This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
It was a morning for nostalgia when Charles Hart won the bid to demolish Grand Army Hall on February 7, 1898. The building was a Brooklyn icon in sorry disrepair. Its roof leaked, its wooden floors had rotted, and the entire northern wall leaned over Metropolitan Avenue, threatening to collapse onto pedestrians below. Just 35 years ago the building had been constructed as an Armory during the Civil War, and now its very existence was a “menace to life and limb.”
The two-story, white brick structure was a familiar landmark for residents of Williamsburg, then known as the Eastern District. Continuously decorated in red white and blue streamers or illuminated by electric lights, Grand Army Hall had been the site of annual veterans balls and political banquets, local government conventions, and industry trade shows. Its now bulging walls had heard countless marching bands and endured dozens of interminable speeches; its door waited for never-ending lines of carriages; its windows looked out at thousands of Eastern District residents, always dressed for events in their finest top hats and petticoats.
As the demolition was set to begin, people wondered what would become of the site, strategically located at the busy intersection of Metropolitan and Bedford Avenues. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle wrote, it was certain the site would be used for public benefit. A library? Or a small park? Both were possibilities.
The prediction was partially correct, but it took over twenty years for its realization. In 1921, construction began on the Metropolitan Bathhouse, a building that stands to this very day, though the neighborhood surrounding it is all but unrecognizable.
By now, it’s a cliché to utter “Williamsburg” and “gentrification” in the same sentence. We have moved past the inauthentically vintage era of cold brew coffee and overpriced boutiques, into the glass-boxed age of Apple stores and Whole Foods.
But just down the street from where the Whole Foods construction roars on, the Metropolitan Pool and Recreation Center tells a different story. One of history and preservation. Of authenticity and local values. For over two centuries this plot of land has responded to the community’s evolving needs; transitioning from a popular hotel in the 1800s, to an Armory during the Civil War, then to beloved community landmark Grand Army Hall, until the Progressive Era’s public bath movement became the obsession of New York and the municipal bathhouse was constructed. Now “Met Pool,” as it’s commonly known, is one of the few neighborhood spots that still caters to Williamsburg’s long-time residents and immigrant communities; a unique relic of Williamsburg’s past, today.
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Over 300 years before nights at Verboten, brunch at Le Barricou, and the release of The Bedford Stop, Williamsburg was dominated by thickets and bog. As Eugene L. Armbruster describes in The Eastern District of Brooklyn, Peter Stuyvesant was looking to develop a village near Bushwick, along the East River in the early 1660s. But poor land quality and lack of drinking water confined development to the construction of a sole place of refuge atop a bluff on today’s Bedford Avenue, near South 4th Street.
The land remained largely undeveloped through the Revolutionary War, when much of Brooklyn was occupied and destroyed by British soldiers. But once the land was part of the newly created U.S. of A, orchards and vegetable gardens replaced forests. With the creation of a rowboat ferry in 1797, the settlement of Williamsburgh (with an “h”) grew.
In 1808, the North American Hotel opened on a plot that included the corner where Met Pool now stands. A two-story building, the North American Hotel was strategically located on the route from Long Island to New York City and quickly became a requisite stop for travelers. People were known to sit outside the hotel and watch the stream of activity along Metropolitan Avenue, then known as North 2nd Street, or to avail themselves of the establishment’s Jamaican rum and applejack (beer was not an option.)
The Hotel remained in business through the early 1850s until its reputation tanked just as Williamsburgh started to boom. As Armbruster writes, the hotel “soon lost caste and fights were as frequent as dances.”
When the Civil War broke out in April 1861, Brooklyn was the third most populous city in the United States. The settlement of Williamsburgh had been absorbed into the city of Brooklyn in 1855, but the transition involved a name change. Although many of the storefronts and predominantly German residents remained the same, pedestrians along North Second Street were now officially strolling in the Eastern District.
* * *
For weeks committees left on-site hunting expeditions to find a suitable location for the neighborhood’s much-needed armory. It was already three years into the Civil War, and still the Eastern District’s 47th Regiment did not have a place to hold drills, meetings, and weapons.
For every proposed armory location, the Mayor turned it down. Until finally, a spot on the corner of North 2nd and 4th Street (today’s Metropolitan and Bedford Avenues) was approved. Construction began in February, 1864.
Above, you can see the headline in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle the morning of July 15, 1864. And it was quite the Masonic ceremony. Over 5,000 people gathered to watch the elaborate proceedings. Bands played and flags waved as members of the local government and “a number of other prominent citizens of the ‘burg’” (as the cool kids of the 19th century must have referred to it) watched as members of the Freemason’s Grand Lodge prepared to lay the cornerstone of the 47th Regiment’s new armory.
