For more than a century after it was settled this enclave was a village called Bushwick Shore. In 1802, real estate specualtor Richard M. Woodhull purchased thirteen acres of land at the foot of today’s South 2nd Street and hired Benjamin Franklin’s grandnephew, Jonathan Williams, a United States Army engineer to survey his property. Woodhull named the proposed village in his honor and established a ferry to New York (then the island of Manhattan). The enterprise went bankrupt in 1811 but the tiny village trundled on and was incorporated into the Town of Bushwick in 1827.
Thomas Morrell and James Hazard picked up where Woodhull had left off. They also established a ferry, this time to the Grand Street Market at Corlear’s Hook, providing an outlet for the farmers of Bushwick to sell their produce in New York. The impetus to the area’s growth, however, was the establishment of a distillery in 1819. The distillery is gone (as is the Schaefer brewery that followed it on the same site). With a population over 10,000 by 1840 Williamsburg(h) separated from Bushwick and became its own city, organized into three wards.
In 1855 the city lost its independence and its “h” when Williamsburg was annexed into the City of Brooklyn, helping propel Brooklyn to the status of America’s third-largest city. Throughout the 19th century Williamsburg was a wealthy industrial enclave. Astral Oil, later swallowed by Standard Oil, was built here. Corning Glass Works was founded here before drifting upstate. German immigrant, chemist Charles Pfizer founded Pfizer Pharmaceutical here. Gilded Age barons Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jim Fisk and William Whitney stayed in elegant resorts on the Williamsburg shoreline.
But nothing had an impact on the community like the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903. Overnight the tony hotels gave way to an immigrant district absorbing the overflow from New York’s Lower East Side (the New York Tribune dubbed the bridge the “The Jews’ Highway”). Well-to-do families moved away and mansions and handsome brownstones from the post-Civil War era fell into disuse or were converted to multiple dwellings.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that a hip art crowd found large loft spaces, cheap rent and convenient transportation throughout Williamsburg and kick-started a renaissance that continues into the new century. Our walking tour will start where so much of the immigrant experience began - at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge...
Broadway and Havemeyer Street
Once the nerve center for much of Brooklyn’s trolley empire (think baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers), the space is cut into pieces by the elevated subway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, which slice through it with abandon. In the center of one small sliver is a fine equestrian statue of George Washington by Henry Merwin Shrady who won the competition for the memorial that was dedicated in 1906. Shrady considered the General’s achievements at Valley Forge to be the manifestation of his greatness and sculpted him atop a horse with bowed head.
Holy Trinity Cathedral of the Ukrainian Church
northwest corner of South Fifth Street and Washington Plaza
Originally the Williamsburg Trust Company, this opulent terra-cotta structure, designed by Helmle, Huberty & Hudswell in 1906 is now a Beaux-Arts cathedral, the Holy Trinity Church of Ukrainian Autocephalic Orthodox Church in Exile. The architectural firm was anchored by Frank Helmle, who cut his teeth in the legendary shop of McKim, Mead & White and was a master of the exuberant classical style.
WALK THROUGH THE PLAZA AWAY FROM THE EAST RIVER AND TURN LEFT ON HAVEMEYER STREET.
Church of the Annunciation (Roman Catholic)
255 North 5th Street, northeast corner of Havemeyer Street
A crisply detailed and lovingly maintained Lombardian Romanesque basilica by Franz J. Berlenbach, Jr. from 1870. Across the street is a related convent that has since been converted. The neighborhood’s Lithuanians bought the buildings in 1914.
Convent of the Order of St. Dominic
56-64 Havemeyer Street
This exuberant Romanesque Revival red brick institution from 1889 has been revived as a condominium. It is another creation of Franz J. Berlenbach who was a first generation German born in Milwaukee. He came to Williamsburgh in 1863 in his thirties and began specializing in Roman Catholic churches, acting as a consultant for architectural designs for the Archdiocese of Brooklyn, New York and the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic.
RETURN TO 5TH STREET AND TURN RIGHT TOWARDS THE EAST RIVER.
St. Matthew’s First Evangelical Lutheran Church
197-199 North 5th Street
Now the Iglesia Bautista Calvario, this Romanesque Revival building of red brick and glass blocks features a simple pattern of three soaring recessed arches. Hard-working brick buttresses flank the sides of this Civil War-era house of worship.
TURN LEFT ON DRIGGS AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT ON GRAND STREET.
