Downtown Brooklyn

Group races to save Downtown Brooklyn’s great buildings before they’re gone

‘Adaptive reuse’ better than the wrecking ball

March 19, 2024 Mary Frost
The century-old Brooklyn Edison Building at 345 Adams St.
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DOWNTOWN BROOKLYN — A coalition of Brooklyn civic and neighborhood organizations is racing to landmark some of Downtown Brooklyn’s great buildings and sites before they are lost to development.

Numerous architecturally or culturally-significant places, many with roots dating back to a time when Brooklyn was an independent city, are in danger of disappearing, according to the Downtown Brooklyn Landmarks Coalition.

The group includes the Brooklyn Heights Association, Boerum Hill Association, Park Slope Civic Council, Historic Districts Council and its newest member, the Cobble Hill Association. 

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The coalition’s advocacy has recently been dubbed one of 2024’s “Six to Celebrate” by the Historic Districts Council, which will assist in the effort to petition the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider landmarking the irreplaceable but endangered buildings. 

The Six to Celebrate receive HDC’s hands-on help on all aspects of their efforts over the course of the year and continued support in the years to come, the organization said. 

“This effort is critically important because the 2004 upzoning of Downtown Brooklyn generated a development wave that has yet to abate and threatens to eradicate every remaining vestige of Brooklyn’s historic Downtown,” Peter Bray, chair of the Park Slope Civic Council’s Historic District Committee, told the Brooklyn Eagle. 

“In the 1900s, Downtown Brooklyn was the place for Brooklyn residents to shop, dine and be entertained. It was the heart and soul of Brooklyn,” Bray said. “Without preserving the most architecturally and historically significant buildings that remain, the Downtown will be unrecognizable from what it once was.”

Peter Bray, chair of the Park Slope Civic Council’s Historic District Committee. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

A new approach

Bray, who served as executive director of the Brooklyn Heights Association from 2015 to 2019, said that BHA tried years ago to get LPC to designate three small historic districts in the Downtown area, but that effort fell through. “The LPC was unfortunately unwilling to take that step,” he said.

Now the coalition is trying a new approach, based on landmarking individual sites rather than districts, and is focusing on seven iconic buildings.

“On a cold February morning last year, representatives from these organizations walked the Downtown to identify a list of priorities for the LPC’s consideration.  At the same time, we reached out to Councilmember [Lincoln] Restler to obtain his support of this initiative, and he, along with the four initial members of the coalition, jointly signed a letter to the LPC with our seven priorities,” Bray said.

In December, Landmarks responded that four out of the seven of the buildings deserved further consideration. “LPC’s recent recognition that it should re-survey the downtown and take steps to designate more landmarks is a heartening development,” Bray said, calling Restler’s endorsement “a critical factor” in the coalition’s initial success.

“I’m pleased that the Historic District Council has included Downtown Brooklyn in their Six to Celebrate for 2024,” Restler told the Eagle, calling Downtown Brooklyn “the ever growing heart of our borough.”

“Especially in light of the dense development happening in the neighborhood, we look forward to working with HDC, the Downtown Brooklyn Landmarks Coalition, and our neighbors to landmark historically and architecturally significant buildings in the neighborhood to preserve and celebrate our rich history,” he said.

The Downtown Brooklyn Partnership declined to comment on this topic.

Brooklyn Edison Building lands on the LPC calendar

One site LPC agreed to consider is the century-old Brooklyn Edison Building at 345 Adams St., with a notable presence on Pearl and Willoughby streets. The “monumental” building is home to the NYC Board of Elections, the Department of Finance and other city agencies. On Feb. 13, LPC voted to calendar the building, which is the first step in the designation process — a move BHA applauded in its newsletter on Sunday.

The Brooklyn Edison Building was finished in 1926 and designed by the firm of McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin, which also designed the Brooklyn Municipal Building and other noted structures. Built for the Brooklyn Edison Company, which provided electricity to Brooklyn, the building incorporated all the latest technological developments of its day, such as advanced lighting and telephone systems.

