Friday, August 31, 2012

An Historical Evening: Live Music and Beer at the BHS

Once a month over the course of the summer, the front patio of the Brooklyn Historical Society morphed into a beer garden, brought to you by Brooklyn Brewery. Meanwhile, the library came alive as a live music venue. Last night, Maura and I stopped by and took a look inside the museum, which is currently hosting a photography exhibit curated by local high school students. Check it out, if you're in the neighborhood. Afterwards, we caught Sarah Dooley's great--and witty--solo show (just a keyboard, a voice and a sense of humor) in the library. She has an album coming out in the next couple of months, so make sure to visit her site for updates. 

Thursday, August 30, 2012

In a City of Water Towers...

...what would it take for one to snap you to attention? Last night, walking east on Water Street towards the Manhattan Bridge, a couple of empty rooftop billboards caught my eye (an explanation), and I stopped to photograph them. Between photos, I was taken aback when the roofscape began to morph. All of the sudden, the dark water tower framed by the billboards became the focal point, illuminated from within to reveal a patchwork of multicolored panels. The work of artist Tom Fruin, with an assist from Ryan Holsopple, the water tower sculpture is a precursor to the larger Water Tank Project, which should be gracing the skyline in a big way by this time next year. Fruin's water tank is composed of hundreds of sheets of plexiglass reclaimed from sites around the city. At night, the light installation by Holsopple fades in and out, filling the tank with light instead of water. Take a look...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

AfroPunk '012

AfroPunk Fest during TV on the Radio's headlining set, 8/26

This past weekend, Brooklyners were treated to free live outdoor music, on a massive scale, as the 2012 Afro-punk Festival graced two stages at Commodore Barry Park in Fort Greene. Saturday night, Maura and I missed out on Erykah Badu, among many others, but we scooted over Sunday night in time for two stellar sets. When we arrived, the park was far from full, but a line snaked from the middle of Navy Street, down Park Avenue, nearly reaching Elliott, and the only entrance (on Navy) was something of a log jam.  As we circled the park, we encountered fence climbers and fence crawlers...

Scene from North Elliott Place
At a fence within the fence (between the playground and the grassy area where the concert was held), someone had even tilted a ladder against the fence to assist the rebel alliance. It was pretty awesome... I wouldn't exactly consider any of this extra-legal, as it was a free concert, and the park was only half-full at the time. Again... people were sneaking in to a free concert.  Eventually, the concert organizers and the police would adjust on the fly, deciding to open up a second entrance (great call). 

Overall, it was a very well-run event. The last time I attended a festival (Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival a few years ago in between the bridges), each act ran a few minutes long, as it took time to break down and set up between performances.  By the time KRS-One, the headliner, took the stage, he had time for TWO songs, and the show was shut down by park officials at 8:00 sharp. The Afro-punk Fest smartly provided two stages, alternating shows between them, with a band/singer on one, and a DJ on the other, while the next act set up.  Everything began at the correct time! It was impressive.

Anyway, we looped onto Flushing Ave--the north side of the park--and were greeted with an amazing sight. The photo here doesn't do the scene justice, as you would have to imagine this repeated over more than the length of a city block.

Off-street parking, Flushing Avenue
Brooklyn had turned out in droves, and by any means available. It was great. We wound up near the north stage, towards the beginning of Janelle Monáe's set. What a show. Despite the fact that we were relegated to the sidewalk along Flushing, the sound was great, and we caught some glimpses of the stage (and the spastic movements of Monáe's head and flailing arms). A good number of us formed a crowd and danced along, all the while observing attempts to scale the fence. At this point, the police recognized the hazards of folks scaling tall fences and crowds spilling into busy streets, and the second entrance opened. We enjoyed the entirety of TV on the Radio's performance from inside the fence, even securing our own spot on the lawn. Strangely enough, the sound quality was better outside the north fence, probably due to a couple of reasons: 1) the space was more enclosed--a smaller area with trailers lining the perimeter to catch the sound waves, and 2) well, TVOTR is a little bit noisier. Maura wanted to beat the crowds, but I insisted on hanging around till the end, convinced that they would close with "Wolf Like Me" (my favorite). Lo and behold, they moved from a song off their latest album ("Repetition") deftly into the beginning of "Wolf". I was thrilled, of course, and we ended up fleeing, trouble-free, as the song drew to a close. And as we walked away--much to our surprise--we caught the beginning of an encore... without a peep from park officials. 

