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The Gregg Chapel

Dec 16, 2008 11:18 AM | 4 comments

Here was a little puzzle which I knew could be best solved by taking my deskbound self out of the library and hitting the streets with a camera. But being more inclined to search through old atlases and surf web sites, I told myself I was doing essential background research.

The Gregg Chapel was the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church's mission to the Italians of Gowanus in the early years of the 20th century.  A Brooklyn Daily Eagle article dated August 5, 1913, describes the plans for the building on Fourth Avenue: "It will be of modern construction...On the first floor will be a club room, the pastor's study and a large auditorium for congregational use, for the attendance is expected to be great from the surrounding neighborhood...The second floor will be divided into a large Sunday School room, with a smaller room for the Sunday kindergarten. The roof will be used as a playground for the children..."

The Gregg Chapel Collection, a recent Brooklyn Collection acquisition, consists of 32 photographs showing the building and the activities that went on within its walls.  On the human level, the images tell a story of progressive education and Americanization. Young children build towers with blocks on the floor, while others play in a sand table. Women sew hats at a round table. A girl's basketball team poses for one shot, while in another, a string septet plays beneath their hoop. Men and women in a semi-circle with women on one side and men on the other hold open books in their laps. On the chalkboard is written "English Class, Gregg Chapel 1923." On the roof, children spread hammocks that look like fishing nets spread to dry on the beaches their parents left behind. In our collections, interior shots from the early 20th century are rare, so these photographs provide invaluable documentation of a population in the process of becoming American.

 As regards the building itself, a couple of puzzles present themselves.  In a note on the verso of one image, the address of the chapel is given as 290 Fourth Avenue, while on another the street number is 190. Which is correct? The excellent 1929 Belcher Hyde Desk Atlas of Brooklyn provides a quick answer--it was at 190 Fourth Ave, between Degraw and Sackett. That was easy.

The second puzzle is not much harder to solve. The images show two Gregg Chapels. What are these two buildings? Were they on the same site, or was the smaller chapel somewhere else altogether? Was it demolished to make way for the new one?  Or perhaps, was the new building created from the skeleton of the old? Certainly there are similarities between the two. The width looks about the same, the rhythm of the doorways is similar, and the pediment topped off with a cross seems to have been transferred in one piece from old to new. 

The surrounding buildings hold a clue. To the left of both old and new buildings is a brick structure with characteristic paired brackets beneath the cornice. To the right of both is a slightly lower brick building with a doorway that abutts the chapel.  So the surrounding buildings show that site was the same for both old and new chapels, and the little old chapel must have given way to its grander iteration soon after 1913.  Now the urban detective wants to know, is the building still there? Thanks to web sites such as and, the deskbound librarian still does not need to leave the office.   The perfectly astonishing Googlemaps brings me right to the door of 190 Fourth Avenue. Next to 190 stands the Danken automotive center, surely nothing like the dignified brick building with the dual brackets? But wait--there they are, painted bright blue along with the brickwork. And what of 190? An awning over the doorway announces it as "Solution Services," but surely this must be a different building altogether? There is stucco where once there was brick. There are three windows where once there were four. And yet the roofline, its cornice and pediment ripped off, extends the exact same distance above the roof of its neighbor. A narrow doorway to the right is an exact echo of an older doorway with a stained glass light above it; and the wider doorway to the left again recalls the proportions of the second Gregg Chapel, which itself copied the lines of its smaller mother. One is forced to the conclusion that the bones of the Gregg Chapel of c1913 lie hidden somewhere inside this renovation. 

And here is the final chapter: on the way to work today I stopped on Fourth Avenue with a camera to record the state of the building on December 17, 2008. The awning is gone, the Googlemaps picture is out of date, and time wreaks its havoc in the faces of buildings as well as in our own.

Gregg Chapel now

Photos: Top: The second Gregg Chapel. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Center: The first Gregg Chapel. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Bottom: 190 Fourth Avenue. Photograph: Joy Holland

Axel Hedman, Architect

Nov 28, 2008 10:37 AM | 1 comment

The streetscapes of Brooklyn are shaped by the work of countless builders and architects, some famous, some obscure.  Some deserve their obscurity. But there are many too who may not have achieved fame, but whose fine work continues to anchor neighborhoods and arouse interest in passers-by.

Axel Hedman. Photo courtesy Barbara Hedman-Kettell

Axel Hedman is a name known to people who like to read guides to architecture and Landmark Designation Reports. Hedman's buildings are dotted through several Brooklyn neighborhoods. Born in Norrkoping, Sweden, in 1861, Hedman immigrated to the U.S.  in 1880. He was naturalized in 1901 and lived in Brooklyn until his death in 1943. Barbara Hedman-Kettell, Hedman's great-granddaughter, has been researching her ancestor's buildings in preparation for a celebratory family tour, and is creating a list of his work gathered from various sources including the Brooklyn Collection. Domestic architecture predominates, but the list also includes some familiar public buildings in Brooklyn and other parts of the city.

Hedman is responsible for a fine group of houses on Maple Street, as well as dwellings on Third Street in Park Slope, Dean Street in Crown Heights, Greene Ave in Clinton Hill, and Decatur Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, and many others.  He built the old Swedish hospital, a public bath house at Hicks and Degraw that must have given way to the BQE, and the Parkville Congregational Church that stood at the corner of 18th Ave and East 5th Street. Hedman also carried out extensive renovations to Brooklyn's Borough Hall. Another Hedman building of note is the Congregation B'nai Jacob on 9th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues.