Manufacturers Trust Company /originally North Side Bank
33-35 Grand Street, between Kent and Wythe avenues
A lost rock-face Romanesque bank still stands defiantly on a block of lightly visited warehouse types. The stone block facade is topped by a cast iron cornice and fanciful wrought iron guards the windows and door opening. Designed by Theobald Engelhardt, the bank building dates to 1889. A native son of Williamsburg, Englehardt was born in 1851 and followed his father, a carpenter, into the building trades. He started his practice in 1877 and for the next four decades did as much to shape the neighborhood streetscape as any architect.
Grand Ferry Park
Grand Street between River Street and the East River
This pocket park was the ferry landing before the Williamsburg Bridge was built. The red brick smokestack was part of a molasses plant operated by Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Enjoy the superb views of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge.
RETURN TO KENT AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT.
American Sugar Refining Company
292-350 Kent Avenue, between South 2nd and South 5th streets along the river
Once long ago, Brooklyn was the sugar capital of the United States. Havemeyer and Elder’s American Sugar Refining Company’s neon Domino Sugar sign has been a familiar landmark on the East River for decades although sugar is no longer produced in the hulking brick refineries. The Romanesque Revival factories were built in 1890 and feature hundreds and hundreds of arched brick windows. Henry Osborne Havemeyer came into the family sugar business when he was 22 years old in 1869. By the time of his death in 1907 at the age of 60 the “Sugar King” controlled 80% of the sugar refined in America.
TURN LEFT ON SOUTH 6TH STREET.
Bedford Avenue Theater
109 South 6th Street, between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue
The Bedford Avenue Theatre was constructed in 1891 by builder W. W. Cole (the architect is not known). Its inaugural performance featured the actress Fanny Rice in A Jolly Surprise. The building’s tenure as a playhouse was cut short - literally - by the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge. The right of way for the bridge, which was opened in 1903, sliced off the back half of the theatre, stage and all. Most of its life after that was spent as a warehouse for the Fruitcrest Corporation; one of the most beautiful buildings in south Williamsburg was spruced up in 2007.
TURN RIGHT ON BROADWAY AND WALK DOWN ONE-HALF BLOCK.
Smith, Gray & Company Building
In the middle of the 19th century cast iron enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity as a building material - it was easy to form into ornate designs (French Second Empire here), inexpensive to cast and quick to assemble. The Smith, Gray & Co. Building is an early cast iron-fronted store-and-loft building in Brooklyn. The firm was founded by tailor Edward Smith, who began his business in 1833 in lower Manhattan and pioneered the profitable manufacture of ready-made clothes for children. In 1864, he transferred the business to Williamsburg in partnership with Allen Gray, his brother-in-law. This was their first new structure, constructed in 1870 on Williamsburg’s then most important commercial street. Henry R. Stiles’ History of Brooklyn (1884) said of Smith, Gray & Co. “in their specialty of boy’s and children’s clothing, this house is the largest, as it was the first, in the United States and that it was one of the largest manufacturers of any kind in Brooklyn.”
TURN AROUND AND WALK BACK UP BROADWAY, AWAY FROM THE RIVER.
Nassau Trust Company
134-136 Broadway at the southwest corner of Bedford Street
This slender bank headquarters extends down Bedford Street from its Neo-Renaissance front on Broadway Street. Designed in limestone and granite by Frank J. Helmle, the bank opened its doors here in 1888. Nassau Trust merged with Mechanics’ Bank in 1914 to form Long Island’s largest bank operating under the latter’s name.
Kings County Savings Bank
135 Broadway, northeast corner of Bedford Avenue
This ornate Second Empire structure dates to 1868, a time when you often couldn’t tell a bank from a mansion house. The firm of King and Wilcox designed the building for the Kings County Savings Bank. Gamilial King was a prominent architect in the New York area; Williams H. Wilcox became partners with King late in King’s career but nothing further is known about him. Deposits were taken here until 1989, today it is the home of the Williamsburg Art and Historical Society.
Williamsburgh Savings Bank
175 Broadway, northwest corner of Driggs Avenue
The Williamsburg Savings Bank was at one time the fourth largest bank in America. George B. Post, who would design the New York Stock Exchange thirty years hence, blended eclectic Victorian Renaissance elements for this impressive vault in 1870. The new headquarters took five years to complete and operates as a bank to this day. The crowning dome is identical to the one found on the 32-story Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower built 60 years later.
Peter Luger Steak House
The most famous restaurant in Williamsburg has been serving top grade steaks since 1887. The side door has the original glass.
