Gotham Lost and Found header image 1

Williamsburg(h), Brooklyn

December 15th, 2009 by DavidFreeland

Did you know Williamsburg used to have an “h”?

Williamsburgh 1

Original Williamsburgh Savings Bank Headquarters at 175 Broadway (Source: Flickr)

This week’s entry will be a cross-post with Untapped New York, a fascinating and informative blog run by architectural historian and musician Michelle Young.  On a recent afternoon, Michelle and I trekked across the river to the Marcy Avenue subway station (J/M/Z line) in Brooklyn, our starting point for an exploration of Williamsburg, one of Gotham’s most diverse and intriguing neighborhoods.  New York City’s toponymological evolution can often be traced in the design of its buildings; and today, specifically, we were looking for physical signs of Williamsburg’s original 19th-century spelling: “Williamsburgh.”

dime-bank

Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (Photos by Michelle Young)

Our first stop was the Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh (at the corner of S. 5th and Havemeyer Streets), a solid-looking Greek revival edifice whose frieze, set above a line of Corinthian columns, is inscribed with the bank’s full title – including the final “h.”  Across the park at 175 Broadway is the domed Renaissance-inspired HSBC Bank, the original headquarters of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank built in 1870-75.  The landmarked building fortunately preserves some of the original signage.  According to most historical accounts, the “h” was dropped after Williamsburg became consolidated with Brooklyn in April of 1854.  One of the more interesting footnotes unearthed during research for this post was the argument, expressed by an editorialist in the Brooklyn Eagle of June 6, 1853, that with consolidation, “we should also be much better able to stand against the oppressive measures of the big city over the river.”  Of course, all of Brooklyn was eventually incorporated into that city, in 1898.

Brooklyn Public Library

Brooklyn Public Library (Photo by Michelle Young)

Making our way past 1930s housing developments and 19th-century row houses (a few of which were being replaced, evidently for new construction), we landed at the Williamsburg branch of the Brooklyn Public Library (built in 1903 at Division and Marcy Avenues), where the original “h” is again preserved in the building’s design, in a frieze above the main entrance.  The book stacks inside the library are arranged radially in a semi-circle, filling a large bay window, and include many titles in Yiddish (which is spoken by the Satmar Hasidim who comprise one of the neighborhood’s most populous social groups).  Outside Michelle took a few photos of the imposing Classical Revival facade, but was then stopped by a security guard.  I was reminded of the many insidious ways in which New York has become a city of “don’ts.”  Few of these proscriptions make any logical sense; they stifle the expressive freedoms for which New York has always been known.  After pointing out to the guard that there is no law preventing buildings being photographed from the outside, we moved on.

Williamsburgh Street

Williamsburg(h) Street. (Photo by Michelle Young)

If “Williamsburgh” did indeed become “Williamsburg” after consolidation, evidence suggests that the two spellings were used interchangeably for a long time.  Even today, an “h” will sometimes appear in printed references to the neighborhood.  This confusion was made manifest as we strolled along Williamsburg Street, half of which seems to have been lost to the expressway which runs parallel to it.  A street sign announcing “Williamsburg St” sat one block away from one that proclaimed “Williamsburgh St”; the signs appeared to be about the same age, of relatively recent design and placement.  If “Williamsburgh” has indeed been removed from the New York lexicon, it is having a serious case of departure anxiety.

williamsburgh1

Williamsburgh Savings Bank (Photos by Michelle Young and Jake Dobkin, top left, bottom right)

We ended our tour at the Williamsburgh Savings Bank tower near the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) downtown, for the documentation of one final “h” (above the central arch) and a view of some exquisite tile mosaics in the lobby.  Still the tallest building in Brooklyn, the tower’s landmark status helps ensure that “Williamsburgh” will not disappear any time soon.  It is currently being converted into condos, which despite anti-gentrification proponents, is sometimes a way to preserve historical architecture – in this case, 63 ft vaulted ceilings, marble interiors and 40 ft ornamented windows.  And in the tradition of the preservation, this building did not generate any media or internet presence until after 2007, when it closed and was sold to developers.

savings-bank-2

Williamsburgh Savings Bank Facade and Mosaic (Photos by Michelle Young)

How to Get There:
Dime Savings Bank J/M/Z Subway to Marcy Avenue

Williamsburgh Savings Bank 2/3/4/5/B/D/M/N/Q/R Subway to Atlantic-Pacific

Special thanks to Jake Dobkin for usage of his beautiful nyc photography from www.bluejake.com

Tags:   · · · · 7 Comments

Leave a Comment

7 responses so far ↓

  • Hello David,

    I’m reading your book Automats, Taxi dances and Vaudeville. I’ve never been to New York. But I love the book. The book transport me to lost worlds, very interesting and very entertaining.

    Regards,
    Arjan

    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

  • Dear Arjan,

    Thanks for the nice comment. I’m happy that you’re enjoying the book. Hopefully you will have the chance to visit New York in the future. I spent a week in the Netherlands some years ago and loved it – the architecture, history, culture, and people. All best wishes for a happy New Year.

    David

  • Hi David!
    I’ve been watching the second season of Flight of the Concords and they film several scenes in the interior, including the lobby and the two guys play a show in the study area to the left of the lobby! All filmed clearly during the daytime, which means they would have had to close off that section for the hours of filming.
    Interesting they allow filming the interior, but did not want us photographing the exterior! :)

    Michelle

  • Hi Michelle,

    Very interesting! I’m sure the Mayor’s office helped work things out in terms of permits. We’ll have to do another joint effort after you come back. Hope you have a fulfilling and enriching time.

    Take care,
    David

  • David,

    Great blog. Coming from Pittsburgh, I really appreciate this post. We were forced by the Post Office, along with all remaining “h” cities, to drop the final h in the 1890s, and had to go to court to get our “h” back. (Look under the arch of the rotunda in front of the old Pennsylvania RR Station in Pittsburgh, built in 1900, and you’ll see “Pittsburg” carved in stone.

  • Man love New York was just there for Brazilian Day. Great article by the way.

  • I have never been up that way. I live in Ms. I met some people in that area, but never had a chance to visit. Such great architecture! We don’t have a whole lot of good archichitecture down south.

    I have family in Ma. I love looking at the old churches and buildings, but I haven’t been in over a decade. I have not read the book yet, but I will check into it.

    Best of Luck to you with it!