Welcome to the Brokelyn Files where our resident unlicensed P.I. Sam Weiss answers the local questions you never thought to ask. Got a lead on a Brooklyn mystery? Write us in the comments below.
If you’ve ever found yourself wandering through Brooklyn, fed up with the subway and terrified of the bus system, you may well have encountered a massive, castle-like building taking up an entire block of precious New York City real estate and, often, seemingly empty. No, there wasn’t a secret Brooklyn monarchy you didn’t know about, that building and several others across the borough are armories, left over from the 19th and early-20th centuries. This week, the Brokelyn Files (having previously reported on the mysterious, all-Hasidic B-110 bus) investigates Brooklyn’s proliferation of former armory buildings: Why were they built, why do we have so many and for what are they being used now?
First off, why does Brooklyn have a bunch of armories scattered about town and why do they look like castles? As you may remember from that one unit in middle school if you grew up in New York, they were originally built for the New York militia. Brooklyn’s armories were mostly built in the 1880s and ’90s as a place to house the National Guard and their weapons during the years following the Civil War. And it just so happened that the era of building armories in New York coincided with the popularization of Romanesque Revival in architecture, which was all about massive, daunting castles in the middle of a city. So not only would the armory buildings be intimidating, they’d also be highly fashionable.
So what’s up with the armories now? What does one do with 19 state-owned castles in the middle of Brooklyn? According to the New York State Military Museum, a few of the armories sold to private buyers (like the Clermont Avenue armory in Fort Greene, now an apartment building), some were demolished or destroyed (like one on Flatbush and Hanson, razed to build the LIRR), some were converted to homeless shelters (like the one on Bedford and Atlantic in Crown Heights, now a men’s shelter) and some were left unused (like the Marcy Ave. armory in Williamsburg, still empty).
Of the remaining eight armories in the borough, the most controversial of late is Bedford-Union Armory in Crown Heights. This baby was the final Brooklyn armory still being used as an armory until 2011 when Troop C of the National Guard moved out and ownership transferred to the city a couple of years later. A battle has been raging in Crown Heights for months now between the city, which wants to turn the building into condos and apartments, and many Crown Heights residents, who want it converted to a community land trust. Earlier this month, BFC Partners, the lead developers on the project, teamed up with the Local Development Corporation of Crown Heights to assuage critics by making sure that the proposed residences go to low income households. Still, just last week, there were protestors at a community meeting about the project asking for the city to call the whole thing off.
So, in answer to our original question — what’s up with all these castles in the middle of Brooklyn? — quite a lot, actually. These massive, Neo-Romanesque structures once housed our militia and its arms, and since then they’ve been sold, destroyed, converted to shelters, left abandoned and even made the center of a local controversy as recently as last week. Keep an eye out for updates on the Bedford-Union Armory.
Give us a shout in the comments below if you’ve got an idea for a future local mystery for the Brokelyn Files.