Category Archives: Brooklyn


Williamsburgh Savings Bank (Tower)

Williamsburgh Savings Bank is New York architecture that entertains from afar – and from close up. The tower’s graceful taper dominates the Brooklyn skyline for miles; the Rene Chambellan sculpture around the base fascinates passers-by. More sculpture, mosaics, and majestic vaulted ceilings overwhelm visitors inside.

The landmark fulfills architect Robert Helmer’s wish that the tower “be regarded as a cathedral dedicated to the furtherance of thrift and prosperity of the community it serves.” Not bad for a tiny bank that started out in the basement of a (now-demolished) church in 1851, before Williamsburgh dropped the “h” from its name.

Architects Halsey, McCormack & Helmer specialized in banks, so it is a little ironic that one of the firm’s non-bank buildings was the Central Methodist Episcopal Church – right next door to their “cathedral of thrift.”

The building is based on a steel “portal frame” – a special structure designed to support the weight of the massive tower above the equally massive void of the banking hall. (Think of this as a 35-story office building on top of a six-story church.) The bank insisted – over the architects’ objections – on a gilded dome as a crown for the tower. The dome was an architectural reference to Williamsburgh Savings Bank’s original headquarters in downtown Williamsburg.

When built, this was the tallest building in Brooklyn, and the clock was the largest four-sided clock tower in the world. “Brooklyn’s wristwatch” sometimes had trouble keeping time, but it seems to have been fixed. Although this was its headquarters, Williamsburgh Savings Bank only used two floors (above the banking level) as offices. The rest of the tower was rented – and for some reason, mostly to dentists!

Williamsburgh Savings Bank was acquired by Republic National Bank, and then merged into HSBC. In 2005, a partnership of the Dermot Company and Canyon-Johnson Urban Funds bought the tower. The lower floors were converted to Skylight One Hanson – event space – while the upper floors became 1 Hanson Place luxury condominiums.

The tower has the distinction of being triple-designated by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission: as an individual landmark (1977), as part of an historic district (1978), and as an interior landmark (1996).

Urban Omnibus has an exceptional narrative on the building’s history.

Williamsburgh Savings Bank Vital Statistics
Williamsburgh Savings Bank Recommended Reading

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Brooklyn Fire Department Headquarters

Brooklyn Fire Department Headquarters, “architecturally one of the finest buildings in Brooklyn,” has been restored to its 1892 magnificence. Amazingly, the downtown landmark was renovated without displacing tenants – and all 18 units of the formerly city-owned building were retained as “affordable housing.”

In his “Streetscapes” column, Christopher Gray notes that this building was Brooklyn’s answer to Manhattan’s Fire Department Headquarters (now the home of Engine 39/Ladder 16). After the City of Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1898, the headquarters functions shifted to Manhattan. The fire department used the building into the 1970s, then the city leased it to Polytechnic University. In 1989 the city converted the building to 18 apartments for low-income and senior residents.

After years of decay, the city launched a complex rehabilitation plan in 2013. As reported in The Brownstoner, the rehab involved The Pratt Area Community Council (PACC) as the developer, with financing from the City of New York (HPD), the Community Preservation Corp (CPC), and LISC (Local Initiatives Support Corporation). The project also received funding though Historic Preservation Tax Credits, and a grant through the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Nomad Architecture was the project architect, and the Historic Preservation Consultant was Thomas A. Fenniman, Architect. MDG Design & Construction was the development partner and the contractor.

The arched doorway no longer admits fire trucks, and the legend “FIRE HEAD-QUARTERS” has been replaced by terra cotta scrollwork. Otherwise, welcome back to 1892 and the City of Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Fire Department Headquarters Vital Statistics
Brooklyn Fire Department Headquarters Recommended Reading

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131 Buckingham Road

131 Buckingham Road is widely cited as New York City’s most unusual residence – a century-old Japanese-style wood-frame home, in the heart of Victorian Flatbush.

In the words of the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, “The most exotic and certainly the best-known house in Prospect Park South is this Japanese style wood and stucco structure designed in 1902 by Petit & Green for Dean Alvord. The dwelling is further evidence of Petit’s ability to design in many architectural styles, but in order to give the building a genuine oriental quality, he was assisted by three Japanese artisans: Saburo Arai, who worked as a contractor; Shunso Ishikawa, who was responsible for the original color scheme and decorations, and Chogoro Sugai, who designed the original garden.”

According to the Commission, “The cost of building this house was estimated in 1902 as being $12,000, and in 1903 the price for the purchase of the building was quoted as $26,500, very high for a building in Prospect Park South. By advertising this exotic structure, Alvord hoped to attract potential buyers who were curious about this dwelling, but would buy the less expensive structures in the area. Alvord noted in a boldly printed box at the bottom of the advertisement that ‘many other houses equally artistic and distinctive, at varying prices, are ready for inspection.’ “

The Flatbush Development Corporation house tours frequently feature this home – see the FDC website or call 718-859-3800 for information.

This gem is just one of the jewels of the Prospect Park South Historic District and adjacent Beverley Square West development.

131 Buckingham Road Vital Statistics
131 Buckingham Road Recommended Reading

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Prospect Park South Historic District

Prospect Park South Historic District is a neighborhood with a mission: To “illustrate how much of rural beauty can be incorporated within the rectangular limits of the conventional city block.” The myriad home styles were the vision of a single developer: Dean Alvord.

