Founded in 1863, the Historical Society has been a cultural hub for Brooklynites for more than 150 years. Headquartered in an eye-catching red building on the corner or Clinton and Pierrepont Streets in Brooklyn Heights, the Historical Society has adapted, expanded and grown with its surrounding community. At the Brooklyn Historical Society, history is not just something that happened in the past, history is something that is made every day. Dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn’s extraordinary 400-year history, the Historical Society not only preserves the borough’s past, but also connects it to present day Brooklyn communities and uses it as a tool to stimulate dialogue about the borough’s future.
Untapped Cities recently visited the Historical Society and met with Julie Golia, the Vice President for Curatorial Affairs and Collections, who showed us around the historic building and unveiled some of its best kept secrets. Here is what we discovered:
1. It Used to Be Called the Long Island Historical Society
Looking at the front facade of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s 1881 George Post-designed building, you may notice there are two different names emblazoned on the stonework. When the institution we know today as the Brooklyn Historical Society was founded in 1863, it was called the Long Island Historical Society. At the time, Brooklyn was the westernmost city on Long Island. In the mid-1800s Brooklyn experienced a boom, transforming drastically from a rural setting to a bustling metropolitan area. The city’s population skyrocketed from just 4,000 to 300,000 people by 1860 and by the late 19th century, Brooklyn was the third largest city in the world. Brooklyn would join Manhattan as borough of the Greater City of New York in 1898. The city’s most prominent citizens saw in these times of rapid change the need to record the memory of Brooklyn’s rural origins, and so set up the society as a library to preserve the history of “the counties, towns, and villages of Long Island,” as well as the state and country at large.
As Brooklyn continued to change throughout the 19th and 20th century, the Historical Society grew and adapted with it. The borough took on a character distinct from the rest of Long Island as its population diversified and the towns became more urban. In 1985 the Historical Society changed its name to the Brooklyn Historical Society. The stonework above the main entrance which previously read “Long Island Historical Society” was covered by a new sign, but the large etched-in label that stretches across the building’s front facade remains unchanged. You can also see traces of the original name inside in details like the intricately decorated doorknobs throughout the building which has “LIHS” incorporated into the knob design.