Brooklyn’s Commercial Heritage
Along the East River on the Brooklyn waterfront is a small area in the vicinity of the original Fulton Ferry terminal. In this area lies Brooklyn’s commercial heritage. On November 25, 1975 this area was designated the Fulton Ferry Historic District. In order to take advantage of the heavy ferry traffic between Brooklyn and Manhattan, commercial buildings had been erected, including an imposing group of waterfront warehouses that are now part of Empire-Fulton State Park. Several other distinguished 19th-cenutry commercial buildings also survive in the ferry landing area. Many have been converted to housing.
In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge was completed, the earliest physical connection between the cities of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Ironically, this doomed the ferries that had given life to this section of Brooklyn. For about 175 years, unregulated ferry service carried people and farm products from rural Brooklyn to the urban center on the southern tip of Manhattan Island. Established by the Dutch in the mid 17th century, it was at that time known as the “Brookland Ferry.”
It was this service that played a strategic role in the Revolutionary War, it allowed George Washington to evacuate his army under cover of night after being defeated in the Battle of Long Island.
The New York & Brooklyn Steamboat Ferry Association was organized in 1814 and introduced steam-powered service across the East River. Robert Fulton’s ship Nassau began regular service across the river between New York and Brooklyn, making up to forty crossings a day. As its reliability improved, making commuting to and from Manhattan more realistic, more and more people moved to Brooklyn’s new residential neighborhoods. Property along Fulton Street became extremely valuable for commercial use because an ever-growing number of people passed there daily.
The street was widened in 1835 and soon four-story brick buildings appeared, each with a store, restaurant, tavern, or other establishment that catered to ferry customers. On the north side of Fulton Street at nos. 7-23, one of those commercial rows erected in 1836-39 still survives.
Brooklyn’s banks and financial institutions made the Fulton Ferry area a Wall-street type center. Two buildings erected by these companies survive. One, the former home of the Long Island Insurance Company at 5-7 Front Street, was erected in 1834 and is generally believed to be the oldest surviving office building in New York City. The other, at the corner of Front and Fulton streets (Fulton Street is now known as Cadman Plaza West), is the cast-iron bank erected in 1868-69 for the Long Island Safe Deposit Company. Also opening offices in the vicinity were other businesses, notably the Brooklyn City Railroad Company which put up its handsome Italianate style office building at the corner of Fulton and Furman streets in 1860-61.
Massive warehouses and factories were built outside this Fulton Street corridor. Brooklyn became known as the “walled city” because so many of these large brick structures lined the waterfront. The Empire Stores are one of the most spectacular of these warehouse complexes. It still stands on Water Sreet. It includes seven monumental warehouses with round-arched openings and iron shutters. It was erected between 1869 and 1885 for the storage of coffee beans, raw sugar. grains, and other products. The adjacent open land, previously occupied by old docks, forms the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park.
The old Eagle Warehouse was the last major building to be erected in the historic district. Located at 28 Fulton Street, it was designed in 1893 by Frank Freeman, one of Brooklyn’s most talented architects. It is an ascetic structure with excellent brickwork and a bold Romanesque Revival style round-arched entry through which delivery wagons once passed. In 1978-80 this building was converted into residences. Similar changes have occurred to many of the area’s older commercial buildings, thus revitalizing an area that virtually died with the termination of ferry service in 1924.
Now, tourist buses frequent the area and visitors from all over the world sojourn to this historic area and enjoy some of the local treats from Grimaldi’s Pizza, the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory and Jacques Torres chocolate. Bridal parties are often seen being photographed at the dock of the old ferry slip, with its terrific view of Manhattan in the background. The dock now also serves as a terminal for the New York Water Taxi, which doesn’t traffic nearly as much volume as the Fulton Ferry did, but is nonetheless reviving water travel in New York Harbor.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle