Monday, March 24, 2008

One-Third of Carroll Gardens' Subway Plaza Will Be Lost to Development

The residents of Carroll Gardens will lose one-third (22-feet) of the Second Place Subway Plaza (in red in the above picture) , and an important neighborhood tradition, when developer William Stern’s controversial out-of-context condominium complex is built over the subway plaza.

The 70-foot high condo project will be a massive intrusion at the corner of Smith and Second Place, which is an important gateway to the historic Carroll Gardens neighborhood. Envision a 7-story Hannah Senesh building, perhaps the most out-of-context building in Carroll Gardens, topped off with a hat.

The loss of a third of the plaza will also affect an important neighborhood tradition, that of reading a paper, talking to friends, or making those last puffs on a cigarette, while waiting until the F or G train appear on the Culver Viaduct, the 91-foot-tall subway bridge that spans the Gowanus Canal, as it makes its way to the below ground Carroll Street Station. When the train appears, everyone rushes down the steps to the subway to catch the Manhattan-bound train.

The Plaza has been open to the public in its current configuration since the subway was built in the 30s. The plaza consists of both public and privately owned sections. The publicly owned area consists of the 13-foot sidewalk and the 33’-5’25” courtyard. The courtyard is measured from the edge of the sidewalk (the house-side edge, not curb-side).

To visually understand where the courtyard ends and Stern’s property begins, look for the “S” in “Smith Street” in the mural on the freedom wall (see photo on the sidebar). From the “S”, it is 22-feet to the stairway to the subway. The property line then runs on a diagonal to a few feet north (towards the newsstand) of the MTA manhole. Stern claims that the Condo Association will maintain the 22- foot corridor that commuters will have to walk through to get to the subway stairway, as well as the 33’-5’25” courtyard.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Carroll Park Parkhouse

Smith Street, between Carroll and President Streets
Brooklyn Collectibles (
This 1928 picture of the Carroll Park Comfort Station shows a central open area and entry to the park that wonderfully frames the park.

All plans and drawings related to park improvements post-1933 are housed in the NYC Parks and Recreational Department’s Map File Division, located at their design and construction building known as the Olmsted Center in Flushing Meadows, Corona Park. All park plans prior to 1934 are housed at the Municipal Archives.

According to records at the Parks Department Map File Division, there is a drawing dated 1935 for “alterations to the Comfort Station” that illustrates new walls and foundations in the center section between the restrooms. The floor plan labels it as a “Playroom.” The park received an overall redesign and renovation in 1935-36. Does anyone know when the Carroll Park Comfort Station was originally constructed, as it may be sometime before I can research.

The brick parkhouse was again renovated in 1994 upon completion of a major refurbishing of the park in 1993. Additional funds from the City of New York were secured, thanks to the help of City Council Member Steve DiBrienza, to renovate the parkhouse. In a ceremony on November 24, 1997, the parkhouse was named in memory of Robert Scott Acito, a former District Manager of Brooklyn Community Board 6. Link to Robert Acito Parkhouse

Recent Carroll Bridge History

Brooklyn Public Library Brooklyn Collection
Monte’s Venetian Room, an Italian restaurant two blocks away on Carroll Street, repainted the bridge in green, white, and red – the colors of the Italian flag around 1978.

The organization Place in History assembled a group of neighborhood residents to rebuild a historic garden once located on the banks of the Gowanus Canal in October 1998. The original garden was created in 1912 at the foot of the Carroll Street Bridge. The restoration of the garden was a public project designed to celebrate the reopening of the Gowanus Pumping Station, which now flushes the Canal with clean water from New York Harbor. Place in History strives to broaden public exposure to the complex histories underlying everyday urban settings.

On November 12, 1985 the Carroll Street Bridge rolled into the open position to let the tanker Jet Trader pass through the Gowanus Canal. Two days later, an inspection revealed that the bridge was plagued by serious structural problems. These included corroded steel, deck holes and overworked and failing machinery. Department of Transportation engineers did not consider the bridge sound, and therefore decided to leave it in the open position. This severed a nearly 100-year-old link between the Carroll Gardens and Park Slope communities in Brooklyn.

Inadvertently, the designation of the bridge as a City landmark became an obstacle in getting funding to upgrade and repair the bridge. To be eligible for State and Federal funding for the estimated $3 million rehabilitation cost, the bridge would have had to be rebuilt to "modern" standards - with a steel deck instead of a wooden one and with other changes. These would not have been in accordance with the wishes of the Landmarks Commission that requires that the bridge retain its historic elements that include its wooden decking.

