Leaning against the rattling doors of a Brooklyn-bound train, their noses to the ground even as they cross the East River, commuters easily miss the glass clock face at the top of the red brick building that originally housed the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Today, the clock hands are still, their purpose only ornamental. With the clock’s back removed, it serves as a round window for the residents of the co-op at 28 Old Fulton Street. But a century and a half earlier, it was a ticking heartbeat for the Fulton Ferry district in its most bustling era.
The address between Elizabeth Place and Hicks Street has evolved from old Dutch farmland to Revolutionary War battle site, from the Eagle pressroom to a warehouse for silver, furniture and then electoral ballots, to its latest use as luxury apartments with the “Eagle Warehouse” signage preserved above its now-arched entrance. It has been either home or office to poets, politicians, reporters and architects, the folks who built Brooklyn, word by word, brick by brick.
But long before that, the Hicks and Middagh families, described by historians as members of an “old Dutch stock . . . averse to change or improvement,” fought over the fruit orchards and pastureland where the Eagle would rise about two centuries later. The family names remain on the street signs just a block away from the current co-op. Nearby was a popular ferry tavern, a favorite dining place for the colonists and British officers who would, within a few decades, pick up their rifles and point them across the bar during the Revolutionary War. The battle sites were close by, surrounding Pierrepont Street at what is now Fort Stirling Park, and the Hicks and Middagh farms fed the revolutionary soldiers. The landowners, supporters of the revolutionary goal of a new republic, were unaware that their political leanings would launch the Fulton Ferry neighborhood into centuries of development, eradicating their precious acres for new ventures.
After independence, original structures, relics of the bucolic origins of New York City, were repurposed for that quickly growing industrial center. What historic buildings remain in the district are designated New York City landmarks. Even today, as single apartments sell for as much as $2 million, the plot represents the latest phase along the Brooklyn waterfront— the merging of an inky, greasy, mechanized past with the interests of a new, urban (and mostly well-off) gentrified class.
The Eagle building itself rose from the foundations of one such Dutch farmhouse, most likely a structure used by the Hicks farm. The publication opened an official pressroom in 1841 and expanded the brick and iron building to its current size. By 1857, the newspaper prided itself as one of the largest circulated daily newspapers in the country, and its presence was a catalyst for the neighborhood’s development, due in part to the politically inclined men that walked the halls and funded the paper. Of all the great writers who occupied its desks — Charles M. Skinner, Thomas Kinsella and St. Clair McKelway among them— the greatest was Walt Whitman.
Described by his fellow Eagle employees as having a “dash of egotism” and the air of a confident, young writer, Whitman walked through the eagle-adorned wrought iron gate at what is now 30 Fulton Street and moved resolutely up a single flight of stairs to the second story pressroom. It was a brisk day in March 1846, and Whitman was starting a new position as the paper’s chief editor. His first editorial, “Ourselves and the Eagle,” published June 1, 1846, laid out his vision:
We really feel a desire to talk on many subjects, to all the people of Brooklyn; and it ain’t their ninepences we want so much either. There is a curious kind of sympathy (haven’t you ever thought of it before?) that arises in the mind of a newspaper conductor with the people he serves … Daily communion creates a sort of brotherhood and sisterhood between the two parties. As for us, we like this. We like it better than the more “dignified” part of editorial labors … For are not those who daily listen to us, friends?
Historian Thomas L. Brasher spent years documenting Whitman’s role at the Eagle. The young writer’s editing routine, Brasher writes, went like this: Wake up at dawn to get a head start on the early morning editorials— at least two every day, sometimes as many as four. The pieces went quickly to the composing room next door to his office, and then Whitman would go for a stroll around the block. Down Fulton, sharp right turn onto Hicks past 58 Fulton, take the long way down Doughty to meander by the Hunter and Manly rectifying distillery, another right onto Elizabeth and back through the iron doors. A brief solitary reprieve. After the walk, Whitman would return to read that day’s proofs, make his edits, and perhaps meet with the rare visitor— usually a Democratic politician, and almost never the paper’s proprietors, Isaac Van Anden and Henry Cruse Murphy (also Brooklyn’s mayor from 1842-1843.) Whitman then worked on his own reporting— columns of local news, aggregated stories for the Weekly Eagle and on-the-ground reporting across New York City. And then, after some basic housekeeping tasks, he would end his work day. This is how Whitman described it in a column published March 16, 1847:
That the labors of an editor are hard enough, is an undoubted fact. But for our part, we like them… The worst of it is, not that the work is hard, but that, in this country, one man has to do so many things in the paper… We would not give much however for a newspaper editor who is constantly grumbling at and disliking his profession… What would you think of a sculptor, or a painter, or a physician, who should be ever piercing the wounded air with bewailments of his own?
