As Jonathan L, Traveling Canuck and GarryRF figured out, Gumbo was in Brooklyn, hanging out at Grand Army Plaza, and as you’ve seen, it’s quite an eclectic experience. Brooklyn is a place with many spots that could be called its center—and I won’t get into a dispute over Downtown, The Junction or any of the others; it’s enough to say that Grand Army Plaza, sitting as it does at the intersection of major streets and at the head of Prospect Park, is one of the best-known.
Its connection to the Park is no accident; it was designed by Olmsted and Vaux, the great park-builders, as a buffer between the growing city and their rustic park. It’s also the starting point of Eastern Parkway, the great landmarked boulevard that they also designed, and Flatbush Avenue crosses it just before entering its greenest mile, with the Park on one side and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on the other.
The Plaza is home to two key Brooklyn institutions: the main building of the Brooklyn Public Library and the year-round Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, a farmers’ market that draws people from neighborhoods all around, especially in the summer when it’s huge and especially in winter when many of the others are closed for the season.
Quite a few sculptures are part of Grand Army Plaza, the most obvious being the 1895 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch, whose name almost none of us Brooklynites know—I only found out during my research. We just call it “the Arch.” The list of the architects and sculptors who worked on it is amazing: John H. Duncan, Stanford White, Olmsted and Vaux, Frederick MacMonnies, Thomas Eakins and William R. O’Donovan.
Odd fact: The equestrian statues of Grant and Lincoln inside the arch were shared by O’Donovan who did the two men seated on horses by Eakins. It’s one of very few formal statues of Lincoln on a horse. The formal groups on the top and front of the arch are by MacMonnies.
Other statues around the Plaza honor several Civil War generals (only the ones who were Brooklyn politicians), and a bust of John F. Kennedy that’s behind the fountain that’s behind the arch.
Oh, yes, the fountain! Officially the Bailey Fountain after the man who paid for it in the late 1920s. It’s a magnificent confection of mixed messages (the elements include Neptune, Triton, Wisdom and Felicity and a boy with a cornucopia) that sits where three others did before it (and their stories are worth following this LINK). It’s especially beautiful with the water running in the summer. It’s also a popular place for taking wedding pictures, and there are sometimes queues of bridal parties waiting for it. My children grew up calling it “the wedding place.”
Grand Army Plaza is also home to quite a few pricey apartment buildings lining its outer edges; nearly all were built before World War II, and some before World War I. The outer rim of the Plaza, called Plaza Street, has created many oddly-shaped plots, and some interesting building adaptations, such as the one above, with an end that’s exactly one window wide.
Although the neighborhoods surround the Plaza, mainly Park Slope and Prospect Heights have seen housing costs go way up in recent years, and with apartments going quickly, the exception is this 2006 glass boxc, 1 Grand Army Plaza (it’s the only building with a GAP address, by the way). Despite a fancy architect (Richard Meier) and a lot of advertising, its condos are still only partly sold, especially obvious at night when there are no lights in empty apartments. The American Institute of Architects described it as a "beached whale."
But my favorite building on Grand Army Plaza is the Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Branch (really an odd name, since it’s not a branch at all). It’s an important research collection, it has wonderful interior spaces, including a ground floor café and computer center which replaced the old paper catalogs; it has a Brooklyn history collection with a million items; a huge children’s library, and offices that provide job counseling, passport service, city ID, adult education programs and more, including rotating art exhibits.
All that, in a building that almost didn’t happen. Plans for a central library at the site date to the 1890s, and ground was broken in 1912 for a domed four-story building based on the same Beaux Arts model as the Brooklyn Museum, its neighbor down Eastern Parkway But World War I, cost over-runs and a lot of political infighting left only the Flatbush Avenue side built by the time work shut down completely in 1929.
Under construction, 1940
In the mid-30s, new architects were commissioned for a new building, same shape, same place, but cheap, please. The already-built part was stripped to the frame, and the marvelous building we see today, Art Deco glory, rose in its place, opening in 1941.
So, if you’re coming to New York, stop by Grand Army Plaza…Saturday morning would be a good choice so you can make a picnic lunch from the Greenmarket and then wander off to enjoy the Brooklyn Museum, two blocks away, or the Library, or Prospect Park, or the Botanic Garden…or just enjoy a wander in my Brooklyn.