Friday, December 7, 2012

Venetian Splendor on the Park Slope

Amid the remarkable architecture of Park Slope stands a singularly distinctive building. Perhaps it is the structure’s resemblance to an Italian palazzo that makes it so unique, as it would seem more plausible to view it along the canals of Venice than the streets of Brooklyn. Housing The Montauk Club, it has stood on the corner of Eighth Avenue and Lincoln Place since 1891, and is the creation of Francis Kimball, a prominent architect whose work from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century continues to grace New York City. Most of Kimball’s buildings are in lower Manhattan, and with the current construction of the Fulton Street Transit Center, his Corbin Building has been spared from demolition and is presently being restored.

In 1883, not far from the Club, the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century was completed as the majestic arches of the Brooklyn Bridge first soared over the East River. At this time, the five boroughs had not yet consolidated; Brooklyn was still an independent city, and with the opening of the great span, civic pride was at its peak. Six years later, the Club was founded by leading citizens of Brooklyn whose names have been memorialized through names of streets and institutions: Pratt, Schermerhorn, Lefferts, Dean, Underhill, and Montgomery.
The Club’s striking Venetian architecture is complemented by graceful brickwork, stained glass, tiled roof, and terra cotta ornamentation detailing scenes of American Indian life. Once inside, the lighting, dark woodwork, furniture, and aged objects transport visitors to a different time. One can imagine gentlemen from the early twentieth century arriving by way of horse-drawn carriages, entering, and depositing their coats and hats with a butler in the vestibule. Such an entrance might be followed by an elegant dinner, preceding conversation, billiards, or relaxation in plush club chairs with brandy and cigars. There were many such clubs in existence at the time, and some of the buildings housing them still remain, although now with different functions. The most notable of these structures is the Unity League Club on Bedford Avenue and Bergen Street, fronted by an outstanding equestrian statue of General Grant. 

Today, access to the Montauk Club’s dining room is offered via reciprocal arrangements with similar clubs in places like the Philippines, India, London, San Francisco, and Washington DC. Through such an arrangement with a Pennsylvania institution, I had the pleasure of dining at the Club this past July. Throughout my youth, I had admired the Montauk Club’s exterior, so it was a treat to view the inside of this beautiful building. As I entered, an old grandfather clock chimed the hour in a tone that was unlike the timbre one would hear in a modern clock. This, along with the lighting, furnishings, high ceiling, and other features, offered a thoroughly unique reception. 

I thought it would be interesting to speak to someone who had been associated with the for several decades, so upon leaving I spoke to the General Manager, who referred me to Dino Veronese, a long-standing member and former President of the Club. After coordinating with a few different contacts, I finally made arrangements to meet both Veronese and the Club’s current President, Tim Thompson.

I arrived a few minutes early. Once Dino and Tim stepped in to the building, we ascended to the second floor card room. There, we sat and chatted for the next hour and a half. To my right, two windows capped by leaded-glass looked out over Eighth Avenue. With Dino sitting across from me and Tim to my left, we began a wonderful conversation about the Club, and Brooklyn in general. Between the three of us, we had over 150 cumulative years of experience in the borough. We touched on each of our individual memories, as well as joint recollections.

First, we spoke of the history of the Montauk Club and its most notable guests, including Presidents Cleveland, Hoover, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. While neither Dino nor Tim was present for JFK’s visit, Dino recalled seeing former New York State Governor, Hugh Carey, at the Club. I learned that the homes directly across the street from the Club were known as Sportsmen Row, where some key figures in thoroughbred racing lived.
William Gaynor, who served as New York City’s Mayor from 1910-1913, lived across from the Club as well. Gaynor was the only NYC mayor to be the target of an assassination attempt, and although he survived the incident, he subsequently suffered complications and died three years later. On a more positive note, all New Yorkers owe a debt of gratitude to Gaynor, although they may not know why: 102 years ago, largely the result of his efforts, tolls were abolished on the East River.
Originally, the Club owned the adjacent lot, as well as the entire building. The basement included a bowling alley, while on the other floors there was a kitchen, dining room card room and an upstairs dormitory where members could spend the night. Today, only two of the five floors remain in pristine condition and belong to the Club; the others have been sold as condos. Dino relayed how the times have changed, as has the way one refers to Park Slope. Today, residents say that they live in Park Slope, while years ago residents said they lived on the Park Slope. One thing that has not changed is the Club’s 38-year-old annual tradition of greeting new members with music by the Princeton Tigertones, a renowned collegiate group that has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, The White House, and other respected venues around the world. 