All around, a great showing of community by the fine folks of Brooklyn. TGFB.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Under the (Art) Bridge: Public Art and "Public" Art

For awhile now, a temporary sidewalk bridge in DUMBO has hosted a public art installation: ChromaTweet, by Aleksandar Maćašev, which renders the artist's daily emotions in single colors over the course of three years and counting (it might go without saying that it is also a daily tweet). I find the digital, time-based form of this project extremely compelling, and some of the offshoots are quite beautiful. The banner in DUMBO, however, feels flat and uninspiring--reading more like an advertisement printed for the latest mixed use development.  What's more interesting to me is the ad hoc gallery ("graffiti" seems like an imprecise term) that has sprung up underneath the bridge. Here's a sampling, from Talib Kweli to Aliens to Happy Faces...

View of Art Bridge looking west down Water Street

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ones and Twos: The State of Joralemon East

Part 2 of 2 on the intermediate streets between Joralemon and State Streets in Brooklyn Heights

In the latter half of the 18th century, the mansion of Philip Livingston (again, a signer of the Declaration of Independence) stood between Joralemon and State Streets, facing Hicks. To the east of the mansion grew Livingston's gardens. During the Revolutionary War, the estate hosted General Washington and his troops, and--as the Garden Place Association so eloquently put it on this enjoyable "Chart to Find Your Way About" in 1933--"Here was held the Council of War at the time of the Battle of Long Island." Following Washington's retreat to Manhattan, the British Navy fashioned a hospital out of Livingston's mansion, continuing to tend his gardens. At the turn of the 19th century, a judge named Teunis Joralemon purchased the estate. In 1842, shortly after his death, the property was subdivided, leading to the creation of Garden Place.

(underlay via Google Maps)

The London Plane trees seen in the photos below were planted by the Garden Place Association in the 30s (they're also enthusiastically sketched on the aforementioned chart).

(L-R): Garden Place looking south, Termination of Garden Place at south end, Garden Place looking north
In the middle of the block we uncover an interesting bit of building archaeology. According to the plaque on the two-story brick building below (upper right), the structure was built in 1846 as a carriage house and stable to serve No. 13 Garden Place (below left). Seventy years later, it was converted to a garage with a dwelling on the second floor. In 1919 (from what I can surmise), a two-story, three-family English Tudor style building bridged the gap between No. 13 and its carriage house. I'd like to imagine there's a secret underground tunnel that still runs between the two.

Clockwise from left: 13 Garden Place, its original carriage house, and the intervening development

Details of Garden Place
Shuffling over down State Street, past Henry, we find ourselves at Sidney Place, the easternmost of the four connector streets between State and Joralemon. In Brooklyn by Name, the namesake of the street is said to be Sir Philip Sidney, a 16th Century English nobleman who--at the age of 32--was slain while fighting the Spanish in the Netherlands (shot to death off of his horse). From the same book, I learned that Sidney Place was initially called Monroe Place, which is now located farther north in Brooklyn Heights.

R-L: Sidney Place looking north, looking south

Two-thirds of the distance between State and Joralemon, Aitken Place--an extension of Livingston renamed for a 19th Century priest--terminates at Sidney Place (see picture on the left below). On the north side of Aitken Place stands the Catholic Church of St. Charles Borromeo, anchoring the north end of the block. Originally built in 1842 as an Episcopal Church, the property was sold to the Catholics in 1849, and the Episcopalians moved into Grace Church shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the original church was destroyed in a fire, and the current Gothic Revival church was designed in 1868 by the prolific and ballyhooed Irish-American architect Patrick C. Keely. The interior of St. Charles Borromeo boasts the "largest and last extant Odell tracker organ in New York City," in continuous use for the last 132 years. To the uninitiated (including me), "tracker" refers to the type of organ which utilizes a mechanical connection to link the keys and pedals to the pipe valves, as opposed to an electric or electro-pneumatic connection.  One more fun fact: the first priest here, Rev. Charles C. Pise, was also an educator and the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, carrying on the mission of the patron saint.

