Arts & Leisure
Stories Behind Famous Brooklyn Buildings
No single building defines Brooklyn in the way that the Empire State Building defines Manhattan or the Willis Tower defines Chicago. And if Kings County could be identified through a solitary structure, it would certainly be the Brooklyn Bridge. Four of the first five pictures on a Google image search of “Brooklyn” are of the iconic bridge. Rows of brownstones would be a distant second, but there isn’t one in particular that can be considered a defining example.
This isn’t to say there aren’t historic or recognizable buildings in Brooklyn. There’s a boatload, of course. The National Register of Historic Places lists over 150 different places of note in Brooklyn alone, more than any other borough except Manhattan. These are the neighborhoods, churches, subway stations and buildings that together tell the story of Brooklyn’s long and ever-changing history. Let’s take at some of the stories behind famous buildings in Brooklyn.
The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower
When I first moved to Brooklyn, I had not the slightest clue what that soaring, absurdly-phallic building that towered over the Atlantic Yards was called, but without it I would have been doomed. I referred to it as the Clock Tower, and it was my Brooklyn North Star. It could be seen from as far away as Bed-Stuy or Gowanus, and in a borough largely devoid of grids, it was often they only way to know which direction I was headed. I know what it’s called now – The Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower – and I’ve ventured inside for flea markets and work functions, but personally, the building has lost little of its mystique.
At its completion in 1929, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower sent an authoritative message. Brooklyn was only 30-years removed from its annexation by Manhattan, and the new tower made it clear that the nascent borough would not be overshadowed by its powerful neighbor. It didn’t quite work out that way; the Williamsburgh did not signal a dawn of Brooklyn skyscraper construction. Brooklyn’s skyline, charming in its blunt simplicity as it may be, doesn’t match the overwhelming enormity of Manhattan. And the Williamsburgh, like a ball player that retires with a horde of records only to watch his legacy diminish as record after record falls, has lost its stature. No longer is it the tallest building on Long Island (that honor belongs to the Citibank Building in Long Island City, Queens), and no longer is it even the tallest in Brooklyn. That would be the Brooklyner, one of Kings County’s newest, swankiest apartment complexes. The Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower doesn’t even really exist anymore at all; now it’s called One Hanson Place and is home to luxury apartments. Despite all these developments, it is still a grand building. While the outside is unremarkable (unless you consider it remarkable that Slate once called it "the most phallic building in the country"), the interior is beautiful. Featuring a sixty three foot vaulted ceiling, forty foot windows and intense blue mosaics, it has been called the most famous interior in New York.
Parachute Jump in Coney Island
I included this even though it’s not technically a building because there is perhaps no other structure in Brooklyn that has inspired more people to say “what the heck is that thing?” than Coney Island’s Parachute Jump. Rising two hundred sixty two feet above the venerable boardwalk, the Parachute Jump is a defunct amusement ride that has been out of commission since the late 1960s. It remained in place almost solely because it was such a charming oddity; it’s been called the "Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn."
The Parachute Jump was built for the 1939 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, and then moved to its current location two years later to take its place next to the famed Cyclone rollercoaster. After a good amount of research, I’m still not entirely sure I know how this ride worked, but here’s my best shot: a pair of suicidal thrill-seekers were strapped to canvas seat and hoisted to the top of the tower by a lift rope. Once at the summit, a release mechanism dropped the parachute and the riders fell slowly to earth, their landing softened only by pole-mounted springs acting as shock absorbers. What kept the parachutes from being swept away into the abyss of the Atlantic Ocean requires an understanding of physics that I just do not possess.
The ride was eventually shut down and, despite numerous attempts to disassemble it to make room for condos, survived due to public demand. It was designated a National Historic Place in 1980. And to answer your next question, yes…there are rumors of making it operable once again.
The Brooklyn Museum
Built in the waning years of the 19th century, the Brooklyn Museum’s designers originally intended it to be the largest museum in the world. Though it didn’t quite reach that lofty goal, today it houses the second largest art collection in New York with over 1.5 million pieces, and overall the museum is distinguished by its staggering enormity. Designed by the legendary architect team McKim, Mead and White, the Brooklyn Museum is a fine example of Beaux-Arts architecture, a French-borne neoclassical architectural style.
The Litchfield Villa in Prospect Park
The wealthiest readers out there may consider themselves lucky to have a balcony or a spare bedroom, but high-society families of 19th century Brooklyn were much more ambitious. They preferred mansions resting on acres and acres of land. The Litchfields were one such family, and in the 1850’s they hired architect Alexander Jackson Davis to build their dream home. Davis, known for works such as the U.S. Customs Building in Manhattan, lived up to his reputation, and the home he built for the Litchfields was a flawless example of the Italianate Villa style. The building featured an asymmetrical design with square towers of varying heights, a wraparound porch, flat and sloped roofs and an abundance of wooden balconies. It sat atop a natural hill almost three hundred feet high, and from the four-story main tower, offered resplendent views of the East River and the budding Manhattan skyline.
Unfortunately for the Litchfields, they built the mansion on land destined to become Prospect Park. Olmsted and Vaux were not about to have their vision subverted by a simple wealthy family. In 1868, a mere eleven years after the house was completed, the Litchfields were forced to sell the property to the Brooklyn Parks Commission. The Villa eventually became the headquarters for the City of New York/Parks and Recreation and the Prospect Park Alliance. After years of decay, an unnamed decedent of the Litchfields donated the capital for a full restoration, which was completed in 2008. Today, the Litchfield Villa remains open to the public and can be found on Prospect Park West and 5th Street.
The Royal Castle Apartments
These are several iconic buildings in New York City celebrating their 100th birthday in 2013, led of course by Grand Central Terminal. A centennial of only slightly lesser note is Brooklyn’s Royal Castle Apartments, located at 20-30 Gates Avenue in the Clinton Hill Historic District.
For decades, Clinton Hill was a neighborhood of choice for New York’s wealthy elite and the opulent mansions and row-houses that dot the Historic District today are testaments to this time. The Royal Castle Apartments — another magnificent example of Beaux Arts architecture located in Brooklyn — are some of the most distinguished examples from this time period. The buildings are notable for the figures of stone masons that hold up the ledges and the monstrous statues that line the top floors. As many have pointed out, the particular style seen on the Royal Castle is a real-life display of the type of Gothic architecture and atmosphere that permeated Tim Burton’s vision of Batman.
When Brooklyn achieved autonomy in 1834, municipal leaders began searching for suitable land for their own City Hall. They eventually settled on a patch located in present-day Downtown Brooklyn, and construction began in 1836. Funding dried up quickly however, and the project was essentially put on hold for a decade. Using a combination of proposals put forth by architects Calvin Pollard and Gamaliel King, and displaying a distinct Greek Revival design, Brooklyn's City Hall was finally completed in 1848.
For all that is made of Brooklyn’s independence and all the claims of it being “the fourth largest city in the U.S.,” Brooklyn’s reign as an independent city lasted a scant sixty four years. That’s about half the amount of time the Yankees have existed. It was never deemed that historically significant because it represented such a small chunk of in the New York City timeline. In the 1930’s, a push was made to tear down Borough Hall. Several plans were offered, but none came to fruition. Almost by happenstance, Borough Hall became old enough to be designated a National Historic Place, securing its future. Massive restorations have been occurring throughout the decades, and in the 1980s, the flag at the tip of the cupola was replaced with its current adornment: a golden statue of Lady Justice.
I didn't include other famous buildings that have been discussed in previous Brooklyn Exposed articles. Click through to read about the infamous Public Bath House #7, the oldest building in all of New York and the famous East Midwood Jewish Center.