Restoring Brooklyn’s Queen of Department Stores

The cast-iron facade of the original Abraham & Straus store in Downtown Brooklyn was saved and attached to the base of a new glass tower.

Restoring Brooklyn’s Queen of Department Stores

Workers prepare to lower a 750-pound dormer section onto the restored facade of the original 19th-century Abraham & Straus building on Fulton Street. A new office tower rises from the roof of the reconstructed building.Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

For more than a century, Abraham & Straus was the reigning queen of Brooklyn department stores, the centerpiece of a shopping corridor that in its heyday was the borough’s answer to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Growing to become the fourth largest such store in America, the elegant behemoth was a proud show place — as integral to the borough’s identity as the Brooklyn Dodgers and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Yet despite the store’s unquestionable cultural importance, city officials never saw fit to grant landmark status to its original home, an iron-front 19th-century commercial palace on Fulton Street. Without landmark protection, the venerable structure was left vulnerable to the tender mercies of the New York real estate market.

New Yorkers are all too familiar with the wholesale destruction that so often results from such government inaction. But the recent restoration of the mansard-roofed A. & S. facade presents a welcome counterexample — thanks to Macy’s, the building’s owner, and Tishman Speyer, the big commercial real estate firm that partnered with Macy’s to redevelop the Fulton Street property.

Instead of tearing down the cast-iron facade and tossing it in a dumpster, Tishman repaired it and incorporated it into an office-tower development called the Wheeler, in homage to the 19th-century developer Andrew Wheeler, who built the original iron-front building. The company did so because it considered the ornate facade a jewel worthy of preservation.

On a hot afternoon last summer, Downtown Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall was alive with its usual bustle and clamor. Pedestrians pinballed off each other, past street vendors hawking incense and used CDs. A woman sold bags of sliced mango. A boom box asked the eternal question, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?”

On a scaffold high above, at 422 Fulton Street near Gallatin Place, a crew of tattooed workers from Alabama raised their hands to receive the 750-pound right half of an enormous French Second Empire-style dormer as it was lowered from the roof by a Spydercrane. Larry Williams, a grey-bearded worker in a backward hard hat bearing the logo of the Alabama Crimson Tide, barked instructions in a Southern drawl: “Bring it down. Hold hold. Come on down. Easy!”

Together the crew nudged, finessed and cajoled the dormer casting toward its already installed mate, using boot tips, hands and even a wooden stick.

“Ah, there it is!” Mr. Williams called out at last, and the men exhaled with the satisfaction of slipping a last major piece into place on a gargantuan, opulent jigsaw puzzle.

That puzzle, of course, was the newly restored facade of Abraham & Straus’s first home, an intricate assemblage comprising more than one thousand interconnected pieces. And the installation of the massive central dormer atop its restored mansard roof amounted to the return of the very crown of A. & S.

“That was a powerful part of American commerce,” said Michael J. Lisicky, author of “Abraham & Straus” and nine other department store histories. “It really was one of the capitals of retail in America.”

Tishman Speyer’s new development knits together three interconnected buildings that had been entirely owned by Macy’s — the cast-iron structure, a 12-story 1929 Art Deco building to its east and a nine-story 1940s addition behind it, abutting Livingston Street. The Wheeler’s centerpiece is a 10-story, glass-fronted office tower that rests atop the rebuilt, four-story, iron-front edifice and the 1940s addition. The new tower is also seamlessly connected to the upper floors of the two bigger old buildings.

Macy’s, which has occupied the three old buildings since 1995 and was previously selling on six floors plus the basement, continues to own and occupy the basement and the first four stories of all three buildings; the store has been renovated. The Wheeler, which should soon receive its temporary certificate of occupancy, has its entrance at 181 Livingston.

Andrew Wheeler, who lived on Gallatin Place, was cursed with clairvoyance. He could envision the commercial future of Brooklyn on upper Fulton Street, but unfortunately for him that future was farther off than he imagined.

In 1873, in an act of faith as preposterous as building a baseball diamond in an Iowa cornfield to lure major-league ghosts, as in the movie “Field of Dreams,” Wheeler constructed the ostentatious French Second Empire palace in a largely undeveloped area. His motto might as well have been “Build it, and they will come” — only they didn’t, at least not in his lifetime.

Previously the graveyard of the First Dutch Reformed Church — skeletons were unearthed during excavation — the site of Wheeler’s edifice had lately been a circus ground. In that period Brooklyn’s commercial center was closer to the waterfront, in a stretch of lower Fulton Street north of Myrtle Avenue that is now part of Cadman Plaza.

The new Wheeler Building was an instant white elephant ridiculed as “Wheeler’s Folly” for its size and the perceived foolishness of believing the retail corridor would ever move so far up Fulton. The nickname was surely also a snarky reference to an architectural folly — an extravagant, impractical structure erected purely to beautify a natural landscape.

Wheeler’s hoped-for high-end tenants never materialized. Instead, he rented to a saloon and a Barnum knockoff called Bunnel’s Dime Museum, which promoted curiosities like “Leopard Boy” and “the wonderful Benoit twins” — “she has two heads, four arms and two feet, that in one perfect body meet.”

