Renovation of Brooklyn Heights archive for Asian art wins preservation award
Unique building on Cranberry Street has a rare connection to fine art
BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — A striking historical renovation in the colorful Fruit Street District of Brooklyn Heights has won a prestigious Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award. The New York Landmarks Conservancy will announce several winners of this award later this spring.
A unique building at 23 Cranberry St., formerly the home of world-famous sculptor John Rhoden, has been renovated for the Asia Art Archive in America by noted architect Ben Baxt, a longtime resident of Cobble Hill and co-founder of the firm Baxt Ingui.
The Lucy G. Moses Preservation Awards are the Conservancy’s highest honors for excellence in preservation. The Awards recognize individuals, organizations, and building owners for their extraordinary contributions to the City. The Conservancy is grateful for the support of the Henry and Lucy Moses Fund, which makes the Awards possible.
History of the Project and Site
The recent renovation of the carriage house at 23 Cranberry Street began the fourth chapter of a 130-year life during which it continues to occupy a unique place in Brooklyn Heights. Earliest
records show 23 Cranberry occupied by a modest, wood-frame house and a small iron fabricator. In 1886, it was purchased by Charles Arbuckle, who, with his brother John, became wealthy in the coffee roasting business and control of the Empire Stores Warehouses on the Brooklyn waterfront.
That same year, Charles commissioned Brooklyn architect Albert Norris to design a grand mansion on Columbia Heights at Cranberry Street and a carriage house at 23 Cranberry. Large and luxurious by any standard, the carriage house accommodated a carriage and seven horses on the first floor, Arbuckle’s richly furnished office on the second, coachman and groomsmen on the third, and a private bowling alley in the cellar. Only five years after its completion, Charles Arbuckle died.
A few years later, in response to the embrace of the automobile by Brooklyn Heights residents, 23 Cranberry began its second chapter as an auto garage. A 1903 ad by the Auto Club offering rental of a private bowling alley is the first evidence of its conversion from horse and buggy. In 1911, an oil explosion in then-named Pioneer Garage caused the death of the garage manager and damage severe enough to require extensive reconstruction. (The recent adaptive reuse revealed remaining areas of charred structure). During that rebuilding, a large elevator was added to move cars between the levels. They skylit brick elevator shaft became the dominant interior feature. In the 1920s, it was renamed the Plymouth Garage, by which it was known into the 1950s. Various articles, photos, and ads confirm use as a garage, offering auto repair and selling gasoline, tires, and other auto products.
In 1960, artists John and Richanda Rhoden purchased 23 Cranberry to be their art studios and
residence. John Rhoden was an Alabama-born African American sculptor who began studying art at Columbia University in 1938. His talent earned him numerous accolades, including a Fulbright. Richanda was a Cherokee and Menominee woman born, raised, and educated in Washington state, where she earned a degree in anthropology. After World War II, she moved to NYC to study Asian art at Columbia, an interest for the remainder of her life. In 1954, the pair met in Rome, where John was a Fellow at the American Academy. Through the 1950s, they traveled the world, including an extended stay in Indonesia, where John helped set up a bronze foundry funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Richanda collected stories of the people, inspired by their folklore and mythology.
After their nomadic lives, the Rhodens devoted their attention to converting 23 Cranberry, teaching at NYC public schools, and their art. To become acquainted with her neighbors, Richanda set up small craft tables in front of the big open garage door. Those informal happenings became the genesis of the Cranberry Street Festival and the Cranberry Street Association. Richanda considered Cranberry Street her extended family.
Artifacts collected on their travels filled the building. John amassed raw materials for sculpture and constructed a complete metal foundry for casting his work. Many of these objects are now kept with their work in a gallery devoted to the Rhodens at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. However, a few, including a Buddhist prayer table, a teak railroad tie from Indonesia, and pieces of hardware and cast iron, brass, and bronze left behind have been incorporated into the interiors of Asia Art Archive in America (AAA in A).
In later years, when mobility became difficult, Richanda moved her painting studio into the skylit
elevator cab itself, the same platform that once ferried the automobiles up and down. She died in 2015 at the age of 98. John and Richanda’s beneficiary, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, sold the property to Asia Art Archive in America in 2019, beginning Chapter 4 at 23 Cranberry Street.
23 Cranberry is the adaptive reuse and retrofit of a three-story carriage house to be the US home of the Asia Art Archive in America (AAA in A) and two residential apartments.
The New York Landmarks Conservancy, a private non-profit organization, has led the effort to preserve and protect New York City’s architectural legacy for nearly 50 years. Since its founding, the Conservancy has loaned and granted more than $54 million, which has leveraged more than $1 billion in 1,850 restoration projects throughout New York, revitalizing communities, providing economic stimulus and supporting local jobs. The Conservancy has also offered countless hours of pro bono technical advice to building owners, both nonprofit organizations and individuals. The Conservancy’s work has saved more than a thousand buildings across the City and State, protecting New York’s distinctive architectural heritage for residents and visitors alike today, and for future generations. For more information, please visit www.nylandmarks.org.
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