All the traditional rituals were in place– two Tylers entered with swords drawn, a brother carried a golden vessel of corn, two brethren had silver vessels of wine and oil, the architect entered with a square, level and plumb, until the Master of the Lodge emerged with a Bible, square and compass (the latter two are symbols of the Freemasons).
The armory was to be an institution of the Eastern District; a building worthy of the 47th Regiment, which had become the pride of the neighborhood. The 47th, known commonly as the Washington Greys, had been deployed from New York in September, 1861 and had already seen numerous battles, including the capture of Fort McAllister and the Battle of Olustee, Florida (the largest Civil War battle the Southern state ever saw).
A two story building, the armory’s first floor would contain eight full-sized company rooms– among them a meeting room for officers, company drill room, and a room for the armorer– plus a spacious hall that led to a grand staircase. At the top of the staircase (perfect for marching up and down) the second floor was left as an open space suited for a battalion drill room.
In the moments before the cornerstone was prepared, officials assembled a tin box with artifacts that together embodied the weight of the occasion: an 1864 city manual, a City Directory, several copies of local newspapers, a parchment scroll with the names of all city officers present, and other civic documents. It’s as if the box were a time capsule, an archive prepared in full anticipation of the building’s historic prestige.
Next, the corn, wine, and oil were poured over the cornerstone in succession while the Grand Master said:
May the all bounteous Author of Nature bless the inhabitants of this place, with all the necessaries, conveniences and comforts of life, assist in the erection and completion of this building, protect the workmen against every accident, and long preserve this structure from decay…
In just 12 years the 47th Regiment would lament the building’s poor condition, and in 30 the former armory would be in danger of total collapse.
* * *
“Too small.” “Incommodious.” “Unsafe.”
The armory had become unsuitable in the eyes of the 47th Regiment, which by 1867 was already on the hunt for a new locale. Though at the time of its construction the armory was considered “not only a large, but imposing building,” a dozen years later, “the splendid armories put up have THROWN IT INTO THE SHADE” (emphatic capitals found in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle original article).
On the armory’s first floor, military veterans enjoyed plush carpets and the finest furniture; some rooms were even outfitted with a piano. But the building was unfit. The walls had already begun to bulge, the roof leaked, the floor would visibly spring when the men practiced their drills.
The Civil War had ended– the remaining 580 men from the Washington Greys returned to New York in September, 1865– but the regiment required an armory for practice and ceremonies.
It would be five more years until the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran the following headline:
In October 1883, in a similarly elaborate ceremony, the cornerstone was laid for the new armory at Marcy Avenue. The structure still stands today, a looming, brick castle of a building that helps the city rake in the big bucks as, among other things, a rented film studio.
* * *
Before there was Smorgasburg there was the Great Grocer’s Fair, a far less politically correct but elaborate affair. There was a soap man’s booth designed in the shape of a log cabin, complete with a black woman washing with rolled sleeves, and a black banjo player for entertainment; a starch company had fashioned a stand with a giant ear of corn with two Indian “squaws” (that’s Native American woman, in racist) inside; an ale brewer promised 20,000 free samples at his stand.
It was September 1888 and the Grocer’s Fair, a trade show for wholesale dealers and manufacturers, promised to be “the greatest trade demonstration Brooklyn has ever known.”
Mechanics had been busy decorating the former armory, now repurposed as Grand Army Hall, for weeks in anticipation of the 11-day event. Electric lights illuminated the building inside and out, streamers hung from every possible crevice, and hundreds of stalls outfitted to accommodate the dealers who wanted to showcase their goods.
At the front of Grand Army Hall a musical bandstand was set up for daily afternoon concerts and performances from German singing societies. Just in front of the music stand, several ladies had reserved tables, where those who paid the entrance fee of 10 cents could have their palm read by a fortune teller, enjoy soda water from a fountain, and purchase candy, flowers, ice cream, and perfume.
As Police Captain, Martin Short said in his opening remarks: “It was sometimes said in the Western District that there was nothing to be seen in the Eastern District, but if the people there came out today… they would see a good deal the grandest sight ever witnessed in Brooklyn’s streets.”
Grand Army Hall was the Eastern District’s phoenix. Despite the 47th Regiment’s dismissal, the reimagined building would see countless decorations as it came to host dozens of prominent events and tens of thousands of guests. From firemen’s galas to political machine rallies, it was a space that embodied the diversity of the district, once even hosting the city’s Polish societies for the 59th anniversary of Poland’s 1830 rebellion. Another time the hall was outfitted with a boxing ring as local politicians hoped to woo their political patrons with a “rough and tumble prize fight.”
