BHS Building

The Landmark Building

Brooklyn Historical Society’s four-story Queen Anne-style building was completed in 1881. Designed by renowned architect George Browne Post, the building features terra cotta ornamentation on the façade and an innovative truss system to support the ceiling of the central library. Architectural historians have praised Post’s design for blending technological innovation and graceful aesthetics.

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.

About the Architect: George Browne 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.

BHS’s Building Over the Years

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.

by Julie Golia, Director of Public History, 2014

 

Our Building records

BHS Library and Archives houses architectural drawings, reports, and photographs relating to the Brooklyn Historical Society (formerly Long Island Historical Society) building at 128 Pierrepont Street.

Architectural drawings, circa 1878 and 1997-2000

Our records include George B. Post’s drawings for the building (circa 1878). Post won a contest held by the historical society to design the building in 1878. We also have drawings which were submitted to the contest, but not selected. In total, there are 33 drawings by Post, and 40 drawings by other designers.

Additionally, we hold ten building renovation drawings and plans, produced by Jan Hird Pokorny, Architects and Planners (1997-2000).

Reports and other documentation, circa 1970s-2000s

Two binders, available in the library reading room, document the history of our building.

One binder contains, “The Brooklyn Historical Society Historic Structure Report,” by Jan Hird Pokorny, Architects and Planners (1993). This is a detailed historical report of the design, structure, and subsequent renovations of the 128 Pierrepont Street building (1881-1993). It also includes recommendations for further renovations. The report contains a number of photographs and an extensive bibliography.

The second binder, entitled, “Brooklyn Historical Society: History of Its Building,” contains the following:

Landmarks Preservation Committee designation report, 1982

LIHS booklet, circa 1983 (photocopy)

“The LIHS: A Building History,” by Beth Sullebarger, unpublished manuscript, 1984

“The LIHS Building,” by Lori Zabar, unpublished manuscript, circa 1970s

“An Old Clock,” by George Dudley Lawson, originally published in Appleton’s Journal, June 3, 1876  (photocopy of an article regarding a timepiece which was featured in the original LIHS building).

Additional clippings and color print-outs of conceptual drawings for renovation to the Great Hall, 2000s

Photographs and other images, circa 1885-1992

Our records feature images of the exterior and interior of the building. They include photographs which were commissioned by the historical society, as well as other images which have otherwise been acquired over the years. A binder entitled, “BHS Renovation Photographs,” containing  photographic negatives and contact sheets taken in 1992, is available in the library reading room.

Our image database, also accessible in the library’s reading room, contains a number of images of the interior and exterior of our building. They include the following:

V1972.1.1255 a,b; V1973.2.228 – V1973.248; V1973.4.218; V1973.4.1414; V1973.6.223 – V1973.6.224; V1973.6.226; V1973.6.236; V1974.23.1.37; V1974.031.73; V1974.41.2 – V1974.41.4; V1984.1.279; V1984.1.1324 – V1984.1.1328; V1986.005.1.10-1; V1986.18.1.17; V1991.105.4 – V1991.105.4

Additionally, the collections of John D. Morrell, Edna Huntington, Edward B. Watson, and Eugene L. Armbruster, contain images of the building.