Built in 1913 for Congregation Beth Shalom, this building was sold to an American Legion post in the 1950s. In recent years Congregation B'nai Jacob has restored it to its original purpose, carrying out extensive renovations and adding stained glass windows.

Hedman lived at various times on Livingston Street, East 4th St not far from the site of the Congregational Church he designed, and later, on Avenue L.  With offices in the old Arbuckle Building in Downtown Brooklyn and  the bulk of his work in his adopted borough, Hedman had a lasting and positive impact on Brooklyn's urban fabric.

Photos: Axel Hedman, courtesy of Barbara Hedman-Kettell

Houses on Maple Street. Brooklyn Public Library--Brooklyn Collection

Houses on Maple Street   

Brooklyn By the Bay: Bensonhurst and Canarsie--upcoming event with Brian Merlis and Lee Rosenzweig

Nov 27, 2008 12:56 PM | 2 comments

Brian Merlis, author of several illustrated books on Brooklyn neighborhoods, and co-author Lee Rosenzweig will discuss their latest two books on Bensonhurst and Canarsie, comparing and contrasting these two communities.

Date and time: Saturday, December 6 at 2 p.m.  Place: Brooklyn Collection, Central Library, Grand Army Plaza

1835 in an envelope

Oct 30, 2008 2:46 PM | 0 comments

Nine straight-edged pieces of colored paper lay stuffed into an envelope in the bottom drawer of a map case until, one day, a curious Brooklyn Collection librarian took them out and pieced them together. 


In colors as bright as they day they were painted, Daniel Haskel’s Map of the City of Brooklyn from 1835 took back the shape it had lost after tearing along all of its folds at some unknown time in the past.  At just 11 by 14 inches it was once a handy pocket map that showed downtown Manhattan as well as Williamsburgh and the newly chartered City of Brooklyn. The outlines of the City Wards in green, yellow, orange and magenta, looked so fresh they could have been painted yesterday, instead of over 170 years ago.  The map was sent out to a professional conservator, repaired, encapsulated and made ready for use in a busy public library.  

Compared to the beautiful Hooker’s map of 1827, Haskel’s lacks detail. The inlet from the Gowanus Bay--now a canal--is still a winding stream draining marshes and millponds, with a street grid laid over it.  The Gowanus road follows the undulating course of an Indian path, while Third Avenue, the only numbered avenue on the map, goes dead straight in the same direction.  The bends and turns of the Jamaica Turnpike lie almost parallell to the unyielding Rail Road to Jamaica. In the palimpsest of the city, one can still come across vestiges of roads that predate the straight lines favored by developers, but in Haskel's map the new ways and the old lie side by side in plain sight--a snapshot of a moment before the victory of the new ways was complete.

In Praise of Blue

Oct 28, 2008 4:21 PM | 2 comments

For those of us used to seeing photographs in black and white, sepia or color, the cyanotype, or blueprint, comes as a surprise.  The result of a printing process discovered by Sir John Herschel in 1842, cyanotypes provide a simple developing process using two chemicals in a photosensitive solution that can be applied to paper or other material. A positive image can be produced by exposing the material to sunlight.  When the paper is flushed with water after exposure, the Prussian blue salts remain in the paper giving the print its intense blue color.

Although by far the bulk of the Brooklyn Collection’s photographs are silver gelatin prints, two collections – one of them recently acquired—contain cyanotypes.  One of the collections, nameless until two seconds ago when I decided to call it the Subway Construction Collection, from the years 1903 -1917—contains images of scenes that are similar to each other (though not identical) using three different processes: silver gelatin, platinum print and cyanotype—affording the viewer an unusual opportunity for comparison. By several different photographers, these 8 x 10 prints—large for a cyanotype—were originally produced for the Public Works Administration. The platinum print has an impeccable matte finish which can only be appreciated when the photograph is removed from its Mylar sleeve.  To me, the cyanotypes have an unmatched beauty and immediacy. On flimsy pages that might have been cut from a notebook, the images have the quality of a jotted memorandum. 

Construction machinery, horses dragging huge loads, people wearing hats and spats—the collection shows long views of streets that still exist today, though changed in a thousand ways. And as always there is humor where you don’t expect it: the side of a building advertises the “Long Island Bird Store: dogs, cats, poultry pigeons other pet animals boarded.” And then the kicker—“ Taxidermist.” And in case you’d rather not waste money on stuffing your pet, right above that is “J.W. Hodges, Meat Market.” That building stood on the site that is now the Midtown Florist and Nursery next to BAM, a site that was at one time eyed for Brooklyn’s Library for the Visual and Performing Arts—one of several Brooklyn dreams that remained just that. The Subway Construction photos reveal the city as palimpsest more thoroughly and consistently than any other group of images we have—and they do it in blue.

The other blue group is by Julius Wilcox. Books will be written about Wilcox, who was a journalist, editor, and man of many interests.  Of his cyanotypes he writes, “When these photos were made—1892—photography was comparatively crude. ‘Developing papers’ were hardly known and positives were obtained by the old printing out processes. For these proofs—as memoranda of pictures designed only for lantern slides—I used an easy method, blue prints, but made on an exceptionally good line of paper.”  Wilcox also photographed the built environment, but the great cyanotypes in this collection, comparable to the work of Jacob Riis, show working class and homeless people--the quick and the dead--in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.  I doubt that lantern slide companies would have used his photographs of bodies in the the morgue, or of drunks lolling on a bench, or of children in Silver Dollar Smith’s saloon at midnight. 

Authorities do say that cyanotypes that have faded through exposure to light will regenerate when stored in the dark, which if true, would make the cyanotype the superhero of processes, with powers beyond anything in the black and white world.