Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book About Brooklyn Heights Promenade Released for Its 60th Anniversary

This December 7 is the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, the exquisite public walkway with breathtaking views of New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan.

As it turns out, the Promenade is singular, not only in the panorama it provides, but in its engineering. It is cantilevered over a busy motorway — the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Finding out how exactly this unique structure came to be has been a pet research project of Henrik Krogius, longtime editor of the Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News, a sister publication of the Brooklyn Eagle.

His research, conducted over the course of decades, has been compiled into a book due to be released this week (The Brooklyn Heights Promenade, 108 pages, The History Press), just in time for the anniversary. For a thorough recap of Krogius's findings, read Caitlin McNamara's story in the Eagle.

The book is filled with photos of the beloved walkway taken by Krogius over the years (he has lived in the neighborhood since before the Promenade even opened in 1951).

Krogius originally wanted to write a book about structures that were similar to the Promenade from around the world, but he wasn't able to find any. It's a true one-of-a-kind, he says.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Famed Landscape Architect Calvert Vaux Drowned in Bensonhurst

Calvert Vaux
In the autumn of 1895, renowned landscape architect Calvert Vaux disappeared.

Vaux, who is best known for partnering with Frederick Law Olmsted to design such iconic green spaces as Central Park and Prospect Park, was 70 years old and employed as the landscape architect for the New York Parks Department when he left his son’s house in Bensonhurst for an early morning walk on Nov. 19, 1895, and never returned. 

By afternoon, police began searching for Vaux, described as “four feet, 10 inches, medium build; gray hair and full beard; ruddy complexion; wore blue overcoat with velvet collar; no vest; black derby hat; wears gold-rimmed eyeglasses; shirt has name on it.”

A few days later, on Nov. 21, the Brooklyn Eagle ran this sad report on its front page:

“The body of Calvert Vaux, the missing landscape architect, was found in Gravesend Bay at the foot of Bay 17th Street, Bath Beach, at 9:30 ‘o clock this morning. A workman on Fry’s coal dock first saw the body being tossed about in the rough water, but when he rushed to the shore to secure the corpse it disappeared. It was some minutes later before Mr. Fry himself saw it drifting alongside the bulkhead out to sea again. With a boat hook he succeeded in bringing it close to shore. The police had been notified in the meantime and Acting Captain Barford and Roundsman Gaughran of the Twenty-fifth sub-precinct hurried to the spot. The tide was high and very rough, which made it very difficult to secure the body. It was finally necessary for someone to go right in after it and without a moment’s hesitation both Barford and Gaughran walked in up to their waists. They then succeeded in bringing the body high up on the beach. The police surmised the moment the word came in that a body was found that it was more than likely that of the missing Mr. Vaux. 

Word was sent to the home of the son, C. Bowyer Vaux, on Twentieth Avenue, Bensonhurst. Mr. Vaux, who had remained home on business in the hope that he would hear word from his father, went without delay and identified his parent. The son was much affected. He made the identification certain by examining the marks on the clothing, not daring to trust himself to look at the features. Undertaker Wyckoff of Eighteenth Avenue, with the permission of the coroner, took charge of the remains and had them removed to his establishment.

“There is very little doubt that the artist made away with his own life by drowning. For some past he has been subject to nervous prostrations. His health gave way last August when he completed his Bronx park plans, over which he spent almost night and day, so interested was he in them. Being 70 years of age the strain was too much for him. Instead of taking a rest he continued his duties as a landscape artist of the New York Park Department. About seven weeks ago he found it was necessary to cease his labors for a while, and went with his daughter, Miss Marian Vaux, to the Hotel Madison. There he spent the month of October under the care of Dr. George S. Conant and Dr. William B. De Garmo, a specialist. Ten days ago he went to his son’s home at Bensonhurst. He was fond of the water and seemed perfectly contented. He spent a good part of his time on the beach and scarcely ever failed to be at the water’s edge to watch the sunsets.

“On Tuesday afternoon he left the home and made his way to the Captain’s pier at foot of De Bruyn’s Lane. He walked out to the end of it and was gazing at the water when George Ditmar, the proprietor, addressed him.

“‘I was just looking at the improvements you’ve made here,’ Mr.Vaux volunteered in explanation, and after a word or two more walked to the shore. Some persons saw him walking back. This was the last seen of him alive. The family suspected that he had taken a car for the city, and had been overcome on the road and possibly taken to some hospital. They were much worried and when he did not return yesterday afternoon they notified the police of Bath Beach. A general alarm was then sent out.”

Later reports of the incident were less certain that Vaux’s death had been a suicide, and the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear to this day. At 70 years old, a fatal slip was certainly possible, and his son C. Bowyer believed it to be an accident, according to a New York Times report.

Nine years later, Calvert Vaux’s daughter Helen hung herself in the basement of her home. It was reported that the fatal act was done “While in a depressed mental state following nervous prostration brought on by her zeal for study.”