Grand Army Hall was an Eastern District landmark, but one still in disrepair.
* * *
Policeman Dredger greeted pedestrians from outside the Grand Army Hall on the morning of February 29, 1898. He had been stationed there since 8 am, urging people to cross on the other side of the street. The iconic building was bound to collapse at any moment.
There had been heavy rains the night before, and the perennially leaking roof had incurred too much damage. Bricks were sure to fall off the second-story cornices.
By 1895 the once great hall had fallen out of use due to its shoddy condition. Now the white brick structure sat abandoned. By the time Charles Hart won the bid to demolish it in February 1898, a building inspector had already found that the original armory had been poorly made. A man employed in the building’s construction verified that his team had traveled to Newtown Creek, at the border of Brooklyn and Queens, to retrieve mud to mix in with mortar as a cheaper concrete substitute. The shortcut had undermined the building’s stability.
Following the building’s demolition the lot stood abandoned; an odd, incongruous, emptiness in a neighborhood that was quickly filling up. Between 1900 and 1917 Williamsburg’s population doubled. With the construction of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, thousands of Jewish residents came to the neighborhood to escape crowding and poor living conditions in the tenements of the Lower East Side. The block between South 2nd and South 3rd grew to accommodate over 5,000 residents, making it the most densely populated block in all of New York City.
Occasionally the issue of what to do with the empty lot would resurface. One man wanted to buy it from the city to build a theater. Other residents pushed for it to become the site of Brooklyn’s new public library. But all discussions led to dead ends. Eventually, the empty space was used by the Public Street Cleaning Department as storage for their wagons and supplies.
It was in this context, amid crowded slums and soaring migration from Europe, that New York’s public bath movement was born. It was a movement that led to the empty lot’s fourth and, for now, final iteration: as the Metropolitan Bathhouse, constructed in 1922 in an effort to promote public health, hygiene and recreation.
As Marilyn T. Williams writes in Washing the Great Unwashed, political reforms that swept the country in the Progressive Era made public baths a topic of New York fascination. Starting in the 1890s countless articles painted the operation of public baths as a government duty. Advocates explained that their construction was about more than just ensuring public health—a growing concern, especially as scientists proved the spread of disease by germs—but also about promoting good character, civic-mindedness, self-respect, and integration of New York’s low-income and immigrant communities.
As a Sept. 12, 1897 piece in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle read:
When the poor are so very poor as they are in our cities and have neither the knowledge nor customs nor initiative to be other than as they are, it is a duty of the public, as its own government, to educate them out of their condition, to give baths to them that they may be fit to associate together and with others without offense and without danger. A man cannot truly respect himself who is dirty. Stimulate the habit of cleanliness and we increase the safety of our cities. And give over the idea that a free bath is any more a ‘gratuity’ than the right to walk in the public streets.
Articles lamented the squalid conditions and lack of private bathrooms in the majority of the city’s slums. The New York Tenement House Committee, re-established in 1894 to investigate slum conditions, issued a report that demonstrated just how tedious it was for a tenement resident to bathe. Jacob Riis, famed social reformer and journalist behind How the Other Half Lives, photographed “The Only Bath-tub In the Block,” a stark image of a sole bathtub hanging in an alley that was meant to serve all 2,781 people living in 39 tenements bound by Chrystie, Forsyth, Canal, and Bayard streets.
Brooklyn’s first bathhouse opened in Brooklyn Heights on Hicks Street in 1903. By 1915 Brooklyn had six municipal baths, though none had a Williamsburg address.
An August, 1920 this Brooklyn Daily Eagle headline, said it all.
“There are sections in the Eastern District where thousands of homes are without bathrooms or even the old-fashioned bathtub made of block tin or galvanized iron,” the article read. Even in the “sweltering heat,” the article continued, some had to go without refreshing baths due to their living conditions. Policemen in the Eastern District had been making personal investigations into residents’ bathing habits as public concern reached hysterical heights.
A new community cause called for the empty lot at the corner of Metropolitan and Bedford Avenues. State senators were already looking into the land as a location for the construction of a municipal bathhouse.
* * *
Fifty-eight years after the building’s first Masonic cornerstone ceremony, an altogether different one was about to begin. Absent were the corn and wine and long procession; instead Borough President Edward Riegelmann did the honors. After months of accusations that Riegelmann had delayed the bathhouse’s construction, he finally wielded a “suitably engraved” silver trowel and laid the cornerstone in place. A large crowd of press and onlookers snapped cameras and cheered, while policemen patrolled the crowd for pickpockets.
