About Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society has two locations: the main site at 128 Pierrepont St. and a new site in DUMBO! Learn more about the DUMBO location here.
Brooklyn Historical Society connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant, and meaningful for today's diverse communities, and for generations to come.
Founded in 1863, Brooklyn Historical Society is a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn's extraordinary 400-year history. Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Post and opened in 1881, today's BHS is a cultural hub for civic dialogue, thoughtful engagement and community outreach.
Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society (LIHS) during a time of tumultuous change. In only a few decades, Brooklyn had grown from a tiny agricultural backwater to the 3rd largest city in the country. Civic pride was at an all-time high. Many of its citizens believed they needed to commemorate Brooklyn’s rural past before it quickly faded from memory.
The founders of the Long Island Historical Society were among the city’s most prominent citizens, whose families could trace their Brooklyn roots back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They established the Society as a library committed to preserving the history of America, New York State, and most especially, “the counties, towns and villages of Long Island.”
Founders also envisioned the LIHS as a center for dialogue about history. In the 19th century, the Society’s roster of speakers included newspaper editor and reformer Horace Greeley, writer Arthur Conan Doyle, and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Julia Ward Howe. Its membership included a number of women (usually wealthy), but no people of color.
Initially, the LIHS occupied several rooms on Court Street. The institution grew quickly, and its leaders planned to move the Society into its own building. In 1868, they acquired land on the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton Streets in present-day Brooklyn Heights, but the Depression of 1873 stalled construction plans.
Financially recovered by 1878, the Society held a contest and selected renowned architect George Browne Post to design its headquarters. Opened in 1881, the Queen Anne-style building is notable for its bright terracotta façade, intricate brickwork, and myriad decorative details. It also features an innovative truss system that supports the ceiling of the building’s central reading room.
By the early 20th century, Brooklyn had become part of the Greater City of New York, and the Society evolved to meet the needs and demands of new generations of Brooklynites. During World War I, the LIHS contributed to the war effort by transforming its 600-seat auditorium into a Red Cross headquarters.
As the century marched on, the Society’s membership declined. After 1926, this space was subdivided and rented to commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution's operating expenses. During the mid-20th century, its fortunes mirrored those of the borough of Brooklyn, which experienced deindustrialization, economic decline, and social change. For decades, it operated only as a library, although it continued to add to its collections.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the institution reestablished itself as a museum and education center. The institution, which changed its name to Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985, broke new ground by embracing social history practices and exploring the diversity of Brooklyn’s history and people. It established a pioneering oral history program, reaching out to as-yet unchronicled Brooklyn communities and capturing their experiences. The Society also began featuring exhibits such as Black Churches in Brooklyn and AIDS/Brooklyn, the first exhibit to cover this topic at a history museum in the United States.
BHS’s Othmer Library and Archives houses the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture in the world. Each year, thousands of students, scholars, and many other researchers visit to examine manuscript collections, historic maps, photographs, and many other materials. These collections have fueled cutting-edge scholarship on urban history, the built environment, social history, and more. A leader in museum education, BHS serves over 10,000 students and teachers a year at its Brooklyn Heights building and at other partner sites around the city.
Over the years, BHS has updated its building to meet 21st-century needs, while remaining true to architect George Post’s innovative vision. In October 1999, BHS undertook a full-scale restoration of its landmark building to create new exhibition space and climate-controlled storage for its valuable collections. In 2014, BHS completed a renovation of the first and lower levels to create an even more welcoming public space. The institution also launched its critically acclaimed new exhibit, Brooklyn Abolitionists: In Pursuit of Freedom, which reveals the unknown stories of Brooklyn activists who fought for freedom and racial justice in the 19th century.
The building's masonry consists of unglazed terra cotta and repressed brick. It was the first building in New York City to use locally produced terra cotta. The facade is adorned with busts of Christopher Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, William Shakespeare, Johannes Gutenberg, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Michaelangelo Buonarroti sculpted by Olin Levi Warner. Their depictions are interspersed with representations of American flora by Truman H. Bartlett.