Vaux had four children in total with his wife Mary McEntee, who hailed from Kingston, NY, where they are both buried.

Calvert Vaux was born in London, England, on Dec. 20, 1824. He apprenticed in the office of architect Lewis Cottingham, then moved to the United States at 24 years old and became a partner to Andrew Jackson Downing, with whom he laid out the grounds for the Capitol building and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Downing was killed in an 1852 fire on a Hudson River steamboat and Vaux took over the firm, moving it to New York City from Newburgh, NY. In 1865, he and Olmsted formed Olmsted, Vaux and Company and were pioneers in landscape architecture, creating parks in cities across the country.

At the time of his death Vaux lived in Manhattan and served on the Consolidation Commission, which examined the proposal to join the cities of New York and Brooklyn into one municipality.                               

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Williamsburgh Savings Bank Under Construction

The Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower at One Hanson Place — Brooklyn's tallest building until 2009, when it was surpassed by The Brooklyner — was designated a New York City landmark on Nov. 15, 1977. The building's famous clock tower is an iconic structure for Brooklynites, though it reminds most people of the dentist, as the 512-foot high building was filled for years with so many dental offices. It has since been converted into condos. Above are some photos of the building under construction. It was built between 1927 and 1929 (seems they were able to construct buildings faster then, no?). The top picture is the most striking. It shows the construction site right before the tower was built. It seems like too small of a space for that big building!

The photos are by H.W. Hinson and are part of the Brooklyn Historical Society's collection.

The NYC Landmark Commission designation report for the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower 
Landmark Day for Bank [Brooklyn Eagle]
Building of the Day: 1 Hanson Place [Brownstoner]

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Stamp Act is Coming! The Stamp Act is Coming!

The actual, physical Stamp Act, the piece of British legislation that really pissed off a bunch of soon-to-be Americans in 1765 and precipitated the American Revolution, will be on display here in the U.S. for the very first time, and lucky for us, it will be right near by, at the New-York Historical Society (NYHS).

It will be on display as part of a new exhibit opening at NYHS about the revolutionary period in the late 1700s marked by the American and French revolutions, and the far-too-often-forgotten Haitian Revolution.  Bet you didn't know the slaves of Saint Domingue, as Haiti was once called, led the world's only successful slave rebellion and declared a republic for themselves in 1804.

As you can imagine, this turn of events left the U.S. in quite a pickle: In 1804, Americans were not yet willing to extend the revolutionary ideals of equality they had just established for themselves to their black slaves, and quite frankly, Haiti's ability to do so scared the pants off of them. It wasn't really a high point in American diplomatic history, and so the Haitian Revolution maybe has gotten dusted under the rug a bit in the history books. So this new exhibit is a welcome reprieve from that omission, putting the events in Haiti in their rightful place in the global narrative of that revolutionary period.

[Brooklyn Before Now studied the Haitian Revolution in grad school and believe Brooklyn Before Now when it tells you it is a truly fascinating event in world history and worth learning a thing or two about.]

"Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn" opens this Friday, Nov. 11, as the first exhibit in NYHS's newly renovated building at 170 Central Park West. It will be on display until April 15, 2012, when it will travel to venues in the UK and France.

Further Reading:
Riot-inciting Stamp Act on Show in U.S [BBC]
Revolution: The Atlantic World Reborn [NYHS]

Monday, November 7, 2011

Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum to Open This Friday

Good news for Brooklyn history lovers: It looks like we have another exquisite history institution on the way.

The Brooklyn Navy Yard Center at Building 92 will open to the public this Friday, on Veterans Day. The four-story building is a museum to the yard's long and fascinating history as a ship building center for the U.S. Navy (it operated as such from 1801 to 1966) and its subsequent transformation into a unique industrial park with tenants such as the film studio Steiner Studios.

The New York Times published a great preview article of the museum. Among the objects on display are a 22,000-pound anchor from the USS Austin, and a mangled piece of the USS Arizona, which was built at the Navy Yard and later became one of the casualties of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. There are also many objects that speak to the rough and tumble nature of the neighborhood surrounding the Navy Yard. "It was the Barbary Coast of New York," the center's curator Daniela Romano told the Times.

Further Reading:
Museum To Display History Of 200-Year-Old Navy Yard [Brooklyn Eagle]
A Timeline of the Brooklyn Navy Yard []

Thursday, November 3, 2011

BAM Begins to Look Back, Without Missing a Step

A book about the Brooklyn Academy of Music was long overdue.

For an institution whose origins date to the beginning of the Civil War, making the academy, known as BAM, the oldest continually operating performing arts center in the country, there’s no doubt that there is a story to tell. Many stories to tell, in fact. So now, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary, BAM has just released its first-ever written history.

BAM: The Complete Works (Quantuck Lane Press) is a 384-page tome containing close to 400 photographs and essays by 31 writers, most of them artists who have graced BAM’s stage.

“The Complete Works” is an apt title. Looking through it, you quickly realize that it’s not just another coffee-table book. It’s a comprehensive reference on Brooklyn’s most enduring institution — we may have lost the Dodgers, the Navy Yard and the original Brooklyn Eagle, but we never lost BAM.

Included in the book is a history written by Phillip Lopate that covers BAM’s first 100 years – including the opening in 1861, its struggle between elitism and populism, its financial ups and downs, and of course, its amazing artistic legacy.

Considering BAM’s longevity, stature, and influence, the book also proves to be a history of the international performing arts scene.

The list of artists and thinkers to have spoken and performed at BAM is staggering, and a testament to just how deep its history goes. They include Mark Twain, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Jacob Riis, Helen Keller, Isadora Duncan, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, Enrico Caruso, H. G. Wells, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann, Gertrude Stein, Aldous Huxley, Frank Lloyd Wright, Bertrand Russell, Eugene O’Neill, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Morgan Freeman, Cate Blanchett, and a string of U.S. Presidents, including both Roosevelts.

And this is a drop in the bucket.

Perhaps if BAM had rested on its laurels, it would have produced a history touting its impressive past long ago, but the institution has been too busy creating its equally impressive present.

“Performing arts institutions are so much about putting these ephemeral things on the stage. They are so much about the present,” says BAM Director of Archives Sharon Lehner. “[So] there aren’t a ton of performing arts archives out there.”

But beginning in the late 1990s, BAM started to take stock of its past, thanks largely to the efforts of Karen Brooks Hopkins, now BAM’s president, and Robert Boyd, BAM’s then-Director of Special Projects. Two part-time archivists were hired to go through the hoard of material that had accumulated over the decades — enough to take over a seven-room suite on the 16th floor of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank building.

“We have a lot of really beautiful ephemera – programs, posters and promotional materials, a ton of press clippings, amazing video and audio from the last 30 years, and thousands and thousands of photographs. We have a photo collection that rivals any that I can think of in the performing arts,” says Lehner, who was hired in 2005 as BAM’s first full-time archivist.

As illustrious as BAM’s history is, it was not without its low points. Its fortunes have risen and fallen with Brooklyn, and it was faced with hard times during the Depression and the de-industrialization that rocked the borough in the years after World War II.

Large portions of BAM’s archives were lost during two catastrophic events. The first was in 1903, when BAM’s original building, which was on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights, burned down, taking practically all of the records from the institution’s first 40 years with it. And then a flood in 1977 at BAM’s current home in Fort Greene wiped out more material.

Finances were so tight in the 1950s, that BAM’s home at 30 Lafayette Ave. was very nearly sold to Long Island University, which would have converted it into classrooms and a gymnasium. By the time Harvey Lichtenstein took the reins of BAM in 1967, sections of the building were being rented out to a judo academy and a boy’s prep school.

It was Lichtenstein, president and executive producer of BAM until 1999, who is largely credited with bringing BAM back from the brink (and who rebranded the old academy as its acronym in 1973).

His partnering with artists such as Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham, Peter Brook and Philip Glass made BAM a center of avant-garde work, with the Next Wave Festival, held at BAM every fall since 1983, as the linchpin of BAM’s late 20th century “renaissance.”

This has been accompanied by an expansion of BAM’s facilities, with the renovation of the Majestic Theater, now known as the BAM Harvey Theater, in 1987 and the opening of the BAM Rose Cinemas in 1998. Ground was broken last year on a yet another building of the “BAM campus,” the Richard B. Fisher building, an arts and community center.

And with a grant from the Leon Levy Foundation, BAM now has a budget to acquire materials for its archives, allowing them to recover some of what was lost due to fire and flood. They are also making appeals to the public through their blog,, asking people to look in their attics, so to speak, for any BAM-relevant materials.

This process has enabled BAM to recover many 19th-century programs and press clippings, and some very unique ephemera, such as stamps that were sold at the Sanitary Fair, a huge fundraising effort held for Union soldiers at BAM in 1864.

“It’s amazing to see how far this collection has come along in a relatively short period of time,” says Lehner.

Now officially known as the BAM Hamm Archives, after donors Charles and Irene Hamm, whose funds will go toward building a state-of-the art facility for the archives, the collection is currently housed at 1 Metrotech Center, and is already attracting a variety of researchers.

“We’ve seen everyone from elementary school students working on a project to people writing books on contemporary performance theory,” says Lehner.

“BAM is so unique. There are probably zillions of books to be written about BAM. There are so many ways to look at this material.”

Lehner hopes to have an online database for the BAM Hamm Archives up and running soon. “It’s a very hidden collection. We have not cataloged it very extensively, but we generally know what we have. Are there still some big surprises in there? I’m sure there are.”

BAM: The Complete Works is available for purchase at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene (686 Fulton St), at BAM (30 Lafayette Ave.), at, at, and various bookstores
 throughout the country