For over a decade the Brooklyn Heights Association and a coalition of residents rallied against Robert Moses, who proposed routing the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway through the heart of a neighborhood with over 600 pre-civil war structures. Had this proposal come to fruition, hundreds of historic homes would have been demolished. After nine years of legislative maneuvers, Brooklyn Heights was designated a historic district in 1965, paving the way for other neighborhoods to seek the same protection. There are now 109 historic districts and 20 historic district extensions across the city.
In 2011, Brooklyn Heights did it again. Standing up to heavy-hitting developers and some local residents, a coalition of preservationists and local politicians won the quest to create the landmarked Brooklyn Skyscraper District.
Skyscrapers in Brooklyn? There are no skyscrapers in this part of Brooklyn, you say. At least not any built before the 21st century. With the tallest of the historic district’s skyscrapers reaching a little over 30 stories, one can’t be blamed for not noticing them.
To spot most of the stand-out architectural features located on the upper floors, don’t forget to look up! You can also get a good view of the most significant of these skyscrapers from the pedestrian plaza adjacent to the neo-Classical Brooklyn Borough Hall (formerly Brooklyn City Hall), which was completed in 1851 when Brooklyn was an independent city.
What makes the Brooklyn Skyscraper District so special is that one can see, in a relatively small area, an array of architectural styles ranging from Beaux-Arts, neo-Romanesque, neo-Classical, neo-Gothic, Art Deco, and Colonial Revival. Gazing up at the Beaux-Arts style Temple Bar Building at 44 Court Street, the curved copper copulas conjure up images of Paris. This 13-story building opened in 1901 and was Brooklyn’s tallest building for 13 years as well as the first skyscraper built in a borough other than Manhattan.
Down the block at 32 Court Street stands a 22-story colonial revival building constructed in 1918, which was regarded at the time as Brooklyn’s first true skyscraper. The building was designed by the firm Starrett & Van Vleck, known nationwide for its department store designs including Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
32 Court Street (left) and 26 Court Street (Right)
Perhaps the highlight of the district is the exquisite 75 Livingston whose jutting white peaks evoke the ornamental splendor of a gothic cathedral. Built in 1928 to house the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, this 30 story building is now residential. Ironically, it was this remarkable building’s co-op board that put up enormous resistance to landmarking the district for fear of rising costs and tight restrictions on apartment owners who may want to renovate their apartments. They also echoed the claim made by property developers that landmarking the area would drag down property values.
Fortunately, the voices of those who wanted to protect the unique buildings that represent the peak of Brooklyn’s commercial hey-day won the battle. In the final hearing approving the district’s designation Robert Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Commission stated that while decreased property value was a possibility, so was the possibility of a rise in property values. “But that’s not why we do it.” he said. “We do it because it’s worth it for the history and the architecture and for the city.” (See New York Times City Room Over Objections, New Brooklyn Historic District Is Created).
184 Joralemon Street
You can read about all 21 buildings in the district, including those mentioned in this article, by reading the official Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District Designation Report.
Better still, if you want to visit these splendid buildings, as well as visit the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, join the New York Adventure Club on April 12 at 1 pm for a small group private two-hour guided walking tour. All you have to do is join the NYAC on Facebook and grab a slot before they’re filled up.