living in elevator apartment buildings, and in-house funerals were not allowed. The modern funeral home, a place specifically for funerals, was born.

In addition to combining the two 15 foot houses, the creators of the State St. Chapel also added a churchy looking addition to the building to give it a more “sacred” atmosphere.

They carried that theme to the cornice, removing the original wooden cornice and crafting a crenellated brick roofline that echoes the lines of the new addition. The whole thing is very much in style with 1920s architecture, and dates the addition, even without the backup of a newspaper article celebrating the event.

500 State St, BE ad, 1927

Brooklyn Eagle, 1924

The nonsectarian chapel opened on February 1, 1924. The Rev. Dr. S. Parkes Cadman — for whom Cadman Plaza is named — officiated at the ceremony, as did Rabbi Alexander Lyons of the State Street Temple, and Arthur Somers, the President of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. Several hundred people showed up for the dedication.

The chapel cost $100,000 to purchase and renovate. The main chapel was augmented by two smaller chapels on the upper floors.  The announcement for the chapel noted that it was designed for use by “Funeral Directors who are not permitted to hold funeral services in some apartments in the city.”
500 State St, BE ad, 1930

Brooklyn Eagle ad, 1930

A Masonic Funeral, YWCA, Zen retreat
By 1927, the chapel was now listed as “Ericson & Ericson’s State Street Chapel.” One of the owners was George Henning Ericson, a former Assemblyman, and a high degree Mason. He died in 1927. His large Masonic rite funeral was held here in his own building.

By the 1930s, Ericson & Ericson had dropped “State Street” from their name. From a very cursory look, much of their business going forward was with people of Scandinavian descent, with many different denominations represented.

The Ericson & Ericson Funeral Chapel was listed in death announcements in the Brooklyn papers from 1927 until the end of the Brooklyn Eagle’s run in 1955.

From on line property records, it seems that the building passed on to the YWCA in 1989.

500 State St, ZNYC, znyc.mro.org 1

Zen Center of NYC, via zcnyc.mro.org

In 2000, the YWCA sold it to the Zen Mountain Monastery, which still owns it today. The Zen Center of New York City: Fire Lotus Temple is the city branch of Zen Mountain Monastery, the main house of the Mountains and Rivers Order, which is located in the Catskills town of Mount Tremper, NY.

Their Sunday morning service offers a program of liturgy, beginning instruction in Zen meditation (zazen), followed by a zazen, and a talk by the teacher or a Mountain and Rivers Order student. Guests are always welcome.

Top photo by Nicholas Strini for PropertyShark.

500 State St, SB, PS

Scott Bintner for PropertyShark

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