After work, Whitman took more time for himself, sometimes accompanied by his coworkers. On one afternoon, Henry Sutton— a young “printer’s devil” — was invited to accompany Whitman down Fulton Street to Gray’s Swimming Bath for a quick, 20-minute dip, never longer. Whitman saw Sutton off and caught the Fulton Ferry to Manhattan, to spend the rest of the day strolling down Broadway, his favorite street to people-watch.
From 1846 to 1848, Whitman published more than 800 editorials to a readership of 40,000 people. But his successors were not impressed. They accused him in print of “lounging” on company time, of having no political principles suitable for editor and even of kicking a politician down the office stairs. “Slow, indolent, heavy, discourteous and without steady principles, he was a clog upon our success,” wrote the new editors after Whitman left the paper in January 1848. Just like the growing neighborhood around them, the new editorial team craved speed and growth— two values Whitman chose not to entertain. Business, he wrote on Sept. 23, 1846, should not be conducted at a “helter skelter” pace, but as a source of pleasure “to work, but work with smiles and a bright heart.”
Brooklynites continued to devour the Eagle’s daily pages during the remainder of that first decade and the newspaper ate up adjacent properties just as voraciously. The Eagle’s first inevitable expansion came alongside cries for a greater ferry district built around a new “East River Bridge.” The bridge’s development became a typical Eagle headline. By 1882, the newspaper occupied the entire block— Front to the north, Hicks to the west, Doughty to the south and Elizabeth to the east. And, one year later, the Brooklyn Bridge opened to the public.
Murphy, Van Anden and their friends at the Eagle could not have understood the impact their support of the Brooklyn Bridge project would have on the fortunes of their neighborhood. The new bridge’s completion in 1883 brought intense trade along the miles of waterline— Brooklyn was already the fourth largest industrial city in the United States by 1880— as well as a flow of people from the main island, pushing the city’s population in 1898 to more than one million. The quick growth meant that the concentration of people, goods and businesses in the middle of the Fulton Ferry neighborhood had to spread into new neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Greenpoint and down south into Park Slope.
Alongside this economic sprawl, the Eagle was also setting its sights on more land. The publication chose to leave the Fulton Street offices and relocate to a new headquarters at Washington Street and Johnson Street in 1890. But the original building wasn’t lost. Two former Eagle executives— William V. Hester and William M. Van Anden, nephew of former owner Isaac Van Anden— helped purchase most of the land around the original pressroom in 1882, demolishing part of the remaining buildings to make way for its new purpose: a warehouse and storage facility operating under the shadow of the brand new Brooklyn Bridge.
Eagle Warehouse and Storage was the rebranding of another warehouse business that began in 1821. An article dated March 11, 1894 reported on the expansion of the business, which was to open to the public in two weeks time. Another warehouse down the street, the Brooklyn Storage Company, had an astonishing turnout of 1,000 people for its unveiling earlier that year. The Eagle Warehouse owners supported the city’s growing economy and a need for new industries, like the business of storage, to serve that wealth. It was another venture in the evolution of Fulton Ferry enterprises. The Eagle called the new type of buildings “As Beautiful Within as They Are Grim Without.” What stood out among the other businesses in the area was their impenetrability. “FIRE AND THIEF PROOF” read the sub-head. The buildings promised protection, security and, most importantly, enduring quality.
The new building was a nine-story structure built around the shorter 1882 press building, which was partially preserved by the warehouse’s famous architect— Frank Freeman. Freeman was known for massive Romanesque designs in the late nineteenth century, full of brick facades, small, prison-like windows and broad archways. The Eagle Warehouse was his masterpiece. Christopher Gray, former architecture writer and researcher for the New York Times, wrote about Freeman’s Brooklyn legacy in 1995, calling the building a “medieval brick fortress” that “recalls the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, with a massive entry arch, barred windows and a machicolated cornice.” It remained untouched until 1980.
