On Tuesday, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a new historic district surrounding Borough Hall in downtown Brooklyn. Dubbed the Borough Hall Skyscraper District, the area encompasses 21 architecturally distinct skyscrapers and office buildings that pepper Court, Remsen, Montague, Livingston and Joralemon streets. Our reaction here at Hyperallergic to the news was, “What? There’s an entire district of historic skyscrapers in Brooklyn?!” As a Brooklyn-based blog, we were shocked that this architectural treasure trove had somehow slipped under our radar, but proud to learn that Manhattan isn’t the only borough with skyscraper bragging rights.
Of course, the term “skyscraper” in the case of the Borough Hall District is not what we think of today, especially with the construction of One World Trade Center underway, which promises to reach a dizzying 1,776 feet. With some of the taller buildings extending to a little over 30 stories, the Brooklyn skyscrapers are quieter structures. This is due both to the time period of the buildings (which date back to the late 19th and early 20th C, as in pre-Empire State building) and the terrain of Brooklyn itself. According to a post written by Andy McCathy on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s blog, Brooklyn “is not ripe for the engineering of skyward architecture.”
Whereas Manhattan’s bedrock is full of schist, an extremely strong rock type that can support massive buildings, Brooklyn’s foundation at the waterfront is soft. In fact, Dutch settlers became the first to stigmatize Brooklyn when they called the island, “broken land.”
Yet despite Brooklyn’s technical difficulties, the buildings of Borough Hall looked skyward, creating the original skyline of Brooklyn. The buildings also brought with them an important era of commercial development to the area.
Spurred by the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, insurance companies and financial service institutions arrived in the neighborhood. Soon downtown Brooklyn’s low-scale buildings were replaced with high-rises built by some of Brooklyn’s most well-known architecture firms of the day including the Parfitt Brothers, who contributed heavily to the development of Brooklyn Heights during the end of the 19th C.
The landmarked skyscrapers as they stand today are a mash-up of past and present. The Temple Bar Building at 44 Court Street, one of the most famed of the series, is stuffed with a Duane Reade on its first floor. But a glance upward reveals three striking curved copper copulas in the Beaux-Arts style that protrude from the top of the regal structure.
Next door is a 22-story Colonial Revival style building (32 Court Street) that looms over the Temple Bar Building, while around the corner is the slightly shabbier Romanesque Franklin Building (186 Remsen street), which has been abandoned for the past decade. Another highlight of the district is the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Building at 75 Livingston. Built later in the 1920s, the building has an exquisite series of jutting white peaks that give the structure a lightness reminiscent of a Gothic cathedral.
The LPC’s decision to landmark the district was not an easy one. The Commission faced sever opposition from local landlords and store owners who fear that renovations to the skyscrapers will also sky rocket the costs of rent and maintenance and hinder further development in the neighborhood. Ellen Murphy, president of the co-op board at 75 Livingston Street, told the New York Times that she was “dismayed by the vote” and that the decision would definitely “increase the costs of maintaining the building.” But what is the alternative? Without landmark status, the skyscrapers could easily be knockdown and replaced with even more expensive high-rises, as is already happening in other parts of Brooklyn.
Yet the accusations that the LPC’s decision will stem development in the neighborhood may have some truth to them. Francis Leadon, co-author of the fifth addition of the AIA Guide to New York City, speculates that the LPC is trying to check the nearby St. Francis College, which has been aggressively increasing their presence in the area. Nearly five years ago, the college demolished its 19th C. McGarry Library and replaced it with a modern building. The Brooklyn Heights Blog provides further evidence for Leadon’s guess, stating in a post that the landmark designation has been in the works since the destruction of the library in order to save other buildings from a similar fate.
Whatever the reasons behind the establishment of this new district, these buildings are certainly worth preserving for both their historical and architectural significance. Considering how quickly this city seeks to erase its past, its nice to see the LPC succeed in keeping this unique part of Brooklyn history intact.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.