In the 1930s, the Brooklyn Edison Company created a 10-room house called the “Edison Wonder House” to showcase the wonders of electricity in the lobby of its showroom at Pearl Street, according to the Smithsonian.

LPC called the building a “notable landmark in the civic and commercial heart of Brooklyn.”

One of the buildings the Landmarks Preservation Commission will not consider is the former Frederick Loesser & Co. department store at the corner of Elm Place and Livingston Street. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Former Frederick Loesser & Co. department store ‘not worthy’

One of the buildings that LPC deemed unworthy of further consideration is the former Frederick Loesser & Co. department store at 25 Elm Pl./229 Livingston St., a building that was closely identified with Downtown’s retail heyday, Bray said.

“In this period of heightened concern about global warming, it makes more sense to reuse older buildings than to  expend vast amounts of carbon to tear down and build new. This building, in our view, retains a significant amount of its original character, but would also be a great candidate for adaptive reuse and potential for meeting the city’s affordable housing crisis,” he said.

The Bureau of Charities Building 

The Romanesque Revival-style Bureau of Charities Building at 67-69 Schermerhorn St., was designed in 1887 by William B. Tubby, said architectural historian and BHA President Jeremy Lechtzin. Tubby’s firm was tapped for the job by leading Brooklyn philanthropist Alfred T. White. 

“White was a proponent of commissioning good architecture to promote his good works. He had leading architects design his model tenements for the working class, like the Riverside Buildings in Brooklyn Heights, and the Tower Buildings and Warren Place workers cottages in Cobble Hill. Selecting Tubby for the Charities Building continued that tradition,” Lechtzin said.

LPC agreed that the site “may merit consideration” as an individual landmark, and BHA expects they’ll study it further, he said.  

Not under consideration for landmarking is the Burt Building, at 446 Fulton St. at the corner of Hoyt Street. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

‘Exuberant’ Burt Building not under consideration 

One eye-catching building not currently under consideration by LPC is the Burt Building, at 446 Fulton St. at the corner of Hoyt Street. 

“The exuberant Victorian-era domed turret at top is really evocative of the showmanship of this retail corridor at the time. The feature is quite a rare survivor for all of NYC commercial buildings, not just Downtown Brooklyn,” Lechtzin said.

The Burt Building was constructed for Lucy Wheeler, whose father put up the original Macy’s/A&S building a few doors down. “She ended up controlling the whole block and was a major real estate player,” he said.

LPC recently declined to consider this building for landmark protection, however, saying it has undergone too many alterations. 

“But the bones of the building, and its crown — the terra cotta cornice, the dome — are intact. The missing elements could be reproduced from historic photographs — we think this building is a great candidate for adaptive reuse,” Lechtzin said.

A cannabis shop has recently taken over the ground floor retail space.

The former home of Woolworth’s, at 532-540 Fulton St., was torn down about ten years ago despite being noted on the 2003 list of “28 Architecturally Significant Buildings in Downtown Brooklyn.” Photo: Google Maps 2009

The former Woolworth building, gone forever

The former home of Woolworth’s, at 532-540 Fulton St., was torn down about ten years ago despite being noted on the 2003 list of “28 Architecturally Significant Buildings in Downtown Brooklyn” that BHA and Municipal Arts Society published. 

“Our list got attention — Christopher Gray mentioned it in two of his New York Times Streetscapes columns, and it led to LPC designating the two New York Telephone buildings on Willoughby Street in 2004. But that didn’t help the old Woolworth building,” Lechtzin said. 

He added, “You can still see it in Google Street View.”

Rising on the former Woolworth site is the Paxton, a 43-story mixed-use tower with 327 apartments (89 affordable), 137,000 square feet of offices and 33,000 square feet of retail, according to Commercial Observer.

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