The warehouse didn’t just stand as an architectural marvel, though, it was also the site of political contestation. While its normal wares included furniture and silver, luxury items, the most sought-after collection behind those brick walls were small scraps of paper— ballots from the 1905 mayoral race between George B. McClellan, Jr. and William Randolph Hearst. Hearst accused his Tammany opponent of electoral fraud after a 3,000-vote loss, prompting courts to reconsider the tiny markings on each one of those ballots. But the issue stalled in courts for years, and the papers were stored at Eagle Warehouse— “fire and thief [sic] proof” — for safekeeping. At least once, the attorney general was forced to serve an injunction to stop McClellan’s men from destroying ballot boxes that were stolen from the warehouse. The state officially sealed the storage rooms in 1907 and placed them under guard.
During this time, sections of the lot surrounding the protected warehouse were renovated and reallocated to the Brooklyn Law School, which operated in the space until 1928. But, as the middle of the century approached, the warehouse and its surrounding businesses— the National Biscuit Company at 46-48 Fulton Street, the cheap boarding houses at No. 50 and 54, even the cigar factory down at No. 56— began to close down. The Eagle Warehouse and Storage moved its wares and closed doors in the 1950s. Not far away, the original Eagle was also sending out its final edition, after a 47-day strike by members of the reporters’ trade union, the Newspaper Guild.
After the late nineteenth century boom brought by the Brooklyn Bridge, the city had craved even more. The new Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges pulled people and money even further inland, the ferry had stopped its daily runs across the river and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway rerouted traffic even farther away from the old industrial center. The neighborhood, formerly the windswept current of Brooklyn industry and civic identity, had become a rusting “backwater.”
In 1978, Benjamin Fishbein purchased the Eagle Warehouse at what was then 38 Cadman Plaza West for $500,000, eventually investing an additional $3 million to convert the building into residential space for a new wave of ferry district dwellers. Fishbein, the New York Times reported, had little concern over the “historic recollections” of the land he invested in so heavily. ”This building was the biggest thing in sight, and I thought it had possibilities,” he told the newspaper. New investors, new residents, a booming economy were returning Fulton Ferry to its nineteenth century past.
Originally, lucky Brooklynites could rent fully furnished spaces in the warehouse or one of its few three-story townhouses for just $50 per square foot, roughly $600 to $1,500 a month. By 1983, however, the building went co-op. Now 40 years old, the apartments are among the most sought-after real estate in Brooklyn Heights. The Eagle Tenant Corp. currently lists one four-bedroom apartment with “soaring 11 foot ceilings, dedicated to social gathering, with a full bath, a top of the line chef’s kitchen, and a dining area overlooking a living room with soaring 23 foot ceilings” for $2 million.
The Eagle saw revitalization as well— a modern version of the publication debuted in 1996 to honor the history of Brooklyn reporting, as new tech and a digitized media industry took over its ink-covered legacy.
In the 20 years since, the neighborhood has European tourists flooding Old Fulton Street, monthly art exhibits celebrated under the bridge just a stone’s throw away, and the traffic flow of a Starbucks across the street. Cars, stuck in traffic as they attempt to merge on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, blare their horns as tour groups weave through the congestion. The streets are no longer full of old industry, but rather a new industry— with spas, artisanal ice cream shops and coal-brick oven pizzerias on every corner, catering to a much younger demographic.
Residents of 28 Old Fulton Street live among the relics of their home’s past— an iron eagle still sits above the door behind the old wrought-iron gate, which is now equipped with electronic access. The only hints of the ferry district’s old industrial legacy are sporadic business advertisements on brick buildings— like “Peak’s Mason Mints”— and the sound of the hydraulic presses at Sam’s Auto Body Shop nextdoor.
Whitman’s ghost is still present, as well. The new inhabitants of the Eagle Warehouse, young mothers with children in strollers and greying dogs on leashes living alongside fashionable entrepreneurs who strut down the old cobblestone alleyways, can take a short, 10-minute stroll down Old Fulton Street, through Brooklyn War Memorial Park, and find themselves in the small patch of grass that makes up Walt Whitman Park at 165 Cadman Plaza East. Perhaps they even traced the same route Whitman took on one of his mid-morning, post-editorial jaunts, also watching the passersby, but this time grabbing a coffee on their way to the DUMBO flea market. The motives differ, but a storied home, the Brooklyn Bridge and the iron eagle continue their watch.