In 1988, the Department of Transportation, having successfully restored the Williamsburg Bridge to full operation, decided to redesign and rebuild the Carroll Street Bridge according to original specifications. To complete the work, the City made an even bolder decision - to use primarily City workers. Accordingly, from February through September 1989, City Bridge workers raced to completely reconstructed the Carroll Street Bridge in time for its 100th birthday on September 9, 1989.

From the bridge operator's house to the wooden deck and sidewalks, the bridge is a nearly exact replica of the original structure. Wherever possible, original parts were refurbished and used in the reconstruction. City Bridge workers’ restoration of the Carroll Street Bridge was completed on time and within the projected cost.

History of the Carroll Street Retractile Bridge

Retractile Mechanism and Carroll Street Garden 1912
The bridge slides open to a perpendicular angle in the middle of the Gowanus Canal until shipping has passed and it slides back again to close
(Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library)

Retractile Bridges date back to drawbridges. Although never a very popular design, they were used in the mid-19th century for narrow crossings where maximum horizontal clearance was required. One clear drawback of this model was that a significant amount of land had to be reserved on the bank of the waterway to "park" the structure when it was in the open position. At the turn of the century, New York City boasted five retractile bridges.

The Carroll Street Bridge is a simple, largely utilitarian structure that consists of two steel-plate girders that support the deck, two wooden, cantilevered sidewalks, and a central latticework frame supporting long stays that fan out to connect to both sides of the bridge. The stays support the structure when the Bridge is in operation. Swinging gates close the roadway and outside pedestrian walkways when the bridge is open.

The genius of the retractile bridge is not immediately evident. Under the wooden deck, the girders are supported on a set of wheels that rest on steel rails. Much like a cable car, the bridge is drawn in and out by a cable that runs into the operating house located on the western side of the Canal. The steam engine that originally operated the bridge was converted to an electrical motor in 1908.

In large part, the Carroll Street Bridge had remained unchanged over its first hundred years. In addition to the conversion from steam to electricity, alterations have included the replacement of the rails, wheels, axles, and the elegant iron hand railings was replaced with cruder angle irons in the late 40’s.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Carroll Street Bridge

Carroll Street Bridge over the Gowanus Canal, 1912
(Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library)
The Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1888-89, remains a symbol of the industrial past of the Gowanus Canal and the ongoing vitality of the surrounding communities. It is a retractile bridge, which rolls back horizontally on wheels set on steel rails, to allow shipping to pass.

In 1887, the wooden bridge that had been built when the Canal was opened was shut down because of deterioration. Engineers from the Brooklyn Department of Public Works decided to build a new bridge rather than rehabilitate the old structure. A dispute followed over what kind of bridge should be built. Robert VanBuren, the Department's Chief Engineer, and George Ingram, the Assistant Engineer, favored the construction of a steel retractile bridge.

According to the landmark designation report by Jay Shockley, the wooden deck rested on two long-steel girders, the west halves of which were carried on rollers resting on three rails on the shore. It was drawn in and out by a cable running into a picturesque little brick engine house on the west side of the canal. The bridge would slowly slide back, diagonally, until it was next to the roadway on the western side, opening a channel 36-feet wide.

The trapezoid-shaped bridge is 107-feet long, and is one of the oldest bridges in New York City, and the oldest of four such bridges in the whole country. The other bridges are the Borden Avenue Bridge in Queens and two in Boston built in 1890’s. In 1986, the tracks were so out of alignment that the bridge had to be closed. The Landmarks Commission designated it as a City Landmark in 1987, calling it “rare and unusual”. From February through September 1989, NYC City Bridge workers completely reconstructed the Carroll Street Bridge, in time for its 100th birthday on September 9, 1989.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Carroll Gardens Historic District

View of Holt Street at President Street and President Street between Holt and Smith Streets
The Carroll Gardens Historic District includes the buildings on President and Carroll Streets between Smith and Hoyt Streets and the western ends of the two blocks between President and First Streets. It includes over 160 buildings and only eight block faces.

Historian Frances Morrone in his book, “An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn” says that with great foresight, the surveyor, Richard Butts, planned the area with garden setbacks in 1846. Each house is setback behind 33.5¼ feet deep gardens, which have become the area’s signature. Butts’ cleverness is apparent in two ways. First, the houses are so sited on their lots that they have unusually deep front yards – the “gardens” of Carroll Gardens. Second, he fiddled with the grid in a way one wishes many more developers had done: the east-west streets jag slightly so that houses terminate the vistas along these streets.

