Sunday, September 22, 2013

India Street Firehouse - 88 India Street

India Street Firehouse - 88 India Street
(built 1910)
Original Firehouse of Engine Co. 15 circa 1872
The City Beautiful movement produced impressive civic architecture and likely influenced the many beautiful historic firehouses around Brooklyn, including the one at 88 India Street in Greenpoint. The former firehouse was built to house what was then Engine Company 115, later 215 of the FDNY. Engine Company 115 went into service as company 15 of the Brooklyn Fire Department in 1872 and was reorganized into their new building on July 1, 1910.[1] Brooklyn engine company numbers were first changed when Brooklyn was annexed by New York City in 1898 and the fire companies were integrated with the FDNY in 1899. The second reorganization and renumbering of fire companies came in 1913.[1]  Engine company 215 was in service until November 25th 1972.[2] At one time the firehouse had been scheduled for demolition, however, it was spared by the city and auctioned off in 1975 for a mere $19,600.[3][4] Prior to being sold at auction, the building was used by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation for storage.[3]

Construction floor plan for India Street Firehouse
Construction Plan for India Street Firehouse - Engine Company 215
When I first noticed this building I thought it looked a lot like a firehouse but it seemed a little small to house a fire engine. As it turns out, it was a firehouse built for horse drawn fire apparatus which included an 1861 Amoskeag second-size steam engine and an 1871 Amoskeag four-wheel hose tender.[1] The ground floor housed the engine wagon, hose wagon, stable and feed room. The dormitory, officers room, bathroom and kitchen were located on the second floor. Now, the building houses two apartment rental units including a 1600 square foot loft with a large closet that was once used for a fire pole.

Firehouse Doors

Although this video titled "Last Fire Horses Retired" is not from the firehouse at 88 India Street it is a good illustration of a horse drawn fire engine being hauled from a similar size fire station. The last time a horse drawn engine was sent out on call in Brooklyn was in 1922.[5]

  1. "The Old Quarters-Brooklyn Engine Company 15" By honorary Battalion Chief Frederick B. Melahn Jr.
  2. Boucher, Mike "Disbanded Companies" Mike Boucher's F.D.N.Y. History Page online.
  3. Carroll, Robert "19G Puts Him in a Fire House" NY News. 17, December 1975
  4. Ellis, Junius "Retired Firehouses Find New Careers" New York Times. 3 April, 1977
  5. "New York's Changing scene" New York Sunday News Magazine August 1974

Sunday, September 15, 2013

WNYC Transmitter House at WNYC Transmitter Park

Transmitter Park
WNYC Transmitter Park
WNYC, the idea for what was then a city owned and operated radio station began in 1922 and eventually went on the air on July 8th, 1924. As high rises were erected and New York's skyline began to take shape dead spots developed due to the obstructions that the new buildings created and by 1934 the city considered shutting down the station, in part, due to the dead spot issue. However, a citizens committee appointed by Mayor La Guardia proposed some reforms including the relocation of the transmitter to Greenpoint. In 1937 the WNYC transmitter was moved from the municipal building in Downtown Manhattan to the Greenpoint facility which was built by the WPA.[1] The former WNYC broadcasting building was designed in the Art Deco style and once had two 304 foot antenna towers.[2] The transmitter in Greenpoint remained in use until 1990 when WNYC broadcasting was relocated to the Meadowlands in New Jersey.[1]

Transmitter House
WNYC Transmitter Building

WNYC (AM 820, FM 93.9) provides a radio news source about civic and cultural events around the city in addition to child-oriented programming and music programming. Today, WNYC Radio is the most listened to public radio station in the U.S. The station, which was once owned by New York City is now an independent station supported by listener donations, as well as contributions from corporations and foundations. WNYC is a member station of NPR, as well as PRI and is New York's source for NPR broadcasts.

When I used to commute to my companies' Long Island office, I tuned into WNYC's AM station since the longer wave length of AM allowed me to pick up the signal far outside the city; however, while WNYC seems to be going strong, AM radio like print journalism and broadcast television is under pressure from technological displacement in our digital age. In addition to shrinking market share, AM broadcasting which was surpassed by FM and more recently Satellite Radio and web based broadcasting is now being threatened by interference from smart phones and other consumer electronics. There is currently a debate on weather or not to convert the AM frequency for use by other devices. Ajit Pai of the FCC is advocating for the salvage and overhaul of AM broadcasting and given my affinity for relics of a bygone era I appreciate his quest.[3]

Metal apparatus on building roof of unknown purpose with Art Deco detailing
Art Deco Detailing
Whenever a project site has historic structures or artifacts many designers will attempt to include them into their park design. Such is the case with Transmitter Park. According to the EDC website the transmitter house has been converted into a cafe; although, I have yet to see any action regarding the building. In addition to the historic building there are also remnants of a ferry terminal that opened in 1840 and was active during the second half of the 19th century until the bridges and tunnels we use today were constructed, rendering the ferry obsolete. The original ferry was operated by Alpheus D. Rollins who took the first passengers to East 10th Street in Manhattan for 3 cents.[2] The pedestrian bridge crosses the surviving relic of the old ferry terminal which has been excavated and included in the park's design as a tidal wetland.

