Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Williamsburgh Savings Bank: Pretty on the Inside

Posted by baad lamb

The silver and gold mosaic zodiac ceiling and center chandelier (detail)

Now that the Brooklyn Flea is held inside the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building, photographers and armchair architects are as plentiful as bargain hunters on Saturdays and Sundays at One Hanson Place. This building went up in 1927, and according to Robert A.M. Stern in "New York 1930" (the middle volume of his comprehensive-must-have five book series on architecture and urbanism), the bank expected this Atlantic/Flatbush Ave. intersection to become the heart of Brooklyn's commercial district, but  things didn't turn out quite as they had hoped (just ask Bruce Ratner, today). But this did have an upside. Just as with the Empire State Building, which made the same real estate gamble in Manhattan and lost, the lack of tall building development surrounding this building allowed it to become Brooklyn's most visible skyscraper, and its most iconic.

Lots more pics after the jump...
The architects were Halsey, McCormack & Helmer, but without diminishing any of their achievement, it is the interior decoration by René Chambellan that makes the building so stunning. Have a look...(careful - your click makes everything bigger)

Allegorical figures over entry door in lobby include the busy bee and the wise old owl

                    The bold Cosmatesque floor pattern

Mezzanine doorway detail

Guarding the treasure on lobby doors

Decorative grill covers banking hall heating duct (detail)

Mosaic ceiling in entry lobby above stairs to lower level. Note plugged hole where light fixture would have been.

Helpful examples of properly worn bank employee uniforms were posted at the main banking hall doors

Readin' n' roller skatin'?

The central segmental barrel vault with zodiac mosaics in gold and silver

More allegorical figures.
Is this Columbus, or just "shipping"?
I'm guessing the two on the capital
below are "tailor" on the left
and "cobbler" on the right?

A brilliant blue background,
just perfect for displaying
some thigh and some calf.

What would you teller at this window? 

No, silly, not that Eagle

Even the subway access sign is custom designed

"Inadvertently New York's most exuberant phallic symbol" says Elliot Willensky (RIP) in the AIA Guide to New York City


  1. I love the glowing blue and gold honeycomb behind the guy holding the arrow. Is it a ceramic glaze? And the readin/skatin figure demands explanation. Is "bank lobby" its own architectural category? If they all looked like that, I almost would not mind the fact that there is one on every corner of the Upper West Side.

  2. One of the down sides to living in a city that was effectively leveled 100 years ago is there are few places such as this in San Francisco.

    (eyeballing cragslist job ads)

  3. I took a couple of the same pictures that you did on Sunday. After The Great Depression, a lot of banks spent a lot of money and energy looking rich and well established so people would know that they could never fail. Again. But now banks pride themselves on looking cheap and on every single damn corner. ING has even decided not to have any physical banks. This leaves beautiful old giants like this for other uses. On the corner of Eighth Ave and 14th Street, one of the giant banks is a cosmetic store, one is abandoned (formerly a carpet store and a Balducci food store), and the third is still a bank (HSBC) across from a deli.

  4. Dearest Huzbind, my guess, since it is on metal, is that the blue "honeycomb" is porcelain enamel.
    The seated reading figure is a detail from the main architectural feature on both sides of the giant banking hall: arched windows with a series of repeating metal cut-out vignettes of men in various poses. These decorative screens are positioned outside, in front of the windows, so when the light comes streaming in, they are perfect silhouettes to bank clients inside. What appears to be roller skates are, I believe, just a "spacer", or, Mr. Chambellan's way of separating (and distinguishing) the foot shape from the circle it is placed on. My shots of these full windows all came out blurry. The crowds and the challenging lighting, combined with the giant distances between subject and me made photography difficult. (Sometimes, one needs a big-boy camera like Dr. Jeff's to get these kind of shots.)

    Kitchenbeard, Come on home.
    In the time you've been gone, everything has changed. Yet, really, nothing has changed. In other words, its still New York.

    Hwheel, Perhaps ING has the right idea. Is there a more palpable "dead zone" for a pedestrian on a city street than a full block front of any of today's banks? (Yes, he said, answering his own question - multiple block fronts of bank after bank after bank, say -Third Avenue in the 40s & 50s.) I say it's time to put our money in the "Ephemeral Bank of New York, coming soon to an undisclosed location that may possibly be (occasionally) thinking about being near you". This may not be as absurd as it sounds. With the popularity of hidden, sign-less, phone-less restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and "pop-up" shops, it can't be long before the banks co-opt this marketing scheme. Or have they already done it, and only the cool kids know that secret door?

    I recall someone somewhere has a thing about coveting, but there's a great apartment perched on top of the old bank with the spa and cosmetic store at 14th and Eighth (southwest corner, purposely hard to see from the street), well, I'm just sayin'....

  5. i heard the brooklyn flea was held in the building about a month ago, but i couldn't figure out if it was a one time deal, or another temporary switch. it's a fantastic use of the space and i'm glad it's open to the public again. the last time i was inside was for the afternoon of open house ny '08 (when they also allowed you to take the elevator to an observation level). previous to that back in the 80s when it was still a bank!

    i can't see this lasting though... i'm sure once all those new condos are filled the residents won't like all the flea market riff-raff coming in on weekends and will demand it to be changed to an expensive health club or anything that can generate more money for the building to keep their maintenance fees down.

  6. swtcurran, I understand the Brooklyn Flea is only there for the winter, and will return to Fort Greene and DUMBO in April.
    Color me envious that you did the observation deck. I have heard there are (were?) informative signs depicting the key locations and movements of the Battle of Brooklyn up there. I also hear the condos are not selling. FT and I took their marketing tour early on (we'll use any excuse to get into a building like that) and only got up as high as the first setback.