In September 25, 1973, the Landmarks Preservation commission, designated a Carroll Gardens Historic District: “finding its quiet residential community, developed between 1869 and 1884, retains much of its nineteenth century atmosphere; that because of separate self-contained entity within the larger fabric of the area, the sunny tree-lined streets, with rows of low-lying houses set uniformly far back behind carefully tended gardens, achieve a sense of space unusual in an urban environment, that the long rows of two and three-story houses are architecturally compatible as the result of the cooperation between neighborhood builders and architectural coherence and dignity to the streetscape, that the architecture is representative of the popular styles of the period, including the late Italianate, neo-Grec and Victorian Gothic, that the District was, and still is today, a solid community which, because of its location, atmosphere, architecture and spirit continues to attract newcomers to the area.”

Butts also planned the area to the south, bounded by 1st Place, Henry Street, 4th Place, and Smith Street with the same setback gardens. (The Carroll Gardens Neighborhood Association is currently evaluating expanding the Carroll Gardens Historic District to include these streets.) Butts’ “Map of the City of Brooklyn and Village of Williamsburgh”, shows blocks of unusual depth. The map indicates that between Henry and Smith Streets, the five streets of Summitt, Woodhull, Rapelje, Cooper and Coles were to be altered to provide for four new streets, First through Fourth Place, that were to be 50 feet wide. Houses on these streets were to have front courtyards 33.5¼ feet deep.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Carroll Gardens Today

Carroll Gardens is named for the neighborhood’s signature setback gardens, which was planned with great foresight by the surveyor Richard Butts in 1846. In that year, a law established the gardens on the four Places between Henry and Smith Streets and deemed the courtyards “shall be built on a line 33 feet 5 ¼ inches” that “shall be used for courtyards only”. The heart of the neighborhood is Carroll Park, Brooklyn’s third oldest park, which is bustling with activity with its play areas and bocce ball courts.

The neighborhood is famous for its eclectic mix of restaurants, food and pastry shops, a combination of food of the local Italians, who immigrated to the area in the earlier part of the twentieth century, with the taste of the newly settle young urban professionals for a wide range of international gourmet food along Smith Street’s “restaurant row”.

The Carroll Gardens Historic District so designated on September 25, 1973 is one of the smallest historic districts in the city, notable for its atypical setbacks that create deep front yards for the Neo-Grec and Italianate style brownstone rowhouses. The Carroll Street Bridge, built in 1888-89, remains a symbol of the industrial past of the Gowanus Canal and the ongoing vitality of the surrounding communities.

The area’s history goes back to the purchase of a large tract of land by the Dutch West India Company from the Mohawk Indians in 1636 whose tribal chief was Gowanus. The street names also reflect its history: Samuel Smith, a Brooklyn mayor: Charles Hoyt, a local real estate speculator; the farm families of Rapelje, Sackett, Hicks, and Degraw; and an early president of the Kings County Medical Society, Dr. Thomas Henry.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Why I started this blog

I have started this blog to post Carroll Gardens history items in preparation for the neighborhood being granted New York City landmark status. I, like many Carroll Gardeners, am upset that our neighborhood is being inundated with development that does not respect its rich history and tradition. David Lewis, the pioneering founder of the firm Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, distinguishes history as the study of the past, and tradition is the bridge between the past and the future. Unlike history, tradition is open-ended, forward-looking, and perpetually unfinished. It is the vital language that citizens use when they relate local heritage to what they want their community to become in facing the challenges of change.

In accepting the Congress for the New Urbanism’s Athena Medal for lifetime achievement, he stated. “I am always amazed that in our architecture schools, we continue to train students to design buildings as egotistical art-objects, as though architects have a divine right to disregard the traditions and urban form of the cities into which they insert their statements. And I am constantly amazed that our professional journals continue to applaud willful buildings that violate the urban contexts in which they are located, as though exciting architecture is only possible to the degree that it’s contextually inappropriate.

“Buildings do not exist in a vacuum. Every city has its own language. When we travel from one city to another, what we enjoy is getting to know the language of that city, its streets and its rivers, its squares and its markets, its history and its people. And the deeper we delve, the more intriguing the city becomes for us.”