St. Charles Borromeo

Across Aitken Place to the south is the site of the former parochial school tied to St. Charles Borromeo.  Today, it is being converted into the new home of the Mary McDowell Friends School Upper School, a Quaker School established for students with learning disabilities (below left). Of further note is the recently restored wood frame house at the north end of the block, across Joralemon, which dates from 1833 (below, upper left).

Clockwise from upper left: 1830s wood frame house, carriage house, Mary McDowell Friends School, Sidney Place gardens

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Ones and Twos: The State of Joralemon West

Part 1 of 2 on the intermediate streets between Joralemon and State Streets in Brooklyn Heights

Moving south from last week's jaunt, we travel to the area now known as "Willowtown". According to its eponymous association, the neighborhood sits on the former estate of Philip Livingston, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Within Willowtown, we encounter a couple of short blocks that fall within our present scope of interest: Columbia Place and Willow Place.  Clay Lancaster and Edmund Gillon describe the creation of Willow Place--which presumably also explains Columbia Place--in their book, Old Brooklyn Heights: New York's First Suburb:
The Hicks brothers originally planned Willow Street to extend only between Middagh and Clark Streets. In 1818 the Brooklyn trustees wished to continue it to State Street, but Hezekiah B. Pierrepont wanted to maintain long blocks running in an east-west direction across his estate, and the scheme still prevails. Willow Street takes up on the south side of the former Pierrepont estate, the stretch from Joralemon to State Street going by the name of Willow Place. (Lancaster and Gillon, 74)
If it weren't for Pierrepont, Willow and Columbia would be just like any other street. Luckily for us, we now have two more quirky little streets to explore. The two maps below help to illustrate the result of Pierrepont's stubbornness. The first depicts Brooklyn Heights in 1855, while the second is contemporary. Notice the modern-day truncation of State Street and Columbia Place.  More on that later...

Illustration of isolation of Columbia Place and Willow Place, ca. 1855 (Map via Rumsey Collection)

Present-day configuration of streets (Google Maps)

Columbia Place from the north (left) and south (right)

One of the foremost philanthropists of 19th Century New York was Alfred Tredway White, who espoused the notion of dignified living for the working classes. In fact, his Tower and Home Buildings, built in Cobble Hill in 1879, reportedly constituted the earliest public housing project in the United States AND proved that worker housing could turn a profit (though he famously limited his profit to 5%). By 1890, White and his architect, William Field, had refined the model in the creation of their largest and most ambitious work, the Riverside Buildings, located at the corner of Joralemon and Columbia Place. In several ways, these projects represented a radical shift in tenement housing. Perhaps the biggest innovation was the provision of ample light and air for all tenants. This was accomplished by reserving approximately half of the buildable lot for gardens and open space, and by limiting the depth of the building to allow daylight and views on both sides of the apartments. The courtyard at Riverside also acted as a community gathering place, featuring a park, a bathhouse and a music pavilion. Originally comprising 9 buildings aggregated in a U-shape around the central courtyard, the complex today is a shadow of its former self. Thanks to Robert Moses, in the middle part of the 20th Century, the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway cleaved through the site, eliminating the four western buildings and a large portion of the courtyard (and cutting off State Street from the water). In the aerial photo below, you can see the remaining complex hugging the expressway.

