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 www.Propertyshark.com and www.Googlemaps.com, 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.
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