Tidal wetland built in historic ferry landing
Transmitter Park Tidal Wetland & Historic Ferry Landing

The wetland at Transmitter Park looks like it could use a little maintenance. It does not look much different than it did almost a year ago when I visited the site after Hurricane Sandy.

Transmitter House Cornerstone
WNYC Transmitter House Plaque

Manhattan Skyline at dusk from Transmitter Park
Manhattan at Dusk from WNYC Transmitter Park
Until a few years ago most of the good views of Manhattan were from New Jersey, however dramatic skyline views are now accessible from the Greenpoint and Williamsburg waterfronts. 


  1. "History"
  2. "Greenpoint to Lift Skyline With Pair Of Radio Towers" Newspaper (no citation indicated). 15 December, 1935.
  3. Wyatt, Edward. "A Quest to Save AM Before It's Lost in the Static" New York Times 9 September 2013.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Astral, Past and Present

Astral Apartments Building Panorama
The Astral, one of the most prominent buildings in Greenpoint, was built in 1885-1886 by oil merchant and philanthropist Charles Pratt (1830-1891) for his workers. Designed in the Queen Anne style by New York architects Hugh Lamb and Charles Alonso Rich of the architecture firm Lamb & Rich, the building is constructed of terra cotta, brick and stone. Due to its innovative design and rich architectural heritage, the Astral Apartment building is considered one of the most important 19th century apartment houses in New York City by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Today the Astral is owned by Astral Apartments LLC and managed by a company with a sordid track record known as Pistilli Realty. 

Lamb & Rich was established in 1882 and designed many prominent buildings in the Northeast. The firm only lasted four years; however, in that time they designed apartment buildings and row houses in Manhattan and Park Slope, Brooklyn, as well as many prominent colligate buildings at several universities. The firm's residential buildings were located on the Upper East Side, 5th Avenue, Yorkville, Greenwich Village, Mount Morris Park and Park Slope. Lamb & Rich's portfolio of colligate designs included structures at Dartmouth, Barnard, Williams, Smith, Colgate and Amherst colleges, as well as the Pratt institute main building.

Bayside Oil, Former location of Astral Oil Works

In 1857 Charles Pratt established Charles Pratt and co. crude oil refiners which owned the Astral Oil Works, the remnants of which are Bayside Oil located on the south side of Bushwick Inlet. In 1874 Pratt's business holdings were acquired by John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil and Pratt continued his work for Standard Oil. When Charles Pratt died in 1891, he was one of Brooklyn's wealthiest residents, as well as one of Brooklyn's greatest philanthropists. Pratt's humanitarian efforts included the construction of schools, universities (including Pratt Institute), churches and worker's housing.
Rear of the Building and Courtyard

The structure's ornate Queen Anne style fa├žade has a rich texture and strong visual interest. The Queen Anne style uses wall surfaces as principal decorative elements. This is achieved by varying the depth and texture of building facades. The facades depth and texture variation can be attributed to the brick patterns, window bays, rusticated stone bands, terra cotta ornamentation and recesses among other features. The building's impressive architectural detailing is not what made the Astral innovative though. The departure from the squalid conditions that existed in most worker's housing of the 19th century is what made the Astral a revolutionary building. Open stairs for ventilation, a scullery alcove in each unit with an adjacent room containing a toilet, a rear courtyard and bathrooms in the basement were all innovative new features for worker housing. Each scullery in the Astral had a wash tray with a sink that included hot and cold water, range, coal box, an ash shoot to the cellar and an exterior window to provide ventilation. These features, although minor by contemporary standards were previously unprecedented in New York’s working class.

The Astral Apartments Main Entrance
The dominant arch pictured here is the main entrance to the Astral Apartments. Even though the building was designed in the Queen Anne Victorian era style, the bold arches employed as the building entrances of the Astral are also characteristic of the Romanesque Revival style which was frequently combined with the Queen Anne Style of architecture.