Bird's eye view of Riverside Buildings from West (courtesy of Bing Maps)

Regardless, what remains is a testament to the remarkable vision of White, embodied by the care given to the details. The cast iron railings--prominent in the photos below--do not signify private balconies, as one might expect. Instead, they mark shared outdoor entry porches to eliminate the need for corridors (the tower portion contains an open-air stairwell). Admittedly, this probably isn't as nice in colder months, but other than that, it's a nice touch. 

Detail views of Riverside Buildings

Across the street to the west, four colorful clapboard houses stand anachronistically amidst the spring chickens adorned in austere brick. In the 1840s, the wood frame homes were erected as part of a string of nine such homes known as "Cottage Row" (Lancaster and Gillon, 74). Accustomed as Brooklyners are to the near-omnipresent stoop, it's rare that one comes across actual front porches in this neck of the woods. By the end of the block, the buildings fall away, and we are treated to a community garden, flanked by a narrow dog run and finally (just out of view) a playground, which provides a buffer to Atlantic Avenue.  Thanks to the climbing vegetation behind the garden, it's almost possible to forget that a loud and obnoxious expressway looms just beyond.

Right: Single-family "Cottage Row" townhomes.  Left: Community garden in foreground, dog run beyond

If you thought Columbia Place was motley, wait till you turn the corner.  The southern end of Willow Place is odd, but also a little awesome. In the left photo below, you'll notice a line of Greek Revival homes on the right, unified by a two-story white portico, recently restored. A remnant of something similar appears to have survived across the street, meeting a much different fate. It has been embraced by its modern, deceptively fun-loving family, who doesn't care if it doesn't brush its teeth or if it gets its nose pierced.

Willow Place from the south (left) and north (right)

While I wonder about bugs, I love the vines sprouting from the columns. It gives the old rebel an organic, New Orleansy feel--and a little extra character to the block buildings that love it. Looking at the row of homes from the street, it almost seems like the newer buildings have been built in an E-shape around the two older houses.  That would be ridiculous, of course.

In the middle of the block stands a small Gothic Revival chapel, also bearing the imprint of Alfred White (it is now known as the Alfred T. White Community Center). Originally built by the Unitarian Church, of which White was a prominent and involved member, the chapel has witnessed a startling variety of activity throughout its history. Since 1962, the Heights Players have called it home. The acting troupe's website offers this succinct account of the building's evolution:
The building at 26 Willow Place has had an interesting history. After Mr. White died and the Center was no longer supported, the City of New York took it over as a social center; what was at one point a gym, is now our theater. During World War II, mainly prostitutes used the building. It was then sold to a foundry, which cast the bronze eagle that hangs over the door of the American Embassy in London.
In 1957 a group of Willowtown parents started a cooperative nursery school. Having outgrown the small room they were using, a search for a new space was begun; finally, the chapel and its attached building were found. In the fall of 1962, a group of citizens purchased the chapel and mission house and established the A.T. White Community Center. The three occupants of the building, the Brooklyn Community Nursery School, The Heights Players, Inc. and the Roosa School of Music, were all designated as permanent users.
As the chapel sets back to form an entry court, we are afforded a good look at the adjacent construction, including the structural tie-back for the floor inside (the little plus shape on the brick wall at right).  Evidently seismic separation between buildings was not an issue in White's day.  God bless the building code.

A.T. White Community Center, home of the Heights Players

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ones and Twos, Mews and Throughs: Back in the Good Graces

When Maura and I lived near Red Hook, we dubbed one of our favorite dog-walking routes "The Cheever Weaver," after one of four, long single-block streets that ran between Degraw and Kane Streets in Cobble Hill. Not only did it allow us to put some serious mileage on the pedometer while staying close to home (invaluable), it also served as a gateway into the bizarre and pleasant world of short Brooklyn streets. Some are mews, some might be converted alleys, and some are simply mid-block connector streets, presumably created to give more street frontage to more houses on otherwise massive plots of land. Either way, they're mostly quiet and often leafy, and they're all distinct, with their own idiosyncrasies. These are their stories.

Brooklyn Heights has at least ten such streets. Let's take a walk, starting with the Graces: Grace Court (running west from Hicks Street and ending just above the BQE) and Grace Court Alley (from Hicks east to just shy of Henry Street).  