Sparrow Shoe Factory Warehouse
William B. Ditmars, born and raised in Brooklyn, designed one of New York’s best cast iron buildings here in 1882 but his body of work was cut tragically short by his suicide the following year at age 43. The classically-inspired facade, cast by the busy foundry at Atlantic Iron Works, is alive with brackets and fluted, floral-decorated pilasters. Shoes were just one of the many business interests of James R. Sparrow.
TURN SOUTH ON DRIGGS AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT ONTO SOUTH 9TH STREET.
New England Congregational Church
96 South 9th St. between Bedford and Berry Avenues
This Lombardian Romanesque brick church with arched corbel tables and sturdy tower opened for service in January 1905. The building was designed and built by James Rodwell who later became a Fire Commissioner. It was then purchased for a new Roman Catholic Church: The Church of the Epiphany.
Continue south of Division Avenue entering into Hasidic Williamsburg, a completely different neighborhood of one of New York’s most concentrated Hasidic communities, recalling late medieval Jewish life in dress and customs. This unique settlement is a result of the overflow of Jews from the Lower East Side made possible by the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge. Beards and uncut earlocks identify the men; shaved but wigged heads identify the women. Long frock coats and skullcaps are in evidence everywhere among its male population, young and old.
RETURN TO BEDFORD STREET AND TURN RIGHT.
500 Bedford Avenue, northwest corner of Clymer Street
This Victorian Second Empire brownstone was once the home of Grand Rabbi Josel Teitelbaum (the Rebbe), who led the bulk of the Hasidim from Europe to Williamsburg after World War II. When the native Hungarian rabbi passed away in 1979 at the age of 92 a reported 100,000 Jews attended his funeral.
Frederick Mollenhauer House
505 Bedford Avenue, northeast corner of Taylor Street
Sugar refining was the biggest business in Brooklyn in the 19th century and what Henry Osborne Havemeyer didn’t control, John Mollenhauer did. His son, Frederick, commisisoned this sturdy mansion in 1896, when Bedford Avenue was the most prominent street in Williamburg. Danish-born architect Peter J. Lauritzen, a one-time designer for the government, and his partner Louis H. Voss, populated the street with several Renaissance Revival mansions like this one. The Italian palazzo was converted into a clubhouse for the Congree Club after the Mollenhauer family departed.
559 Bedford Avenue
northeast corner of Rodney Street
This flamboyant residence from 1890, fashioned from red brick, red stone and terra-cotta, was once even more showy - a Spanish tile cap for the corner tower has disappeared. Look up to spot a watchful owl on the gable on the Rodney Street elevation.
563 Bedford Avenue, southeast corner of Rodney Street
Peter J. Lauritzen and his Louis H. Voss enlarged and spruced up this 1875 house in 1891 to serve as the clubhouse for the Hanover Club. William Cullen Bryant, publisher of the Brooklyn Times, was the first president and held office until 1899. Today’s building, housing the Young Israel Congregation of Brooklyn, has been stripped of its cornice and window decorations but is still wrapped in brownstone quoins.
Yeshiva Jesode Hatorah of Adas Yerem
571 Bedford Avenue
This otherwise routine bronstone townhouse steps out with an eye-catching copper bay window and decorative flourishes galore on the mansard roof.
Side Trip... Across the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway
TURN LEFT ON KEAP STREET.
BnosYakov of Pupa /originally Temple Beth Elohim
274 Keap Street, between Marcy and Division Avenues
This Hebrew congregation was the first in Brooklyn, dating from 1851. After meeting in private homes and a rented hall on Marchy Avenue, this synagogue was raised in 1876. It boasts the multiple textures and colored stone of the Ruskian Gothic style and sports decorative iron gates. The building was damaged by fire on November 19, 1908 and Temple Beth Elohim has long since departed.
TURN RIGHT ON SOUTH 3RD STREET.
South Third Street Methodist Church
411 S. 3rd Street, between Union Avenue and Hewes Street
This Romanesque-styled house of worship, now the Iglesia Metodista Unida de Sur Tres, dates to 1855.
TURN LEFT ON UNION AVENUE.
Iglesia Pentecostal Misionera /originally Deutsche Evangelische St. Peterskirche
262 Union Avenue, northeast corner of Scholes Street
Another Romanesque church, now the Iglesia Pentecostal Misionera, dates to 1881.
Colored School No. 3
270 Union Avenue, between Scholes Street and Stagg Street
Now Public School 69, this Romanesque Revival schoolhouse was the former Colored School No. 3 back when this was still mostly rural land in Williamsburg and is the only such building remaining in Brooklyn. The schoolhouse is a one-and-half story red brick buildingdesigned by architect Samuel B. Leonard, the Superintendent of Buildings and Repairs for the Brooklyn Board of Education from 1859 to 1879.