Ironically, today the Astral which was an innovative departure from the poor conditions of worker's housing during the 1800s is now managed by a company with slumlord tendencies known as Pistilli Realty. I spoke with someone who used to live in the building a few years ago, and she referred to her apartment as "a charming shitbox". The apartments had insufficient heat, shoddy renovation work, and slow to no response from the management company regarding repairs. The issues with her apartment included drafty single pain windows, inadequate radiator facilities to maintain required temperatures, pealing paint and an unrepaired leak from above her unit. It is a shame when historic buildings are managed so poorly. It might be challenging to maintain a building with landmark status; however, regular maintenance and repairs do not require pre-approval from the Landmark's Preservation Commission. Moreover, landmark protection is typically applied to the exterior of buildings, so unless the interior is also landmarked, any interior work that does not affect the exterior or require a D.O.B. permit does not require pre-approval either.

Laundromat and Brooklyn Label
The commercial spaces that book end the ground floor were originally provided to defray the cost of rent for the workers who lived in the building. Something tells me that the commercial space now goes to maintain the profits of the building's owners.

"The Astral" Sign

Stepped Gable and Recesses
Terra Cotta Ornament

Monday, September 2, 2013

Bushwick Inlet History

Bird's Eye View of Bushwick Inlet and Neighborhood Context 
Historic Route of Bushwick Creek
Bushwick inlet has a long history and is part of an ongoing waterfront development debate. Before becoming overrun with weeds and invasive plant species Bushwick inlet was at the mouth of what was Norman Kill, later known as Bushwick Creek. The creek once extended to a marsh in what is now McCarren Park, creating the neighborhood boundary between Greenpoint and Williamsburg that is still recognized today. Eventually the mouth of Bushwick Creek became home to Charles Pratt's Astral Oil Works to the south and the Continental Iron Works to the north. In the 1850s Bushwick creek began to be filled in for new housing and around the turn of the last century the creek was completely filled in to cover over what had become a foul smelling, polluted waterway. Although Bushwick Inlet sits unused, a relic of Greenpoint's industrial past, the city has plans to convert the site into a park as part of the redevelopment of the North Brooklyn Waterfront.

Launch of the USS Monitor
The Continental Iron Works was the Greenpoint company that built the iron clad ship USS Monitor. The company was located at the end of Quay Street and launched the USS Monitor on the north side of Bushwick inlet in 1862. The Monitor was built for the North during the civil war and engaged the Confederate iron clad CSS Virginia in the first ever battle between iron clad ships. Part of the land adjacent to Bushwick Inlet has been donated to George J. and Janice Weinmann for a proposed museum site dedicated to the Monitor.

The city has threatened to take the USS Monitor Museum property through imminent domain for inclusion in the in the new Bushwick Inlet Park in order to maintain continuous pedestrian access through the park. As someone who designs parks for a living I think that the inclusion of a museum dedicated to an important part of the site's history can enhance the interpretive environment of the park assuming the museum is designed to be integrated into the park's master plan. Moreover, I do not see any reason the city cannot use an easement to maintain continuous waterfront park access while allowing the museum to be built. I am not sure why the city has made it more difficult for the museum to be built but it seems to me like administration officials are in no position to complain about the museum when they have yet to adequately fund or build a park that was promised to North Brooklyn residents in exchange for allowing developers to construct luxury condo buildings that are at a scale inappropriate to the neighborhood. 

Williamsburg Luxury Condos
When the city first began filling in Bushwick Creek in the 1850s it was to build new housing; however, the residents at the time did not want the creek to be filled in and protested the development initiative. History has a funny way of repeating itself and just like before, the community is protesting the construction of new housing. Originally, the North Brooklyn Waterfront was rezoned to protect the community from undesirable industrial development projects including waste management facilities and a proposed power plant. While rezoning opened the door for more appropriate development types in the neighborhood, a Faustian deal was made with developers. In exchange for opposition of the power plant project and rezoning  of the waterfront from heavy industrial to mixed use, commercial and residential, developers were allowed to construct taller buildings (thirty to forty stories) against the will of local residents. Williamsburg residents are already  paying the price for the new high-rise developments. In addition to being out of scale with the neighborhood, these new gated communities in the sky have contributed to a significant increase in traffic and noise, increased parking demand and a greater burden on existing infrastructure.

Bushwick Inlet from the East River
There has been speculation that oil pollution has migrated from the area around Bushwick Inlet from the Bayside Oil site (formerly Astral Oil Works) to further inland flowing through the tidal ground water and following the original route of Bushwick Creek. For more on that check out this blog: Eastern District