As the "Alley" might imply, Grace Court is the greener, statelier, more prominent elder sibling of the two. In the first half of the 19th Century, west of Hicks--between Remsen and Joralemon--stood the Trotter Estate to the south (which I believe was home to Jonathan Trotter, the 2nd Mayor of Brooklyn), and the estate of Charles Hoyt, a real estate speculator, to the north. The Trotter estate was later purchased by John H. Prentice, a fur trader and developer of the system of warehouses along the waterfront, who later became involved in the development of Prospect Park. His partner in the fur trade, William S. Packer, bought the adjacent Hoyt estate.  Packer met his wife, Harriet Putnam, when she was working as a governess in Prentice's home. After retiring, he founded the Brooklyn Female Academy, which burned to the ground shortly after his death.  Harriet picked up the pieces, rebuilding the academy as the Packer Institute. Anyway, Packer and Prentice eventually decided to subdivide the two estates, in turn creating Grace Court. An 1894 article from the New York Times, describing the contemporary character of Grace Court, as well as some of its history, explains:

As the land grew valuable and was sold into house lots, after Grace Court was cut through by Mr. Prentice and Mr. Packer, each purchaser bought a lot of double length, with the agreement that the end on the court should never be built upon. Every one at the upper end did this, but one man midway in the block would not agree. He wanted the double lot, but he must have it in width so that a house might be built for his daughter beside his own. This spoiled the arrangement, and two or three houses were put up on that side of Grace Court.

Thus, the north side of Grace Court remains somewhat less structurally populated than the south, though more street-frontage has grown up closer to the river, with the largest buildings (with the best skyline and river views) standing at the west end of the block.  On the other end, Grace Episcopal Church marks the east entrance to the Court (to the left in the first picture below).  The Gothic revival church was designed by the architect Richard Upjohn and opened in 1848 to accommodate the growth of the Episcopalians in Brooklyn.  Down the street, 31 Grace Court served as the one-time home of Arthur Miller, during the period in which he wrote Death of a Salesman.  In 1951, Miller sold the house to W.E.B. DuBois, who lived there until his passing in 1963.  The building has since been carved up into a multi-family dwelling. 

View west down Grace Court, from Hicks Street

Clockwise from left: Brownstone single-family home, a backyard garden fronting Grace Court, Grace Church.
View of the water from the west end of Grace Court

Though not quite as leafy as its western counterpart, Grace Court Alley has been bequeathed smaller doses of green by its residents.  The backs and sides of a few larger apartment buildings face the alley, but it is lined mostly with carriage houses, which were once tethered to the mansions facing Remsen and Joralemon Streets.  For them, the alley is the street.  It's a much quieter and more intimate experience than that of Grace Court, which--probably due to the larger scale of the buildings, the water view and the church--has grown up to become a proper street.  The Alley, in contrast, only hosts the traffic of cars belonging to its houses, and the foot traffic doesn't seem to be much more frequent.  Early in the morning, when the bustle has begun in the rest of Brooklyn, Grace Court Alley can play the ghost town.
View east down Grace Court Alley from Hicks Street.  The 60 Remsen apartment building is to the left.

Designed in the early 1990s by architect Joseph Stella to follow the Landmarks Preservation Commission's recommendation to fit with the character of the nineteenth-century mews, the home at the end of the block stands on the site of a former stable.  On Stella's website, you can see how the alley previously terminated in the side-rump shot of a stable-cum-garage.  The new structure circumvented zoning regulations, which would have limited the building to projecting about half as far into the alley as it does.  Instead, the right (south) side of the ground floor is treated as a breezeway, or entry court, the second floor above is an open air porch, and the third floor is an attic, which can't be held against it, zoning-wise.  If you haven't noticed, zoning regulations and the Landmarks commission carry a lot of weight in this town, and architects, engineers and building owners are constantly fighting to stay one step ahead.

Scenes from the east end of Grace Court Alley.