       I very much enjoyed my meeting with Dino and Tim as we reminisced about trolleys, Ebbets Field, historic hotels that are no longer standing, and other aspects of Brooklyn, including our thoughts about the new Barclays Center. If you find yourself on the Park Slope, take some time to appreciate the 25 Eighth Avenue building, and if you are interested in inquiring about membership in the Montauk Club, visit their website at

--Tommy Coca

The Remains of St. John the Baptist

Brooklyn is a large city, home to 2.5 million people. For most of my life, I've been one of them. Despite living in the borough for decades, when I look at a subway map I realize how little of it I know.

Most of my friends and family come from Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. These are the neighborhoods in which we played, we ate, we drank, and we felt comfortable. In the summer there was Coney Island, and when we wanted a steak there was Peter Luger’s in Williamsburg. Other than that, we didn’t have much of a reason to visit other neighborhoods. What did I know of Greenpoint, Canarsie, Gerritsen Beach, Ditmas Park, Cypress Hills, or any number of other areas? Little to nothing, and I expect those living in these neighborhoods know little of mine.

On a recent Saturday, a friend and I took the subway to areas we’d never before visited to do some exploring. We started in Ridgewood, which lies in both Brooklyn and Queens.  We had no particular destination; we spent the day zigzagging, walking down streets that appealed to us or toward a distant building that caught our attention. The walk brought us to Bushwick and then to Bed-Stuy: all around us were places that would not make it onto any tourist’s destination guide, yet they were unique points of interests in their own right.

We passed the elegant and sculpture-laden former Bushwick Theater; originally a Vaudeville venue, the building is now a high school. Further along we saw a firehouse with ‘BFD’ -- Brooklyn Fire Department -- inscribed above the entranceway, indicating the pre-1898 days when Brooklyn was still an independent city and before the BFD became part of the NYFD. Countless aged churches and elegant brownstones lined our trek: architectural treasures built in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as architectural nightmares built in the second half of the 1900s.

As we walked along Broadway, a structure down Hart street caught our eye. Though we had already seen plenty of churches, we were attracted to this one in particular because of its massive stonework and squat size. We later learned that a long, open field had once led to the building. Today, however, this space is filled with dozens of low-rise homes. While the path leading to the church must have been truly majestic in its day, what remains is nonetheless impressive in its own desolate way.

As we looked upwards, we saw a large rose window. Now boarded up, as are the other windows, the colorful stained-glass is hidden. Birds roosted in the upper reaches. Fences and barbed wire now encircle the church, keeping trespassers at bay. We learned that this structure is St. John the Baptist Church, and the adjoining buildings were once a part of the College of St. John. One entire city block, bounded by Hart, Willoughby, Lewis and Stuyvesant, comprised the college and the church. As we circled the block, we learned that although the building has fallen into disrepair, the parish still survives and serves the community.  

The College of St. John was founded just after the Civil War, and construction on the church began shortly afterwards. The architect for the project, Patrick Charles Keely, was well-known and extraordinarily prolific in his day, designing more than 700 cathedrals, churches, convents, schools and other buildings. Many of his works remain intact and can be found elsewhere in Brooklyn. The commissions for the stained glass, paintings, and sculptures were also given to preeminent artists of the era.

The College of St. John provided a higher education factility in Brooklyn from the second half of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth. In the 1950s, the decision was made to seek more bucolic surroundings, and the institution moved to a sprawling new campus in Queens. With the move also came a name change: the college became St. John's University.

At one time, St. John the Baptist Church and parish towered over the neighboring row-houses and brownstones. Today, it is mostly hidden by taller public housing structures, and can easily be overlooked and camouflaged in this environment. It is unfortunate that such an outstanding example of religious architecture now merely survives as a ruin. A true church, though, is not only a building; it is a congregation of the faithful. Thankfully, the parish that served as the foundation of a great university continues to live on here in the community of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.

--Tommy Coca