RETURN TO SCHOLES STREET AND TURN LEFT.
Maujer Street to Scholes Street, Leonard Street to Bushwick Avenue
This was the first and most expensive public housing project ever tackled in New York. Back in 1937 the erection of the Williamsburg Houses necessitated the widest swath of slum-clearance executed under the Federal Housing program. The New York City Housing Authority selected a committee of architects and the result is a potpourri of colorful International Style four-story buildings.
Ahavath Sholom Beth Aaron /Little Zion Baptist Church
98 Scholes Street, between Leonard Street and Manhattan Avenue
This mid-block Victoria gem from the 1890s for the Congregation Ahavath Sholom Beth Aaron stands out with its arches on both stories and a center mansard-roofed cap.
TURN RIGHT ON MANHATTAN STREET AND LEFT ON MESEROLE STREET AFTER ONE BLOCK.
Louis B. Schuler Building
182 Graham Avenue at southeast corner of Meserole Avenue
Look up above the compromised street level to see the Victorian pile of Louis B. Schuler’s wholesale liquor business. Schuler sailed from Germany in 1862 to work in Otto Huber’s brewery and soon married his daughter. This French Second Empire confection was raised in 1881 to handle retail sales, distribution and provide living quarters for the family upstairs. The decorative accents include bold window hoods, a dormered mansard roof and a projecting bay.
F.J. Berlenbach House
174 Meserole Street, between Graham avenue and Humboldt Avenue
Franz Joseph Berlenbach brought his family from Germany in the 1860s, first to Milwaukee and then to Brooklyn. In Williamsburg Berlenbach, a carpenter and builder, constructed a home on this site. In 1887 the house was torn down and replaced by this Queen Anne composition designed by Franz, Jr., an aspiring architect who had recently put out his shingle. Today it is a rare surviving example of the superb craftsmanship that marked wooden houses on 19th century Brooklyn streets. The family lived in this ornamented clapboard house until 1899 after which it was transformed into a multi-family tenement building, as walk-up apartments were familiarly known.
178 Meserole Street
between Graham Avenue and Humboldt Avenue
Here is another rare intact wood frame souvenir from the 1800s - if such houses managed to dodge fire they almost certainly would be altered with the passing years.
RETURN TO GRAHAM AVENUE AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT AT THE NEXT BLOCK ONTO MONTROSE STREET.
Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church
138 Montrose Avenue between Manhattan Avenue and Graham Avenue, south side
This is the second Most Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church on this site; the first being a wooden frame structure erected in 1853. In the 1880s architect William Schickel, a talented German-born designer who was often commissioned by the Catholic church, created this French Gothic vision with towers soaring 250 feet above the curb, constructed of Belleville Stone. In 1990 the towers were shored up and covered with lead and copper. When completed in 1885 Most Holy Trinity was one of the largest church buildings in New York and showed off 34 exquisite stained glass windows that were imported from the Albert Neuhauser Mosaic Firm in Innsbruck, Austria.
TURN LEFT ON UNION AVENUE AND RIGHT ON HEYWARD STREET.
17th Corps Artillery Armory
Marcy to Harrison avenues, Heyward to Lynch street
Before this castle-like artillery storage fortress was erected in 1882 this site was part of the Union Grounds, the site of early baseball games in the 1860s between the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Philadelphia Athletics, the New York Mutuals, and the Brooklyn Eckfords.
RETURN TO GRAHAM AVENUE AND TURN LEFT. TURN RIGHT AT THE NEXT BLOCK ONTO MONTROSE STREET.
Public School 71
125 Heyward Street, between Lee Avenue and Bedford Avenue, north side
James W. Naughton came with his family from Ireland in 1848 when he was a lad of eight years old. He was schooled in architecture at the University of Wisconsin but returned to New York to study at Cooper Union. In 1874 he earned the position of Superintendent of Buildings for the City of Brooklyn and in 1879 was appointed Superintendent of Buildings for the Board of Education of the City of Brooklyn. He continued in the role until his death in 1898, designing every school in the city during the Victorian era. Here he crafted a French Second Empire schoolhouse in 1889. It features such hallmarks of the decorative style as banded brickwork, elaborate window hoods and an ornate tower topped with a jaunty hat.
TURN RIGHT ON BEDFORD AVENUE.
667-677 Bedford Avenue
A step down from the glorious Brooklyn mansions perhaps but this street of middle income tenements puts on an architectural display of its own.
CONTINUE WALKING NORTH ON BEDFORD AVENUE TO THE STARTING POINT AT THE WILLIAMSBURG BRIDGE.