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Brooklyn Historical Society, New York


Where Gumbo Was #319

It only takes a quick look as you arrive at the Brooklyn Historical Society to realize it's worth a visit even if it weren't filled with fascinating material chronicling over 350 years of Brooklyn history. The landmarked building itself is a treasure.


And it was no mystery to George G and Michael Fong II who recognized it from our photo clues this week—Congratulations!


The building, designed by George B. Post, is a classic of Renaissance revival style. On top of the generally lovely design, it sports terra cotta ornaments from the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company and terra cotta sculptures by Olin Levi Warner, a popular sculptor of the era when the building opened.


When It opened, in 1881, it was the Long Island Historical Society, and that name is still high above the entrance on Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights. Incidentally, the founder was Henry Pierrepont. At the time, Brooklyn was the fourth-largest city in America, and the rest of Long Island—Queens, Nassau and Suffolk Counties—was an afterthought. The name was changed in 1985


The terra cotta statues, by the way, include a wide-ranging variety, not all connected to Brooklyn: Michelangelo, Beethoven, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Columbus, Franklin, a Viking and a Native American.


The terra cotta adornments were very much in mind when this piece was created in 2010 by Meredith Bergmann, using a young girl's head to remind of Henry Ward Beecher's 1860 "slave auction," held on the steps of the nearby Plymouth Church, where Beecher was drumming up support for Abolition.


The building's interior is also full of gorgeous detail, refurbished about 20 years ago, when major repairs were undertaken, and an elevator was installed. The Tile Lobby, below, is empty here, but is often used for exhibitions.


Above the central stairway, a gorgeous skylight brightens the space. It's by 19th-century English glassmaker Charles Booth, and was restored in 2003. 


Along the walls and galleries, there's a variety of changing exhibition; over the years they've ranged from Brooklyn art, to Brooklyn's role in the Civil War, to immigrant communities in Brooklyn and beyond. The Society recently gained more exhibit space with a new gallery in an historic warehouse a few blocks away.


One current exhibit, sponsored by the Society's Teen Council, highlights people who started out elsewhere and built new lives in Brooklyn; among them, above, are the founder of Nathan's Famous and the builder of the Brooklyn Bridge.


The true heart of the building, and one of the most enjoyable parts visually, is the Ottmer Library, beyond doubt the world's most extensive and focused collection of Brooklyn books, maps, historic documents and pictures. It's open to the public—you just have to sign in. 


The Society also has quite an art collection, although only small parts are on display at any given moment. This painting, by the way, is by way of an early advertisement. It shows a large horse-drawn omnibus in front of Brooklyn's City Hall in the 1840s as the operator takes the Common Council for a ride as he was trying to get their approval for a transit franchise.


And a view of Brooklyn from the south, with the City Hall tower visible near the top left. The viewpoint is an area that may be part of Prospect Park these days.


Dutch house tiles from 1650-1750. Brooklyn remained heavily Dutch-influenced and Dutch-speaking long after the Revolution; Flatbush kept its town records in Dutch up to 1846.


Another current exhibit takes a look at Brooklyn's waterfront from an unusual angle—through the lens of people whose sexuality and other factors left them on the fringe of society, but tolerated within the context of rougher areas.P1010343P1010344P1010348

And, of course, there's the opportunity for Brooklyn-themed souvenirs and books at the Society's gift shop. 


The side facade of the building bears an inscription the Society seems to live up to: it's from Cicero, and translates as "History, the Witness of Time."



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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