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.

Barclays Ain’t Bad

LEAVE BROOKLYN FOR A LITTLE WHILE, you come back and find new things happening left and right. Reacquainting myself with my neighborhood after some months spent mostly out on the East End of Long Island, I’m aware of a definite and positive buzz.

Railroad tracks running along Atlantic Avenue near the newly opened Barclay’s Center. The building on the left is one of many vintage warehouses being developed as office space

Some of it has to do with the newly opened Barclay’s Center, below, long dreaded and much reviled in advance. My surprising assessment, now that it’s here: not bad. I was never enthused about the idea of a basketball arena at the intersection of Fort Greene, Boerum Hill, and Prospect Heights, fearing that with Bruce Ratner as developer, it would turn out something like the bland horror that is Madison Square Garden — especially when Frank Gehry dropped out as architect. But neither was I unutterably opposed to the project, since the area was already blighted, made up mostly of railroad yards that added nothing to the surrounding district, and it threatened to remain like that forever if planned projects kept failing to launch.


The surprising thing is that I don’t mind the architecture, by the Manhattan-based firm SHoP. It’s a rusty hulk, not necessarily in a bad way. It’s interestingly articulated and pleasing at night, when light shines through slots in the steel cladding.  There’s a swooping marquee with a keyhole open to the sky that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, and a new subway entrance with a sedum-planted roof. I find it less objectionable than expected at worst, exciting at best.

A new mural has appeared since I last looked on the side of the Mark Morris dance studio, part of the BAM Cultural District

Traffic is whizzing along Flatbush Avenue like never before, thanks to new lanes and personnel. There are complaints by neighbors, to be sure, about arena patrons peeing in the bushes of surrounding brownstone blocks. If urine is the worst problem, I’d say it’s been worth it for the economic engine this thing is likely to be. Vacant storefronts on the avenue are fewer. The Fulton Street corridor in Fort Greene is packed with newish restaurants and shops of a decidedly gentrified nature. Fulton Street! If I could tell you how inconceivable it was in 1979, when we bought an 1830s row house nearby for $36,000, that the neighborhood would ever be — not only desirable, but the essence of hip. We stepped over bums (that’s what we used to call them) on our stoop daily, couldn’t get Manhattan friends to visit, and traveled by bus to shop in Brooklyn Heights. Of course that was 33 years ago; but that’s how long it can take for a neighborhood to turn fully around.

It’s turned. The other night, my sister and I met at No. 7, a bar/restaurant that comes by its retro feel honestly; it’s part of a great row of old wooden storefronts where Greene Avenue meets Fulton. After a fancy gin cocktail — muddled blueberries and elderflower liquer, don’t ya know — we repaired to the cozy Cafe Lafayette around the corner, where I had a very satisfying couscous dish for a few dollars. Then we hied over to the newest performance space at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (above, the main Opera House), the BAM Fisher, below, a 1928 building refurbished and expanded to accommodate more of BAM’s uncompromisingly avant garde productions. We saw ‘Elsewhere,’ part of the New Wave Festival, billed as a cello opera. All I knew going in was that it was about women, and the tickets were $20. It was both exhilarating and disturbing, a combination of movement, sound, spoken word, projections, performance art, and bizarre imagery. The good news: it was only 70 minutes long and we left laughing.

The high-rise development of lower Flatbush Avenue, near the Manhattan Bridge, is creeping northward. A sliver of skyscraper at #29 Flatbush, below, is still crane-topped but already very tall.

Soon the 1929 Williamsburgh Savings Bank, below, for decades the tallest building in Brooklyn at 29 stories, will be eclipsed by many others. So it goes. As long as the architecture of the brownstone neighborhoods is protected (and for the most part, it is), I’m generally in favor of what seems like real progress. Where the Barclay’s Center is concerned, I may never go to a Nets or Islanders game, and I’m not one for huge arena concerts, but so far, I’m a fan.

Fort Greene Then & Now


ARE YOU ON THE EMAIL LIST of the Brooklyn Historical Society? It’s worth it for their  “Photo of the Week,” a gem from their archives that never fails to get my attention. This morning came the ca. 1897 shot above, of three horses drinking from a fountain at the intersection of Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue, a block from the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The accompanying info, from the BHS’s 1897 and 1898 city directories, reveals that 63 Lafayette was occupied by Joseph Nadler, a ladies’ tailor; 65 Lafayette by William H. Fricke, a furrier, and August Kretzer, a grocer; and #67 by Theo. Eisenbiegler, a butcher.

Although some embellishments have been added, the buildings are still standing, as visible in the Google street view, below.

To see more online images from the Brooklyn Historical Society’s collection, pop on over here.