128 Pierrepont Street building architectural drawings, circa 1878

Call number: ARC.301

Extent: 73 items in three flat file drawers

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Collection of 73 architectural drawings for the Brooklyn Historical Society (formerly Long Island Historical Society) building at 128 Pierrepont Street, in Brooklyn, New York. The drawings were submitted to the historical society as part of a design competition held from December 1877 to February 1878. They include 33 drawings by George Browne Post, who was selected as the winner of the competition. These drawings were used as the basis for the construction of the building, which was completed in 1881.

The collection includes 40 drawings by other architects, which were also submitted to the competition. These include 17 drawings by A.J. (Alexander Johnson) Davis, ten drawings by Leopold Eidlitz, four drawings by Alfred H. Thorp, six drawings by an unidentified designer (possibly Josiah Cleveland Cady), and three drawings by an unidentified designer with the initials “EFR”.

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George Browne Post was born in 1837 in New York City. He attended New York University, where he studied civil engineering. He then entered the office—at the time, more like the atelier—of Richard Morris Hunt, located in Hunt’s legendary Studio Building (no longer standing) on West 10th Street in Manhattan. Hunt was America’s first architect to be trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and to his students/employees he imparted the Beaux-Arts system, which was at that time all about finding answers in the traditional architecture of the Western world to the daunting problems of designing the entirely new building types of the 19th century—tall office buildings, public libraries, public art museums, railroad stations, large hotels, vast financial exchanges, and more. (One of the architects beside whom Post worked in Hunt’s atelier was the Philadelphian Frank Furness.) In 1861, Post formed a partnership with another Hunt protégé, Charles Dexter Gambrill. But the partnership was short-lived, as the Civil War began and Post (who might easily have won an exception) enlisted. He became a captain and served as an aide to General Ambrose Burnside at the time of the defeat at Fredericksburg in 1862. By war’s end, Post was a colonel. It is a measure of the man’s character that unlike most Union Army officers, he chose never to be addressed by his title, “Colonel Post,” through the remainder of his life. After the war, he resumed the practice of architecture, though on his own, as Gambrill had formed a partnership with another young architect, Henry Hobson Richardson. Between 1868 and 1870, Post contributed his engineering expertise to the design of the Equitable Life Assurance Society Building at 120 Broadway, working with the architects Edward H. Kendall and Arthur D. Gilman on what is today widely regarded as the first prototypical skyscraper.

[Long Island Historical Society, Clinton and Pierrepont Streets], circa 1925, V1974.031.1; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Long Island Historical Society, Clinton and Pierrepont Streets], circa 1925, V1974.031.1; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

In 1870, Post won one of his most important early commissions when he was hired to design the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, the headquarters of one of Brooklyn’s largest banks, on Broadway and Driggs Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Opened in 1875, the monumentally domed classical edifice still stands, dominating its surroundings as few buildings do. It was also one of the nation’s earliest harbingers of the classical grandeur that would be ushered in by the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893—a building, indeed, that was years, even decades, ahead of its time. (The interior of the bank was decorated by the Chicago architect Peter B. Wight, and remains one of the most significant extant examples of his work.)

[Architectural Detail, William Shakespeare, Long Island Historical Society], 1978, V1974.031.25; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Architectural Detail, William Shakespeare, Long Island Historical Society], 1978, V1974.031.25; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Post had made a name for himself in the decade following the Civil War, and prestigious commissions rolled in. Not least did he receive commissions—more of them than did any other architect—for the tall office buildings that had begun to dominate the skyline of lower Manhattan. Among these were the Western Union Building (no longer standing) of 1872-75; the Union Trust Building (no longer standing) of 1889-90; the World Building (no longer standing) that, when it was built in 1889-90, was the tallest building in the world; the New York Times Building (still standing) of 1888-89; the Havemeyer Building (no longer standing) of 1891-93; and the St. Paul Building (no longer standing) of 1895-98. Post the skyscraper architect was a synthesizer. Early on he pioneered the “arcaded” skyscraper, the earliest attempt by architects to assert control over the fenestration and surface patterns of tall office buildings that presented the daunting challenge of how to handle the unprecedented problem of the countless rows and columns of identically sized window openings. In this, Post both influenced and was influenced by Henry Hobson Richardson, who employed the “arcaded” method in his great Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago of 1887. Post later adapted the breakthroughs of Chicago’s Louis Sullivan—the tripartite articulation, letting the steel structure of the building determine its basic form, using lush ornamentation to outline the structural forms. And he never abandoned his foundational classicism, incorporating columns and figure sculpture in many of his skyscrapers.

