Tag Archives: Downtown 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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