Museum and library devoted to Brooklyn's history
The Brooklyn Historical Society's four-story Queen Anne style building was completed in 1881 and was designed by architect George B. Post. Post's bold use of extensive terra cotta ornamentation on the facade, and innovative truss system to support the ceiling of the central library, has long been revered by architectural historians. The building's masonry of unglazed terra cotta and repressed brick was the first building in New York City to use locally produced terra cotta. The facade was sculpted by Olin Levi Warner and is adorned with heroic busts of figures from history, interspersed with representations of American flora by Truman H. Bartlett. Post employed artisans in the spirit of the Aesthetic Movement to embellish and enrich the interior spaces of the building. Stained glass in window lunettes and a central laylight are believed to have originated from the studio of the noted artist, Charles Booth.
Decorations throughout the building include Minton tile floors, custom made bronze hardware (designed by Post), and elaborately carved black ash woodwork in the library.
The Brooklyn Historical Society was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society. At that time, the city of Brooklyn was the commercial and cultural center of Long Island. During World War I, BHS contributed to the war effort by transforming its 600-seat auditorium into a Red Cross headquarters by removing the seats and building a flat floor over the original sloping floor. After 1926, this space was subdivided and rented to commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution's operating expenses. During the mid-twentieth century, BHS operated only as a library, although it continued to add to its collections.
In the 1980's, new leadership reestablished the organization as a museum and education center. In 1989, after conducting its first capital campaign, BHS restored its ground floor, installing a permanent exhibit that showcased the eclectic range of its collections and chronicled the history of African-American, white, Latino, Asian and Native American Brooklynites. The exhibit included a wax figure of Nat King Cole from Coney Island, Dodger memorabilia, tool boxes from the WWII Navy Yard, "The Honeymooners" stage set, and a drawing of a 17th Century Brooklyn Indian. BHS also began to create a series of exhibits focusing on topics such as the history of African-American churches in Brooklyn, an insider's view of Latino communities, and a chronicle of Crown Heights. BHS's AIDS exhibition was the first to cover this topic at a history museum in the United States. Documentary photographers working for BHS have recorded thousands of images of contemporary Brooklyn.
BHS has the most comprehensive collection of Brooklyn-related materials in existence. In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education designated its library as a "major research library" under Title II-C of the Higher Education Act. As one in seven Americans can trace their family roots to Brooklyn, the BHS collections represent an important national resource. Inquiries received each month reflect the nationwide interest in the borough and its relevance to many family histories.
In October 1999, BHS began a full-scale restoration of its National Historic Landmark building. A central objective in the renovation of its headquarters is positioning BHS as a community hub for the exchange of ideas and an accessible resource for learning. Since reopening our building in 2003, BHS has served 120,000 students and teachers throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan through on-site educational programs, classroom visits, teacher development workshops, and classroom "toolkits." Additionally, the public now has access to a database containing 33,000 images, walking tours of Brooklyn, and on and off-site exhibits ranging in a variety of topics covering the social and cultural history of Brooklyn. BHS is committed to offering programming that helps Brooklynites young and old develop pride in their own cultural traditions while fostering understanding of their neighbors' similarities and differences. (July 2006)