[Main Entrance, Long Island Historical Society, Pierrepont Street at Clinton Street], circa 1980, V1974.031.40; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Main Entrance, Long Island Historical Society, Pierrepont Street at Clinton Street], circa 1980, V1974.031.40; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Impressive as was Post’s contribution to the evolution of the skyscraper (a role duly noted and analyzed in detail by Carl W. Condit and Sarah Bradford Landau in their seminal book Rise of the New York Skyscraper, 1865-1913), he is best remembered for seven works, all of them masterpieces.

[Long Island Historical Society Tile Lobby], circa 1980, V1974.031.41; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Long Island Historical Society Tile Lobby], circa 1980, V1974.031.41; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Post’s Produce Exchange at 2 Broadway, built in 1881-84, is a work that in the vigor of its arcaded walls and its lush ornamentation is regarded by many as the equal of Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store. It is also, sadly, probably second only to McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in the ranking of landmark losses in New York history. Between 1879 and 1882, Post designed the improbably large and elaborate mansion of Cornelius Vanderbilt II on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th Streets. After Post added to the house between 1892 and 1894 it claimed some 137 rooms, making it the largest private house ever to be erected in New York City. That it was one of New York’s greatest sights did not prevent its demolition in the 1920s and replacement by the Bergdorf-Goodman Department Store.

[Othmer Library, Long Island Historical Society], circa 1938, V1974.031.65; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Othmer Library, Long Island Historical Society], circa 1938, V1974.031.65; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Post traveled to Chicago for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 where he designed the fair’s largest and one of its most impressive buildings, the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, located along the west side of the great basin at the head of which stood the Administration Building by Post’s mentor Richard Morris Hunt. Post’s building—which also dominated the fair’s Lake Michigan shorefront—dwarfed Hunt’s building. Back in New York, Post designed the New York Stock Exchange (1901-03), still one of the city’s most emblematic buildings. And through the first decade of the 20th century Post designed the magnificent campus of City College, on Hamilton Heights, a work unusual for Post in that he masterfully employed Gothic forms and used dark Manhattan schist—by then a highly unusual choice for a building stone—outlined in glowingly white terra-cotta to achieve a dramatic, romantic effect that placed this campus among the finest in the country. Between 1906 and 1917, Post’s triumphant, colossally domed State Capitol rose in Madison, Wisconsin. Post died in 1913, before work on the Capitol was completed, and it was finished by his sons, who carried on the firm as George B. Post & Sons.

[Othmer Library, Long Island Historical Society], 1976, V1974.031.67; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Othmer Library, Long Island Historical Society], 1976, V1974.031.67; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Our chief concern, of course, is with Post’s building for the Brooklyn Historical Society on the southwest corner of Pierrepont Street and Clinton Street on Brooklyn Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Brooklynites, when theirs was still an independent city (at the time the Historical Society was built, Brooklyn was the nation’s third largest city, though soon to be pushed to fourth place by the meteoric ascent of Chicago), fancied themselves—or at least Brooklyn’s New England-bred elites considered themselves—to be more cultured and righteous than the fevered denizens of the Gomorrah across the river. Brooklynites prided themselves on the cultural nucleus—which they and others likened to Munich’s Ludwigstrasse—taking shape near Montague and Clinton Streets. Here could be found Peter B. Wight’s Mercantile Library and Leopold Eidlitz’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, among other buildings. Around the corner on Court Street was the Long Island (now Brooklyn) Historical Society, one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious institutions dedicated to the study and public promotion of local and national history through its library, lectures, and exhibits. Founded in 1863, the Society had outgrown its quarters in the Hamilton Literary Association Building (lectures had to be held off-site, often at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) and set its sites on a new, purpose-built structure that would proudly take its place in Brooklyn’s prestigious cultural district. In 1878, to get the best building possible, the Society held a competition. This competition is one of the most significant architectural competitions in American history—a kind of 1870s version of the epochal Chicago Tribune competition of the 1920s. The entrants ranged from the 29-year-old Hugh Lamb, who would go on to become the most prolific college campus designer in the country, to the 75-year-old Alexander Jackson Davis, one of the greatest of American antebellum architects. The Brooklyn Historical Society owns many original materials, including magnificent drawings, associated with this competition, and their exhibition would alone constitute a major event in the world of architectural history.

