The Brooklyn Historical Society (Siqi Tian / The Brooklyn Ink)
The Brooklyn Historical Society is dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of the 400-year history of Brooklyn. The society’s building, meanwhile, a four-story National Historical Landmark with a terra-cotta façade, at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights, has its own story to tell.
These days, the Society holds exhibitions and events from Wednesday to Sunday. Its many educational programs attract thousands of students every year. “I’m writing a dissertation about the immigration to New York City in 1880s, so I come here to search for materials for the Brooklyn part,” said Ean Oesterle, a CUNY Graduate Center student. “The library is great and I have spent four hours here today. But I hope they can provide more vertical files.” The graceful Othmer library inside the stately building is kept at a chilly 60 degrees, to protect its historical documents
The history center, once called the Long Island Historical Society, was located in another smaller site when it was established in 1863. With the boom in Brooklyn over the next few decades, the founders decided to move the center to its own building, but the plan was suspended due to the 1873 Depression. Later, in the late 1870s, a competition to select the architect was held, and the winner turned out to be George B. Post, who also designed the New York Stock Exchange.
Post is known for his design of early skyscrapers, but he also “experimented with new material and methods to create large, open interior space,” as the society’s website says. In most libraries, bookshelves were used as structural support for the ceilings, but Post designed a new truss system for the society’s library to support the floor, leaving a gap between the shelves and the ceiling.
The Othmer Library (Siqi Tian / The Brooklyn Ink)
The innovative design is praised by architectural historians as “blending technological innovation and graceful aesthetics,” according to Historical Society’s website. Part of the interior is also recognized as an interior landmark by the New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission: “The building with its graceful and elegant interior, stands, as it was intended to be, at the time of its erection, a center of pleasure and culture in the community.”
The building was completed in 1881, and at the time served only prominent members of the society. The society was invitation only with an extremely high membership fee, and there were few women and no people of color, according to Catherine Dominguez, a visitor services associate at the society. The membership guidelines changed over time. The annual fee is now $50 and the admission fee for a non-member is $10. Students have free admission and can pay $35 for an annual membership.
One large room used as an auditorium, with 600 seats, was transformed into a Red Cross headquarters for a while in 1910s, when a terrible influenza spread. While entering the 20th century, the society had to rent out part of the building to survive the Great Depression and two world wars. Several small galleries were also rented out as office spaces.
It was not until 1970s that the society regained the control of the whole building. That was also the time the focus changed from Long Island history to specifically Brooklyn history, according to Dominguez. The material of Long Island remains, but the society started actively collecting documents about Brooklyn. The institution officially changed its name to the Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985, and now its Othmer Library and Archives have “the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture in the world,” according to its website.
“You may spend multiple lifetimes studying the history of Long Island. While Brooklyn has played a central role in shaping the New York City as a whole, so they want to exemplify that, also focusing on the its present situation,” Dominguez said.
The building was recognized as one of the 2,500 National Historical Landmarks in July 1991. Today, it has a market value of $5,945,000, representing a 21 percent increase in the last five years, according to city documents.