“Those, I suppose, are the directors of the society. I can make out Mr. Beecher and Mr. Murphy but I can’t quite make out Dr. Storrs.”
The above quote was an observation made by a passer-by at the January 1881 opening of the headquarters of the Long Island Historical Society. He was making references to the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), the Brooklyn pastor known for his abolitionist views, his papers are part of the Society’s Othmer Library; Henry C. Murphy (1810–1882), the Society’s vice president, his papers are also in the Society’s care; and the Rev. Richard S. Storrs (1821–1900), its chairman. In particular, the passer-by had mistaken the bust of Benjamin Franklin for Rev. Beecher!
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
—Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
In 1863 one of Brooklyn’s leading citizens, Henry Evelyn Pierrepont (1808–1888), helped found the Long Island Historical Society. As a sign of the borough’s resurgence, after years of decline, the Society changed its name to the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985. In addition to serving as a historical museum the Society also was founded as a library with 800 books and 1,000 pamphlets. By the mid-1880s the library had 80,000 volumes; and the number of visitors was growing. Today the Society’s collection of books, pamphlets, magazines and artifacts totals a quarter million items, including 35,000 photographs.
“My soul can find no staircase to Heaven unless it be through Earth’s loveliness.”
I had reason to visit the Brooklyn Historical Society last Wednesday evening for the monthly meeting of the Guides Association of New York City (GANYC). Having as great a passion for sculpture and architecture that I do, I was thrilled when I saw the façade of the Society’s headquarters, at the corner of Pierrepoint Street (yes, this street was named for Henry Evelyn Pierrepont’s family) and Clinton Street (named for DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828), New York State governor (1825–1828) and the driving force behind construction of the Erie Canal).
“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
—Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Built between 1878 and 1881 to a design by George B. Post (1837–1913), the building is in the then-fashionable Queen Anne style, a mash-up of several historical architectural styles. Among Mr. Post’s surviving buildings is Wall Street’s New York Stock Exchange. Located in the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, so designated by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1966, the Brooklyn Historical Society’s building was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
“Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.”
—William Shakespeare (1564–1616)
George Post’s design for the exterior of the Society’s headquarters called for extensive use of terracotta detailing; it was crafted by New Jersey’s Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company. Originally Post wanted to use Newark sandstone to clad the outside of the building; but because it was in short supply, he chose terracotta, whose easily malleable qualities and fire resistance were finding favor with 19th century architects.
“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams. Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men”
―Johannes Gutenberg (1398–1468)
The high-relief portrait busts are the work of Olin Levi Warner (1844–1896), a sculptor from Connecticut, whose great-great-uncle was Seth Warner, an American Revolutionary War leader. No stranger to combat, the younger Warner volunteered for the French Foreign Legion to fight in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 while he studied sculpture at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
“Riches don’t make a man rich, they only make him busier.”
—Christopher Columbus (1451–1506)
At the second-story level, portrait bust medallions of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Gutenberg, William Shakespeare, Christopher Columbus, and Benjamin Franklin enliven the façade. In the spandrels of the entry door arch a Viking and a Native American gaze down on passers-by.
To help explain the inclusion of a Native American Indian it is helpful to know a bit about Mr. Warner’s career. When he returned from Paris, he traveled in the American West, creating portrait medallions of Native Americans. I found no ready explanation for using the image of the Viking, who looks rather fierce. Many of the portraits have a scowl; only Shakespeare and the Native American Indian appear placid. Michelangelo seems tired.
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s headquarters underwent an extensive renovation between 1999 and 2003. It involved a complete cleaning of the façade, modernizing its facilities, as well as revealing interior details that had been covered over by less-than sensitive past remodeling efforts.
ALL PHOTOS AND TEXT, EXCEPT CREDITED QUOTES, © THE AUTHOR 2014