Eulogy for the Purchase Building

From the New York Times

May 20, 2007
Streetscapes Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn
From Ghost Town to Park Gateway
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY

At the foot of the street, a boisterously ornate ferry terminal went up in 1865, but the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 drew away much of the traffic. Merchants gradually left, and in 1891 the bank building closed. By 1898, No. 11 Old Fulton Street was a lodging house.

The ferry ran until 1924, and its majestic gingerbread terminal burned the next year. Little else of architectural interest happened until 1937, when the Works Progress Administration built a low art moderne warehouse for the New York City Department of Purchase, directly under the Brooklyn Bridge and opposite Pete’s Downtown. Approved by the New York City Art Commission, it was designed by Michael J. Mongiello as a long, sleek piece of streamlining with strip windows and orange brick. The roof was specially designed to resist damage from debris falling from the bridge.

The 1939 W.P.A. Guide to New York City said that although the area had once been a “charming hamlet,” it had become “a sort of Brooklyn Bowery, with flophouses, small shops, rancid restaurants, haunted by vagabonds and derelicts.”

In 1977 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the five-block Fulton Ferry Historic District, including both sides of Old Fulton Street. The designation report compared the Purchase warehouse with the great Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea.

In 1993, the city had Medhat Salam, an architect, supervise a $1 million renovation of the Purchase building, which included repairing roof damage caused by falling hubcaps and other debris. In recent years, the building had been used by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and currently by the chief medical examiner.

Over the last five years Dumbo has become as expensive as Brooklyn Heights. But right next door, Old Fulton Street is still just that — old.

Most of the storefronts are empty, although pizza lovers sometimes stack up outside Grimaldi’s (formerly Patsy’s) at No. 19. The ferry dock can be crowded when New York Waterways starts ferry service — this year, that happened in late April — but generally the brick row has an old-time, melancholy air.

The proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park is a joint city-state project, and the city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, says the old Purchase building blocks the view from the foot of Old Fulton to the vista upriver. So, in 2001 the planners proposed the demolition of the building to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it approved the proposal last year.

The Historic Districts Council and other preservation organizations went up in arms at the idea that a protected landmark was to be demolished for the stated reason of improving the view, but to no avail.

Mr. Benepe said the demolition of the Purchase building would begin in the fall.

Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the Parks Department, said that the site would become open parkland and that the department does not believe objects falling from the bridge pose a hazard.

The building is now nearly invisible, surrounded by a chain-link fence threaded with metal slats. So the curious will have to peer through them to appreciate the “before” before it becomes an “after.”

E-mail: streetscapes@nytimes.com

Posted Under: Brooklyn, Demolition, HDC, Lingering Pain, Modern Architecture, Parks, Waterfront Development

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