According to the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, “The most important event in the progress of suburbanization in Flatbush was the purchase in 1899 of approximately fifty acres of land by the real estate developer Dean Alvord for $280,000. Most of this land had been owned by the Dutch Reformed Church and the Bergen family. Alvord intended to lay out a ‘high-class’ suburban community to be called Prospect Park South.

“…Alvord’s objective in Prospect Park South was, in his own words, ‘to create a rural park within the limitations of the conventional city block and city street.'”

Alvord laid out the utilities, put up brick gateposts, and planned lawns and malls. He hired a landscape gardener, and hired architect John J. Petit to design large comfortable houses in a variety of styles. The LPC notes examples of Colonial Revival, neo-Tudor, Queen Anne, Swiss chalet, and even Japanese pagoda.

“The architecture of Prospect Park South is representative of a phenomenon common among the suburbs that were built up in America at the turn of the 20th century. The buildings erected in these developments represent an eclectic mix with houses of many different styles placed next to each other on each street. Each house at Prospect Park South was designed as a separate entity with no consideration given to the style of the surrounding structures or to the appropriateness of the use of a certain stylistic variant for a specific site…. At Prospect Park South houses with Colonial, Queen Anne, Italianate, French Renaissance, Japanese, Elizabethan, Jacobean and other stylistic details were freely juxtaposed. This free mixture of stylistic forms often resulted in such seeming incongruities as the placement of a stucco Spanish Mission style home beside a frame Swiss Chalet.” [LPC Designation Report]

Prospect Park South Historic District Vital Statistics
Prospect Park South Historic District Recommended Reading

WikiMapia Map

711 Brightwater Court

711 Brightwater Court is a colorful six-story Art Deco apartment building in Brighton Beach, “Little Odessa,” a short block from the Boardwalk.

Confession: I didn’t discover this by researching in AIA Guide to New York City or NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission. I spotted it in an episode of the sci-fi series “Person of Interest.” (The program uses NYC locales even to masquerade as foreign cities.)

Some of the terra cotta needs repair or replacement, but I hope I look as good when I reach 80 years old!

I couldn’t find the name of the architect – if anyone knows, please let me know via the Contact form. Thanks!

711 Brightwater Court Vital Statistics
711 Brightwater Court Recommended Reading

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818 Flatbush Avenue

818 Flatbush Avenue is a two-story commercial building in Flatbush, unremarkable except for Art Deco terra cotta uncannily similar to that of the Chanin Building on E 42nd Street in Manhattan.

The Brooklyn store and office building and the Chanin Building were both completed in 1929 – but were planned by different architects. Boris W. Dorfman planned the Flatbush Avenue structure; Sloan & Robertson designed the famous skyscraper. The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission reports that Chanin Building’s terra cotta was created by sculptor Rene Chambellan and architect Jacques Delmarre (of the Chanin Construction Company).

I suspect that Mr. Chambellan was also responsible for the Brooklyn art, but I can’t find any documentation.

Newspaper accounts show that real estate and construction could move at lightning pace in 1929. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported that the existing three-story apartment building and lot were being auctioned on April 15. By June, new owners Flatbush Improvement Corporation had picked an architect and filed plans for a new $45,000 building. On December 10, the Department of Buildings issued a Certificate of Occupancy for the structure, completed the previous day. In just over eight months developers bought the property, demolished the old building, and completed the new structure.

818 Flatbush Avenue Vital Statistics
818 Flatbush Avenue Recommended Reading

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Kingsborough Community College

Kingsborough Community College has three buildings with inventive, eye-catching forms. Alas, the older buildings lack the detailing and quality materials that would make them exceptional architecture.

The campus caught my eye when I was scanning Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach/Manhattan Beach area in Google Earth, for a class assignment.

The Robert J. Kibbee Library is named for a former Chancellor of City University. Leon M. Goldstein Performing Arts Center is named for a former President of the college. (There is also a Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences adjoining the campus.)

(Photographers beware: The administration is super-sensitive about photos. No fewer than three campus police converged on me and my camera the morning of my shoot. Even after showing my school ID and assignment sheet, it took 90 minutes and a conversation with the school’s Events VP to get clearance. Throughout the day, campus police stopped to ask if I had permission to photograph.)

Kingsborough Community College Vital Statistics
Robert J. Kibbee Library
Administration Building / Leon M. Goldstein Performing Arts Center
Marine & Academic Center
Kingsborough Community College Recommended Reading

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Faces of Brooklyn

Architectural ornament takes many forms – from modest moldings to elaborate scenes and figures within a pediment or atop a cornice. One of the most delightful ornaments is the mascaron or mask, which might be realistically human or fantastic or grotesque. These faces are generally terra cotta, and may be repeating (the same face used two or more times) or unique. They add character to buildings around the borough….

Brooklyn Heights

Brooklyn Heights (and neighboring Fulton Ferry and “DUMBO” [Down Under Manhattan Bridge Underpass]) are a triple treat.

They’re amazing concentrations of gorgeous and historic architecture, protected by New York City landmark status and (mostly) lovingly maintained. Down every block and around every corner you’ll delight at styles and details straight from the 1800s.

Secondly, these neighborhoods have spectacular views of downtown Manhattan. The Heights’ Promenade and Brooklyn Bridge Park are directly opposite the Financial District – itself filled with landmarks.

Thirdly, the Promenade and Park are great places to just hang out – enjoy fresh air, scenery and sunshine in a peaceful setting. Kid friendly, too, with the restored carousel now open in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

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