[Entrance to Long Island Historical Society], circa 1950, V1974.031.28; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Entrance to Long Island Historical Society], circa 1950, V1974.031.28; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The winner of the competition was, of course, George Browne Post, fresh off the success of his Williamsburgh Savings Bank. In his design of the society’s building—which included an auditorium, a library, a gallery, and offices—Post innovated dramatically. On the outside, he was among the first American architects to experiment with ornamental terra-cotta. Of particular note are the terra-cotta busts—of Columbus, Benjamin Franklin, Shakespeare, Gutenberg, Beethoven, and Michelangelo— modeled by the great sculptor Olin Levi Warner, known for his work at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Between 1999 and 2003 the Society’s façade underwent a painstaking restoration. The façade had, in all the building’s history, never been cleaned. The restorers had to be as meticulous as Post had been in his choices of brick, stone, terra-cotta, and mortar to achieve a radiant spectrum of browns and reddish-browns. Over the years the exquisite coloration had worn away; it’s back, and it’s as beautiful as anything its era produced.

[Brickwork and Terra-Cotta on the Long Island Historical Society Building],1961, V1974.031.36; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Brickwork and Terra-Cotta on the Long Island Historical Society Building],1961, V1974.031.36; Long Island Historical Society photographs, v1974.031; Brooklyn Historical Society.

From the outside, you can clearly see that the second floor, higher and more elaborately articulated than the others (three plus attic), is mostly what the building’s about. This is the Othmer Library, our greatest repository of Brooklyniana and of much more. Post, the engineer, created a dramatic double-height, galleried space. The cast-iron columns in the first-floor auditorium support the library floor, while iron trusses in the attic support the library ceiling, the attic floor, and the roof. This kind of structuring called upon all of Post’s engineering genius and was quite novel in its time. The loftiness of the space and its exquisite woodwork take your breath away. The gorgeous carved-wood fluted columns, with Corinthian capitals, encase iron columns that support the galleries that encircle the room. It is everything a library should be.

[Long Island Historical Society],circa 1885, V1973.2.230; Brooklyn oversize 19th century collection, V1973.2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[Long Island Historical Society],circa 1885, V1973.2.230; Brooklyn oversize 19th century collection, V1973.2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Brooklyn Historical Society, Post’s building, partially restored ten years ago, has just been renovated and restored to make it more beautiful and more functional for the 21st century. To commemorate the anniversary and the renovation, we propose a wide-ranging exhibition on George B. Post, the building, Brooklyn Heights, and American architecture and historical societies in the second half of the 19th century. In one part of the exhibit we will look at Post and his illustrious career. In another, the subject will be the Brooklyn cultural district of the 19th century and the Historical Society’s 1878 architectural competition. In another, we will examine the Historical Society’s own history and its remarkable building in detail. Throughout, we will seek to relate our material to what was going on in other American cities at the time—particularly Chicago, with which Post had such rich connections, and which, being incorporated only three years after Brooklyn, has a uniquely parallel history and identity.

– based on research by Francis Morrone

For more information on Brooklyn Historical Society’s building and George Browne Post, please see our BHS Building history and research page.

Names:

  • Brooklyn Historical Society (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.).
  • Davis, Alexander Jackson, 1803-1892
  • Eidlitz, Leopold, 1823-1908
  • Long Island Historical Society.
  • Post, George Browne, 1837-1913
  • Thorp, Alfred H., circa 1843-1917

Places:

  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Brooklyn Heights (New York, N.Y.)

Subjects:

  • Architects — New York (State) — Kings County
  • Architecture — New York (State) — Kings County
  • Buildings — New York (State) — Kings County — Design and construction
  • Historic buildings — New York (State) — Kings County

Types of Materials:

  • Architectural drawings (visual works)

George Browne Post architectural drawings

Alexander Jackson Davis architectural drawings

Leopold Eidlitz architectural drawings

Alfred H.Thorp architectural drawings

View all 128 Pierrepont Street building architectural drawings

 

 

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