Post employed artists and craftsmen of the Aesthetic Movement to embellish the interior spaces. Stained glass in-window lunettes and a central laylight are believed to have originated from the studio of noted artist Charles Booth. Decorations throughout the building include Minton tile floors, custom-made bronze hardware (designed by Post), and elaborately carved black ash woodwork in the library.
Inspired by the design of the Brooklyn Bridge, Post suspended the top floor of the building from iron trusses in the roof, creating an open and elegant reading room. Additional iron columns enclosed in carved wood support the galleries in the library.
In July 1991, the building was recognized as a National Historic Landmark and included on the National Register of Historic Places. Portions of the interior, including the library, were made interior landmarks by the City of New York – a rare designation in Brooklyn.
Thanks to a generous grant from the Luce Foundation, you can now view our collection of 73 design competition and presentation drawings, including those by competition winner George B. Post, for the construction of Brooklyn Historical Society (formerly Long Island Historical Society) here.
About the Architect: George B. Post
George Browne Post (1837 - 1913), often
called “the father of the tall building in New York,” used innovative
engineering techniques during a time of great social and technological
change. He experimented with new material and methods to create large,
open interior spaces. His work presaged and made possible the golden
age of skyscrapers in the early 20th century.
Post’s Equitable Life Assurance Society building (built 1868-1870) was the first office building designed to use elevators. When it was completed in 1890, the New York World building (1890), designed by Post, had the distinction of being the tallest building in New York. One of his commercial masterpieces, the vast New York Produce Exchange, had an enormous sky-lighted hall. All of these buildings have been demolished. The New York Stock Exchange survives as an example of his inventive use of steel supports to create uncluttered interior spaces.
Since its completion in 1881, BHS’s building has been updated to
accommodate changing needs and technologies, while still remaining true
to architect George Post’s original design.
The building’s main floor was originally used as a lecture hall, and featured a sloped floor and seating for an audience of 600. By 1890, the lecture hall had fallen out of use, and the institution’s leaders commissioned plans for the levelling of the floor. They did not act until 1917, when they installed hardwood floors on top of the cast iron chairs and turned over the space to the Red Cross during World War I.
In 1926, the Society’s leaders decided to rent out the main floor to businesses. The Great Hall was partitioned, the door between the entryway and the hall was closed off, and commercial entrances were installed along Clinton Street. The partitions remained until 1987, when architectural firm Jan HIrd Pokorny Associates restored the space as a public hall.
In the original design, the building was outfitted with gas fixtures. The library featured 15 glass chandeliers in the library and globe-shaped glass fixtures in the lecture hall along the walls and around the room’s cast iron columns. Electric lighting was first dismissed as too dim, but was finally installed in the 1890s by Edison Electric Illuminating Company.
In the 1930s, a number of alterations were made to modernize the building. A sprinkler system and fire escape were installed, and an elevator was built in the present-day Giuseppe Fransioli gallery, destroying the original stained glass laylight.
In 1999, Jan Hird Pokorny Associates – the same firm that had removed the partitions from the main floor in the 1980s – broke ground on an even more extensive renovation. The ornate terracotta façade was cleaned and repointed, returning the masonry to its original bright, warm red. The building and the roof were restored to their original splendor, including the clock tower. The elevator that occupied the present-day Giuseppe Fransioli gallery was removed, and the stained glass laylight reinstalled.
The renovation also modernized the building. A climate control system was installed to preserve the Society’s valuable collections. Handicapped-accessible elevators provided access to all floors. The Society was also wired for high-speed internet access.
Between 2012 and 2014, BHS again updated its building to create an even more welcoming and engaging public space. Christoff:Finio Architecture made alterations to the first floor and lower level to provide improved exhibition, retail, and program space, along with a state-of-the-art classroom for the thousands of students visiting the building yearly.
FY16 Form 990 (download)
FY16 Financial Statements (download)