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Brooklyn's Lost City Hall


Where Gumbo Was #395

Well, not exactly lost: in 1898 when Brooklyn became part of the newly formed five-borough Greater New York, it became Brooklyn's Borough Hall—but that connects it to an event that life-long Brooklynites and long-time immigrants still count as a loss. 

Borough_Hall_of_Brooklyn Sandro Mathys

Even the signs as you enter the borough remind you that you're entering "the fourth largest city in America." But for all that pride, Borough Hall lives in the shadow of the much larger Municipal Building behind it, and most Brooklynites never visit, only pass it. Say "Borough Hall," and most of us think of the subway station beneath it.

But none of that got past George G, PortMoresby, Jonathan L and Professor Abe, who all correctly identified our mystery location. Congratulations!


But it's a building with a history complete with ups and downs, and a beauty that happily is presently well-maintained, and sadly, due to the current pandemic, off-limits to visitors, which means I've had to rely on others for interior views (and believe me, it looks a lot better than you can see in these pictures).

Brooklyn_Borough_Hall_-_in_Brooklyn,_New_York_(_The_fourth_largest_city_in_the_United_States)lloyd byron jones

The troubles started right at the beginning. In 1834 Brooklyn was growing rapidly and had already absorbed some of the other towns in Kings County; eventually by the 1870s, it had eaten it all. Flush with pride, the citizens ordered up a magnificent City Hall and held an architectural competition, won by Calvin Pollard, whose Greek Revival winner was started in 1836. And stopped in 1837.


The pride was there, alright, but the money wasn't. The Panic of 1837 devastated the nation's economy, and Brooklyn's, too, for several years. In 1845 construction started again, with a different architect who was told to make it simpler, make it cheaper, and make it fit on the foundations that had already been built. Mayor, Council, cops, court and jail moved in in 1848, but construction wasn't finished until 1851.

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Inside, one of the building's best features is its two-story-high lobby, usually called The Rotunda, although there's nothing rotund, or even round, about it. It lends a grandeur to what is actually not a huge building.


In 1897, possibly because it was cheaper than making repairs, the stairs to the mezzanine were removed, and the elegant black and white marble tile floor was paved over. At a later stage, much of the Rotunda was partitioned off into office space. That took place shortly after a fire in 1895 destroyed the cupola and the City Council chamber on the upper floor. The new cupola was installed in 1898. That's it in this 1904 picture.

BH 1904

Because there wouldn't be a City Council after the merger, the space was restored as a courtroom instead. Swedish-born architect Axel Hedman, who also designed thousands of Brooklyn single-family houses, won the design contract; the result is a landmark within a landmark. Today, it's used for hearings and ceremonies. Similar rich fittings mark the Borough President's office, below.


Our Borough Presidents are like locality mayors. In the beginning, they sat on the body that decided the city-wide budget and had their own highway and other departments, but by the middle of the 20th century it had become a largely ceremonial and advocacy role...but back when, they packed power and voter influence; in this image from 1908, Democratic Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan comes calling on BP Bird S. Coler (yes, it was his name)

1280px-Policeman,_Bryan_&_Coler,_Borough_Hall,_Brooklyn_LCCN2014680077Borough Hall faces a small park that's a quite pleasant lunch spot for nearby office workers and hosts a summer Greenmarket one day a week. It's easy to enjoy, and to avoid looking at the ugly neighbors, a set of courhouses built just after World War II. Even in an 1880s blizzard, better neighbors can be seen.

Fountain,_view_1_-_Borough_Hall_-_Brooklyn,_New_York_-_DSC07507 daderotP1090291Borough_Hall_Park,_Brooklyn,_ca._1872-1887._(5833495110) Brooklyn MuseumOver the years, and especially after World War II, neglect set in again, and the building deteriorated. Distinctive features like the fountain below were lost. Its office space was too meager, critics said; its maintenance and repair would cost too much; why not tear it down? Fortunately, by the time that proposal was on the table, the tide had turned on historic preservation, and instead, Borough Hall got a complete make-over in the late 1980s.


The Rotunda was restored, including the stairs and the marble floor. The Hedman courtroom was restored and the extensive exterior damage was restored. City offices were mostly moved out, except for the Borough President's office and the building's role became largely ceremonial, hosting awards, graduations and other civic events, as well as hearings and presentations by city officials.

P1090284P1090301Historic lighting fixtures and an ornamental fence were installed, as well as new cladding on the cupola and a new steel clad roof. Of which more later...


But the biggest change of the 1980s restoration came at the top of the building with the placement of a large statue of Justice at its peak. If you look at the older pictures above, you'll notice the statue isn't there. It was in Calvin Pollard's 1834 design, and he made detailed drawings and notes, but the 1840s budget didn't allow for such as that. It wasn't until 1988, 154 years late, that the statue went up.


All that restoration and glory wasn't the end of Borough Hall's problems, though. Turns out that the contractor who did the stainless-clad roof did a very poor job; less than a dozen years later leaks were damaging walls and ceilings on the upper floor and the whole roof needed to be removed to allow replacement of the beams below it. For several months of 2005, the building was open to the skies and had to wear a giant umbrella to keep dry.

1280px-Brooklyn-borough-hall joseph barillari 2005

And here's a tip of the hat to one of its most peculiar features, seen in the first clue for this week's Where In The World puzzle (and instantly identified by George G): the impossibly steep stairs leading up to the formal entrance. Not exactly ADA-compliant. I've not been able to find whether they were ever more generous; they certainly looked like this by 1895. Fortunately there are ground-level entrances on the other sides.



Images (26)
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  • BH 1904
  • Borough_Hall_of_Brooklyn Sandro Mathys
  • Borough_Hall_Park,_Brooklyn,_ca._1872-1887._(5833495110) Brooklyn Museum
  • Brooklyn_Borough_Hall_-_in_Brooklyn,_New_York_(_The_fourth_largest_city_in_the_United_States)lloyd byron jones
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  • Fountain,_view_1_-_Borough_Hall_-_Brooklyn,_New_York_-_DSC07507 daderot
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  • The_Borough_Hall,_Brooklyn_(NYPL_Hades-1788339-1659143).tiff

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

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