From Ghost Town to Park Gateway
THE Brooklyn block leading down to the Fulton Ferry Landing, a neglected little row of brick structures at 1-25 Old Fulton Street, has looked like a ghost town for years, even while a boom has swept through Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo on either side.
Museum of the City of New York
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Now change is around the corner, as the new 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park moves ahead, its L shape wrapping around the waterfront from Atlantic Avenue to Jay Street, with Old Fulton Street as its apex.
This neglected row will become the gateway to one of New York’s most spectacular parks, but there is a trade-off: the plan also calls for the demolition of the art moderne Department of Purchase building, at the foot of the street.
Ferry service at this site began in the 17th century, and after 1814 there was steam power — which not only revolutionized commuting to Manhattan but also gave the street its modern name, after the steamboat inventor Robert Fulton.
In the 1830s the row of little commercial buildings went up, a humbler version of the counting houses around South Street Seaport.
The street forms a sort of trapezoidal piazza as it widens to meet the ferry landing, although the space has been given over to automobiles, not umbrella-shaded tables and chairs.
Old Fulton begins at Water Street, where Pete’s Downtown restaurant, originally the Franklin House, now stands. The ballroom upstairs used to double as a site for Quaker services.
The building at No. 5 Old Fulton was a tobacco warehouse for a time, and at No. 11, Robert R. Story made saddles, harnesses and engine hoses.
The Brooklyn Eagle called Mr. Story “jovial and popular,” explaining how a coachman once lost his employer’s expensive whip, for which he was liable, and Mr. Story replaced it at no charge.
At No. 15, Valentine, Bergen & Company operated a wholesale grocery, which sold a fruit vinegar with a maiden on the label declaring, “I am soulfully intense.”
Richard Hathaway, a sailmaker, worked in No. 21, and there were several cork dealers in No. 23. In 1869, the Long Island Safe Deposit Company built its ornate cast-iron bank building at the upper end of the block at No. 25, in a tiny little palazzo designed by William Mundell.
At the foot of the street, a boisterously ornate ferry terminal went up in 1865, but the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883 drew away much of the traffic. Merchants gradually left, and in 1891 the bank building closed. By 1898, No. 11 Old Fulton Street was a lodging house.
The ferry ran until 1924, and its majestic gingerbread terminal burned the next year. Little else of architectural interest happened until 1937, when the Works Progress Administration built a low art moderne warehouse for the New York City Department of Purchase, directly under the Brooklyn Bridge and opposite Pete’s Downtown. Approved by the New York City Art Commission, it was designed by Michael J. Mongiello as a long, sleek piece of streamlining with strip windows and orange brick. The roof was specially designed to resist damage from debris falling from the bridge.
The 1939 W.P.A. Guide to New York City said that although the area had once been a “charming hamlet,” it had become “a sort of Brooklyn Bowery, with flophouses, small shops, rancid restaurants, haunted by vagabonds and derelicts.”
In 1977 the Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the five-block Fulton Ferry Historic District, including both sides of Old Fulton Street. The designation report compared the Purchase warehouse with the great Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea.
In 1993, the city had Medhat Salam, an architect, supervise a $1 million renovation of the Purchase building, which included repairing roof damage caused by falling hubcaps and other debris. In recent years, the building had been used by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and currently by the chief medical examiner.
Over the last five years Dumbo has become as expensive as Brooklyn Heights. But right next door, Old Fulton Street is still just that — old.
Most of the storefronts are empty, although pizza lovers sometimes stack up outside Grimaldi’s (formerly Patsy’s) at No. 19. The ferry dock can be crowded when New York Waterways starts ferry service — this year, that happened in late April — but generally the brick row has an old-time, melancholy air.
The proposed Brooklyn Bridge Park is a joint city-state project, and the city’s parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, says the old Purchase building blocks the view from the foot of Old Fulton to the vista upriver. So, in 2001 the planners proposed the demolition of the building to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, and it approved the proposal last year.
The Historic Districts Council and other preservation organizations went up in arms at the idea that a protected landmark was to be demolished for the stated reason of improving the view, but to no avail.
Mr. Benepe said the demolition of the Purchase building would begin in the fall.
Warner Johnston, a spokesman for the Parks Department, said that the site would become open parkland and that the department does not believe objects falling from the bridge pose a hazard.
The building is now nearly invisible, surrounded by a chain-link fence threaded with metal slats. So the curious will have to peer through them to appreciate the “before” before it becomes an “after.”
Streetscapes | Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn