Combing for Historic Remnants Among Brooklyn’s New Towers


ONE NIGHT LAST SUMMER, coming off the Long Island Expressway at Flatbush Avenue and Tillary Street, I had a few moments of total disorientation. It was dark, and I was in a canyon of hi-rises. Where was I?

Only in the area where I’ve been living since the late 1970s.

Scores of buildings have gone up in Downtown Brooklyn in the past decade, with scores more planned. The sky has been dotted with cranes for years, but now it feels a critical mass has been reached in what I call the Manhattanization of Brooklyn.


With each new tower, it seems, the buildings are getting taller, but alas, no more architecturally distinguished. Their shiny glass curtain walls hem in the historic brownstone districts that surround Downtown Brooklyn, stretching a mile along Flatbush Avenue from the Manhattan Bridge to Atlantic Avenue, and on the side streets as well. There’s construction on virtually every lot which lacks historic district designation.

The other day I walked along Fulton Street, the elegant shopping street of the Victorian era, in search of old buildings whose time has not yet come, like the onion-domed structure and others below. I have no idea whether these buildings have any kind of protection; I very much doubt it.


The building below was a department store (May’s? Martin’s). It’s now an Old Navy, on its ground floor at least.


Below, the earliest part of the department store that became A&S, before they built the Art Deco annex to its left.


What more fitting use for the Renaissance Revival townhouse, above, than a McDonald’s?

In decline since the 1950s (the department store in which the main character worked in the recent film Brooklyn was supposed to be on Fulton Street), the street is supposedly coming back, with chain stores like H&M, but not with any grandeur — just crass commercial architecture among the few dribs and drabs of history that remain.

I remember the Abraham and Straus in a 1930s building when we first moved to Brooklyn in 1977, especially the Art Deco brass elevators with their uniformed operators, and an old time movie palace, the Metropolitan. And of course, the restaurant Gage & Tollner, opened in the 1890s, with its mirrored walls, embossed wallpaper, gaslight fixtures and menu of Southern specialties.

A&S became a downscale Macy’s, the Metropolitan became a multiplex and then disappeared altogether. Gage & Tollner became, shockingly, an Arby’s and then a TGIF. Fortunately, its interior had been landmarked in 1975 by the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the only restaurant in Brooklyn to be so designated, and was more or less protected through the travesties. It’s now for rent again, below (click link for Brownstoner article with current interior photos).


The stores in between sold jeans, sneakers, gold jewelry. Many of those are still in place, but presumably not for long. A sweet row, below. To me they seem to be crying out, ‘Please save us!’ but to others, they’re crying out, ‘Buy my air rights!’


And recently, at the base of City Point, a new residential tower approximately where the the low-end Albee Square Mall sat for 20 years or so, a sparkling new Century 21 department store has opened, as well as a new cinema, the Alamo Drafthouse — and a promising-sounding food court is on the way. The architecture of the tower, top photo, is blocky and entirely lacking in imagination. It gets a D from me.

One landmarked structure remains near City Point, impeding the desire of developers to raze it: the domed Dime Savings Bank, below.


The building and its sensational lobby, below, will be incorporated into Brooklyn’s first ‘supertall’ — a 74-story building by SHoP architects — soon to rise in the air above it, blotting out another bit of Brooklyn sky.

Photos below via Curbed


127 Winters Ago in Brooklyn


HAPPY NEW YEAR, devoted readers and anyone who may have landed accidentally on my humble six-year-old blog.

For my first post of 2015, here’s a small sampling of seasonally appropriate photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s online photo database. It’s a tremendous resource, and great fun to search when you’ve got a free evening or it’s too damn cold to go outside.

The images in this post are lantern slides, glass transparencies to be viewed through a projector (called a ‘magic lantern’) that casts the image on a wall. They were all taken by Adrian Vanderveer Martense (1852-1898), a lawyer by profession and an amateur photographer. Martense documented houses, streets, and his friends and neighbors in Flatbush, as well as momentous events like the legendary blizzard of March 1888 and the moving of the Hotel Brighton in Coney Island in April 1888. He was a member of the Brooklyn Academy of Photography and served as its first recording secretary when it was established in 1887 (it later became the Brooklyn Camera Club).

Top: Adrian Martense, center, with pinhole camera, along with two other men and a boy on a tricycle, c.1880

Martense was descended from Dutch settlers who came to Brooklyn in the 17th century. His family’s land is now part of Greenwood Cemetery. Some of the photos in this post show a rural side of 19th century Brooklyn; others were taken downtown and show buildings that still exist. Most of these were taken on March 15, 1888, when Martense evidently set out to record the aftermath of the great blizzard in several different neighborhoods. And aren’t we glad he did?


Men standing at side of stage sleigh after blizzard


Men clearing snow from Flatbush Avenue train tracks after the blizzard


Children climbing into the back of a horse-drawn sleigh at Flatbush Avenue and Clarkson Avenue following the 1888 blizzard


Man standing in front of City Hall (now Borough Hall) and elevated train tracks after the blizzard


Man in front of coal and wood shop, as other men work to clear snow from the streets at Flatbush Avenue and Bergen Street


Horse-drawn carriage stopped in front of 7 Sutherland Sisters, on Clinton Avenue near the corner of Fulton Street, after the blizzard


People walking between piles of cleared snow at Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, following the blizzard


Horse-drawn carriage in snow-covered street, c.1890


Street car and horse-drawn carriage at Adams Street and Willoughby Street under the elevated train, with men standing on the sidewalk

This is just a tiny sample of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Martense collection; you can see them all right here.

Downtown Brooklyn’s Muscular Architecture


MANY OF THE WORKS in the current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties,” represent — appropriately enough, since the 1920s was a time of sexual liberation no less than the 1960s — the body beautiful.


I’m sure the show’s organizers felt Youth and Beauty was a sexier title than Smokestacks and Water Towers, but it wasn’t all sculpted torsos and nude limbs. Some of my favorite pieces were paintings and photographs of Jazz Age architecture and the burgeoning New York skyline.


Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), a painter and architectural photographer who turned industrial vistas into great geometric compositions, was well represented, and it was Sheeler I thought of this morning while walking through downtown Brooklyn.


GARDEN VOYEUR: Meadow with a View


FIVE STORIES above Pacific Street, there’s a colorful meadow designed by Cynthia Gillis for the rooftop of the Boerum Hill townhouse she shares with her husband, architect John Gillis. “A roof deck is a kind of meadow,” she says, “because it’s open and expansive, and you are looking across a distance to the sky” — and, in this case, the buildings of downtown Brooklyn.


Since a roof is windy and exposed, and soil in containers is limited, Gillis chooses drought-tolerant plants to begin with, and uses drip irrigation, with hoses running to each individual container, as well as polymer crystals in each pot to retain water and help prevent flooding in heavy rains.


In keeping with the ‘meadow’ concept, Gillis rarely uses annuals. Among the perennials in wooden containers and pots made of resin or fiberglass (lightweight and frost-resistant, they look just like terracotta):

  • calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (feather reed grass)
  • purple salvia
  • verbena bonariensis (a tender, self-seeding perennial)
  • achillea ‘Paprika’
  • coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’


A wind-tolerant Japanese black pine frames the view and provides screening (there’s a small ‘contemplation bench’ behind it).


You can see more pictures of Gillis’s work on her website, including the park-like garden behind this townhouse, shared with the building next door.