Grande Dame of historical buildings now more seductive to public visits

History lives at 128 Pierrepont St. – and now a new gift shop, classroom and galleries will make it more consumer-friendly.

A two-year renovation of the Brooklyn Historical Society's headquarters building has turned underused ground-floor and lower-level rooms into a public-event space that seats 200 people, a gallery where BHS's copy of the Emancipation Proclamation is on display and more.

“It connects us much more directly and openly to a wide range of communities who are interested in history and the future of Brooklyn and who care about the urban environment,” BHS president Deborah Schwartz told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle during a sneak peak at what's new at the iconic Queen Anne-style city landmark.

The distinctive terra cotta building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of just a few still-existing institutions that were built as a museum and library all rolled into one.

Stunning carved wood ceilings are revealed by renovation. Photo by John Calabrese

A free guided tour of the building's makeover will be offered on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at noon. See www.brooklynhistory.org for new BHS exhibitions, programs and expanded hours.    

The price tag for the renovation, designed by Christoff: Finio Architecture, was $5.52 million, which included funds for an upcoming exhibition, “Brooklyn Abolitionists/In Pursuit of Freedom.”

This multimedia exhibit, which will open in late December, will focus on lesser-known 19th Century Brooklyn activists, “the courageous people who were front and center in fighting slavery,” said Marcia Ely, BHS vice president for programs and external affairs.

The renovation money was provided by Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the city Department of Cultural Affairs, the Mayor's office and the City Council's Brooklyn delegation.

The gallery where the abolitionists' exhibit will be staged has movable “window boxes” which are dry-wall panels on dowels. On one side, there are giant posters that are visible through the building's windows. On the other side, art works and artifacts will be hung for gallery-goers to see.

The upstairs floors of the five-story building remained in service during the renovation, including the famed Othmer Library, one of just a few interior spaces in New York to be land-marked by the city. BHS's distinctive tiled lobby and sweeping staircase are also included in the interior landmark designation.

The renovation made the tiled lobby and its impressive front door into BHS's main entrance once again. The space had been turned into a “broom closet” to store staffers' bicycles by a previous renovation, which shifted the entrance to another Pierrepoint Street door with a wheelchair ramp.

That entry remains open for wheelchair users, and has a new wheelchair lift installed in it.

Previously, BHS, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary, had some shelves to sell books and a few items. Now there's an enticing gift shop stocked with Brooklyn-made products.

“We will curate it like an exhibition,” Schwartz said.

It's stocked with lockets with miniature scenes from Coney Island, tea sets decorated to look like brownstones, Mast Brothers chocolate bars and a selection of good reads including BHS's popular neighborhood history guides and novels by Brooklyn authors.

The Coney Island of yesteryear graces jewelry for sale at BHS. Photo by John Calabrese

The organization is developing a brand-new line of tote bags, T-shirts, mugs, greeting cards and even baseballs that will be decorated with images from maps, photos and magazines in its collection.

Near the gift shop, space that for many years was rented out to the Door Store or other tenants has been turned into an auditorium. Unsightly air-conditioning vents that obscured a magnificent carved-wood ceiling have been removed and new vents tucked away discreetly above a storage space.

Downstairs, which Schwartz said was “basically raw basement,” there's a well-appointed classroom and a handsome new gallery, with a photo show about city landmarks including Brooklyn's Coignet Building and Dutch-era Wyckoff House.  

The basement has become a beautiful gallery. Photo by John Calabrese

Outside the front door, a final piece of the renovation will be installed in coming months. It's a new glass sign with vinyl letters and BHS logo and glowing LED lighting. It will be affixed to the sidewalk – and will be removable if necessary for outdoor photo and film shoots.

The exterior of BHS's headquarters, which was built in 1881 and is decorated with eye-catching rondels of illustrious historical figures like Ben Franklin, is a popular backdrop. The day of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's building tour, the new CBS TV series “Hostages” was filming outside the building.   

TV crew filming new CBS series "Hostages" outside Brooklyn Historical Society. Photo by John Calabrese