The moment was a neighborhood cause célèbre. All of the expected city officials, from the fire commissioner to the commissioner of sewers, were present. But so were a collection of civic and social organizations representative of the Eastern District’s diversity. Members of the Y.M.C.A and Knights of Columbus, as well as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and even the Polish and Lithuanian societies, attended. Several religious leaders—including both a rabbi and pastor– led the crowd in prayer.
As was tradition, another box of artifacts was assembled, but the new collection of trinkets hinted at changing times: a book of rules of municipal bath buildings, a copy of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, several coins, a picture of the Brooklyn Dodgers (World Series participants in 1920) and a baseball.
“When completed the bathhouse will be one of the finest structures of its kind in the United States,” wrote the Eagle.
The bathhouse was eventually constructed in 1922 at a cost of $148,272, with the capacity to serve 4,000 bathers daily. Famed architect Henry Bacon, already well-known for his work on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., was responsible for the design. Certain neoclassical details, including limestone pillars that laid flush with the building’s brick façade, were typical of Bacon, who was known for his love of ancient Greek architecture (evidenced in the Lincoln Memorial’s Greek temple design).
Metropolitan Bathhouse quickly became the neighborhood’s unifying force. A new pool enabled the launch of a swim team for Eastern District High School, thus triggering “the biggest athletic revival which has taken place at the Williamsburg school through its history of a quarter century.”
But just like Grand Army Hall, the bathhouse had to quickly transition to accommodate evolving community demands. Soon, even low-income Williamsburg homes were equipped with private bathrooms, making the public bath concept all but obsolete. Met Pool was turned over to the New York Parks Department in 1935, and switched from bathhouse to recreation center without much change in the facility. Similar transitions were the fate of most of the city’s public baths, some of which were totally demolished following World War II.
The rest of Williamsburg’s story—of mass Hasidic and Puerto Rican immigration, of artistic revitalization followed by intense gentrification– has been extensively chronicled. Metropolitan Bath stood witness to it all.
By the 1950s lack of patronage had caused the closure of four of Brooklyn’s public baths, but through the 1957 construction of the BQE, rampant gang violence of the 1970s, and the death of hipsterism (round one), Metropolitan Pool has remained resilient, though relatively unnoticed.
Maybe that’s the best thing going for it.
* * *
On a Sunday afternoon, I walked into Met Pool to find a man named Pringles at the front desk. Originally from Sumter, South Carolina he moved to Fort Greene in 1962, though he still talks with a strong southern lilt.
“Guess how long I been here?” Pringles asked within seconds of our conversation. “Too long.”
In the entranceway around us, families milled about—a Chinese woman and her daughter, a trio in bathing suits drying off and speaking in Spanish. Behind the front desk, large glass windows overlook the 30-by-70-foot pool where around a dozen patrons splashed and swam. One exceedingly overweight woman led her own private fitness routine–underwater power walking–at the pool’s shallowest edge. A European man with an impressive handlebar mustache floated alongside his child, the two of them gazing up at the pool’s soaring, vaulted skylight, its ceiling bathed in Statue-of-Liberty-green, and copper tiles– potent reminders of the building’s 93-year-old history.
“Oh, we get people from all over,” Pringles said.
For a core of Williamsburg residents, Met Pool provides an invaluable community service. Annual membership is just $150 dollars a year (embarrassingly the same price I spent on 10 barre Pilates classes at a bourgie studio just blocks away… and that was with a killer Gilt City offer). Met Pool classes are varied, from children’s art to “abdominus propulsion.” On Mondays and Wednesdays Henry “Hot Pepper” Brent, a 1980’s two time flyweight champion, leads a “Keep in Step” cardio class. Four times a week the pool even offers a women’s only swim, largely for the benefit of the neighborhood’s still large, though highly insular, Hasidic population.
Walking through the building’s facilities—a small, mirrored studio up the left stairwell, and a weight room and cardio gym up the right—I saw children’s arts and crafts projects tacked to elementary school-style bulletin boards with bright scalloped borders. In the corner, there’s a community board covered in flyers with tear-off tabs advertising meditation and jewelry classes, and I wondered if it was the last existing community board in a twenty-block radius.
The building may as well be invisible to new residents more likely to hit their condo’s private gym or the annoyingly campy “Retro Fitness” on North 3rd, but Met Pool’s service has not gone unnoticed. In 2011, the Parks Department honored Metropolitan Pool staff with the Best Recreation Center Award. At the time, the center had 7,500 regular members, making it the third greatest revenue-generating center in the city, and the greatest in Brooklyn. As The Daily Plant (the NYC Parks Dep’t agency newsletter) noted, “Met Pool is not our largest center but has personality, robust membership, and amazing programs.”
With a J. Crew just three blocks away, Urban Outfitters five, and the Whole Foods down the street set to go up this spring, personality is the best possible compliment.