QUASQUICENTENNIAL is Latin for a 125th anniversary. The Roman’s had such an awkward numbering system that they had to invent complicated names for ordinal numbers (10th 50th, etc) “CXXV” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
This year, 2019, AIA Brooklyn is celebrating its quasquicentennial. We are taking a step back to reflect on Brooklyn and the built environment around us. The theme of innovation is a common thread to any discussions about Brooklyn.
AIA Brooklyn was founded in 1894 when Brooklyn was experiencing a building boom that resulted in new buildings, parks and urban spaces to support the unprecedented population growth. Innovation and new ideas abounded. Our emblematic bridge, known around the world, was the first use of structural steel on a major project. When finished, its towers were the tallest structures on the North American continent. Greenwood Cemetery, another Brooklyn landmark, was one of the earliest cemeteries designed as a spectacular landscape for the dead. What is perhaps the greatest urban park, Prospect Park, is considered Olmsted and Vaux’s masterpiece, along with Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, boulevards that extend the park into the city. The industrial sector of 19th century Brooklyn was a leader in developing production techniques that set the pace for the nation in manufacturing of glass, porcelain, oil refining and iron works.
Brooklyn was the place where fortunes were created by people who started businesses, built buildings, and rode the wave of development to vast wealth. Some are household names, such Charles Millard Pratt who established the Astral Oil Works, a kerosene refinery in Brooklyn. Five years later he consolidated his business with Standard Oil and used his fortune to found Pratt Institute. The Pratt family employed numerous architects to build gracious mansions and academic buildings in Clinton Hill. Less well known was John Arbuckle, the merchant who founded Yuban Coffee and had a notable house on Clinton Avenue designed by Montrose Morris. Another magnate, Herman Behr owned one of the largest sandpaper manufacturing companies in the country; and was lucky to score a Romanesque Revival mansion designed by Frank Freeman, one of Brooklyn’s more imaginative architects.
During the second half of the 19th century, new residential neighborhoods fanned out from downtown. At the time these areas did not have the charming real estate driven names of today but were known by their location or geography, such as the Heights, South Brooklyn (everything south of Atlantic Avenue), the waterfront, or the Ninth Ward, etc.
These residential buildings were row houses (or brownstones) typically built on 25’x100’ lots. It was an ideal sized lot for a one family home or a four-story tenement. It allowed for a side hallway and stair with two commodious rooms back and front. A large rear yard ensured plenty of light and air. This format continued into the 20th century until the Great Depression and World War II slowed growth in Brooklyn. After World War II, the federal government provided monetary incentives for development outside of cities, with the result that cities like Brooklyn were thought of as old and decaying slums, not worthy of investment. The GI bill that favored Levittown over Livingston Street and the redlining of Brooklyn neighborhoods contributed to the borough’s decline. The death knell was the 1958 departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Fast forward through NYC’s 1975 fiscal crisis and the DOT Com bubble of the later 1990’s; and Brooklyn has emerged as a vibrant 21st century city. It has a major league basketball team, the Nets, playing in a new arena designed by SHoP Architects. The metal panel skin of the Net’s arena was an innovative design and build computer technology process resulting in a striking façade.
The borough is bursting with construction fences and sidewalk sheds, and scores of new coffee bars. Its industrial infrastructure is being reinvented for new uses in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Pfizer and Squibb complexes and Industry City in Sunset Park. Architects and planners are designing innovative housing – affordable, modular, energy efficient and resilient, as well as luxury high rise housing, and even a few super-talls. Urban designers are planning and designing new urban links (the Brooklyn Strand) to reconnect parts of Brooklyn to the waterfront and new bike paths to provide alternatives to cars (The Brooklyn Greenway). Brooklyn faces many challenges, but it is reassuring that Brooklyn has so many talented committed young people who will create a more just, energy efficient and resilient future.