Landmarking On Montague Street Redux

Dec 9

The Landmarks Preservation Commission is poised to designate 181 and 185 Montague Street as individual landmarks in January 2017. The LPC’s action would protect the buildings from inappropriate exterior changes or demolition. The BHA resurrected its advocacy for landmarking these buildings after Francis Morrone, the noted architectural historian, gave impassioned recognition to them at the November 2015 event that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, the city’s first such district.At that time, the BHA wrote to the Commission that “in our opinion, the time is now urgent to move the designation process forward by calendaring 181 and 185 Montague for a public hearing … as soon as possible.” After meeting with the LPC in February 2016, the LPC agreed to move forward with the agency’s designation process.

The People’s Trust Company Building at 181 Montague, which presently houses a Citibank branch, was built in the form of a Roman Temple to the designs of Mowbray & Uffinger and completed in 1906. Perhaps best known for the landmarked Dime Savings Bank in downtown Brooklyn, the firm was among the foremost bank architects of the day. The building was purchased in 2015 by developer Jonathan Rose, who plans to build on the adjacent site where 189 Montague Street was recently demolished, incorporating the bank building into the development.

Next door, the former National Title Guarantee Company Building at 185 Montague Street was designed by Corbett, Harrison & MacMurray, which was later involved in designing Rockefeller Center. One of the building’s distinguished features is the limestone screen at its base, which was designed by Rene Paul Chambellan, whose sculptural work is also found at Rockefeller Center, the Chanin Building, the Daily News Building, and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank.

The two Montague Street buildings were excluded from the Brooklyn Heights Historic District when it was created in 1965 because neighborhood preservation advocates thought the fledgling LPC would not protect commercial buildings. They were omitted a second time in 2011from the Borough Hall Skyscraper District when the LPC left out the north side of Montague Street between Clinton and Court Street. However, the third effort is proving to be the charm.

Despite their checkered landmarking history, few would argue that they are not eminently worthy of protection. Francis Morrone has called the three buildings, including the neighboring landmarked former Brooklyn Trust Company building at 179 Montague Street, the three most significant commercial buildings in New York City. The three citywide organizations that promote historic preservation – the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the Historic Districts Council, and the Municipal Arts Society – also delivered ringing endorsements at the LPC hearing.

Otis Pearsall, an instrumental advocate behind landmarking efforts in the Heights since the late 1950s, cited their vulnerability to the intense development pressures impinging upon Brooklyn Heights. He argued that “the moment for their designation and protection should be right now.” (Pearsall’s testimony can be found here.) Speaking on behalf of the BHA’s membership, Executive Director Peter Bray asked the Commission “to designate them as expediently as possible so that the dialogue between the three buildings on this block, and between them and the residents of the neighborhood, can not only continue, but will enrich our lives far into the future.” A link to the full text of Bray’s remarks can be found here.