I met Joseph in DSK, my local bar. He had just moved into the neighborhood. He said he was getting out as much as he could. His wife was expecting in two months, and he knew that nights out would soon be rare.
He had recently moved into a building that now goes by its street address, but what we older Brooklynites still think of as the Williamsburg Bank Building. Its official name when it opened, at the quite inauspicious time of April 1929, was the Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower. At thirty-seven stories, it dominated the skyline. It was the tallest building in Brooklyn until 2010. Now several buildings are taller, but I am glad to report that my view of it from my back window remains unimpeded.
Occupying most of a block, the building ascends straight up for about twenty stories and then has a few setbacks. A tower a fraction of the building’s base then goes up for, perhaps, ten floors more with a dome at the top. To me this architecture creates an amusing sight because from a distance the building with its middle tower looks as if it were flipping the bird, although I never could determine to whom it was saying, “Screw you.”
A four-sided clock is just below the dome. The clock can be seen from quite a distance, and I have checked it many times. It is always disconcerting to look up and realize that the clock is malfunctioning, which happened frequently a decade ago.
The lobby was a banking hall, the place for transactions with the Williamsburg Saving Bank. The hall was sixty feet high and ringed at the top by a mezzanine that contained banking offices. The ceiling had mosaics and wall frescoes. The use of marble was not stinted. This was a bank in the old-fashioned manner with openings in grillwork for teller after teller after teller. This was never my bank, but I opened an account for the daughter there, and every so often I would go with her there to make a deposit or withdrawal. We always felt a bit in awe of the surroundings. In such a place, money was never a frivolous thing; you had to feel that money approached the sacred, a feeling that I never have scooping bills out of an ATM.
The building’s upper floors had offices many of which, for reasons I don’t know, housed dentists. I went to one there a couple times a generation ago, and I swear that when I got off the elevator to go my scheduled appointment, I could smell ether in the corridor.
The building has a wonderful observation deck, but I only remember the one time that it was opened as part of a community house tour. I could walk in a circle, well really a rectangle, around the building. The views were unimpeded in all directions. Look, there is the Empire State Building. There is the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Am I deceiving myself, or can I really see planes taking off at JFK and LaGuardia?
Ten or fifteen years ago the building was sold. The Williamsburg Savings Bank would no longer be there, and the building was rebranded as One Hanson, and that is the only way my bar companion knew it. The upper floors were converted to apartments. The daughter, her then girlfriend, and I went to look at some, and they seemed a bit cramped and shoddy. Then again, many New York City apartments feel that way to me. I have gotten spoiled by the gracious feel of my nineteenth-century townhouse. I have lived for a half century with ten, eleven, and twelve foott ceilings, and where a normal sized room is twenty feet by twenty feet or even larger. The floors are a foot or more above the ceiling below with insulation in between, and the walls give off the solid feel that only real plaster can do. Sheetrock, lower ceilings, and smaller rooms always make me think a place is cramped and shoddy, but the converted apartments may not feel that way to others, and the apartments did have spectacular views of New York City.
The lobby was closed on the day of our real estate visit. For a while, however, the Brooklyn Flea, a trendy and large operation, used that space as its winter base. With the craftsman, peddlers, browsers, and gawkers crowded into it, the lobby felt different, but much of the hall’s grandeur was still startingly evident. The Brooklyn Flea also used the basement, and for the first time, I saw the vault with its massive, gleaming door.
This old banking hall is one of Brooklyn’s marvels. When I considered putting a tour together of my neighborhood, I enquired if I could bring groups to see the lobby, but I was told that it was now closed to one and all. That’s sad. Maybe it could somehow at least be rented out for weddings and the like.
(Concluded January 30.)