On the top floor was an assembly room called Gallatin Hall. Below were lodge rooms. Newspaper ads of the day reveal a motley tenant roster that included the Sons of Temperance and an auction house selling odds and ends like seashells, opera glasses and pistols.

The Wheeler Building was still an underused grandiosity in 1881, when a dry-goods merchant named Abraham Abraham had an epiphany that would transform not only his own business but all of Brooklyn retail. The Brooklyn Bridge was two years from completion, and as Abraham walked past Wheeler’s Folly — as he recounted to The Eagle years later — “it came to me like a flash that when the new bridge opened, that part of Fulton Street could be made the trade center of Brooklyn.”

He and his partner, Joseph Wechsler, who had outgrown their store on lower Fulton, bought the building on the sly through a broker. They rebuilt the interior and added an eastern extension and a western wing with a Gallatin Place entrance.

The 1885 grand opening of Wechsler & Abraham’s department store was a lavish affair. Crowds thronged the edifice, which an advertisement described as towering above its neighbors “like a Lebanon pine over the hillside shrubs.” In a show window, gawkers beheld Cleopatra’s 20-foot-long velvet barge riding a ruffled sea of blue silk waves.

The entrance to this “fairy palace,” as The Eagle called it, was a soaring iron arch. At the ground floor’s center was a spacious rotunda, flooded with light from a dome five stories above. In this generous court, a great clock rested atop an ornamental bronze pillar.

Brooklyn was still an independent city, and The Eagle chauvinistically tweaked its larger rival across the East River by describing a store lounge “where a Brooklyn lady can tenderly lay out her country cousin from New York … after she has … been overpowered by the scenes in a great metropolitan store.”

Other retail emporia soon followed to upper Fulton, and a dynamic new commercial center was born.

The company became Abraham & Straus in 1893, after Isidor and Nathan Straus, owners of R.H. Macy & Co., bought out Wechsler. A. & S. thrived and kept growing, ultimately encompassing eight interconnected buildings.

In 1929, A. & S. lopped off the Wheeler’s easternmost bay and built the big Art Deco structure next door, with entrances on Fulton and Hoyt Streets. The new building was intended as the first phase of a reconstruction that would have eventually destroyed the cast-iron edifice. But when the Depression hit, the rest of the plan was scrapped, granting the resilient grande dame a reprieve.

By the 1930s the firm was treating the Wheeler Building “more like the bastard cousin of the store,” said Mr. Lisicky, the historian. “They used it as a selling floor, but if anyone was going to identify anything architecturally with A. & S., it was going to be the Art Deco building.”

Business prospered. During the postwar boom, Fulton Street was a destination shopping district, with A. & S. at its heart. But by the 1960s, most of the larger old department stores were struggling to compete with off-price retailers, and in subsequent decades, the strip gradually devolved into a clamorous midway of discount shops. Although the big Art Deco and Second Empire mongrel at 422 Fulton — now Macy’s — continued to give the strip solidity into the 21st century, the iron-front building deteriorated.

With an eye toward preserving the cast-iron facade, Tishman Speyer met with Allen Architectural Metals, an Alabama-based firm that in 2006 had restored the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan.

“As a preservationist, I felt that to lose this building would be a huge loss of cast-iron architecture for Brooklyn,” Kate Allen, the restoration company’s executive vice president, said of the Wheeler Building. “Cast-iron buildings in Brooklyn don’t get the same attention as they do in Manhattan.”

Indeed, only 10 iron-front Brooklyn buildings, most of them in Downtown Brooklyn, are protected by landmark status. Just one, the Smith, Gray & Company Building at 103 Broadway, in Williamsburg, is in the French Second Empire style.

Jeffrey Mandel, senior managing director of Tishman Speyer, said that both his company and Macy’s considered retaining the Wheeler Building’s facade “integral to the overall project.”

That facade, research showed, was originally cast iron on its lower four floors and sheet metal on its fifth level, the dormered mansard roof. These materials remained intact on the top three floors, while the bottom two had long ago been stripped of iron in favor of stucco and granite.

After a discussion of materials and budget, said Ryan Lezak, Allen’s project executive, Tishman Speyer hired the firm to restore the facade using historically appropriate cast iron and sheet metal on 85 percent of its surface while substituting less expensive castings of glass fiber reinforced concrete, or GFRC, for the replicated dormers.

The restoration was remarkably intricate. The two surviving levels of iron were an elaborate assemblage of around 1,000 individual castings representing some 30 distinct architectural elements — everything from 2,500-pound pilaster sections to individual flowers on column capitals. During the initial survey, each casting was given a unique identification number indicating its location and type.

These numbers were tied into a spreadsheet with notes indicating what repairs each piece needed or if it required replacement with a new casting. Photographs were also taken of each original casting in situ so they could be consulted on site later by installers with iPads reassembling the colossal jigsaw puzzle.

Workers install the central dormer into the restored mansard roof of the 1873 Wheeler Building.Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York TimesDormer windows on the restored Wheeler Building.Credit…Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

All this rigorous documentation was crucial because once the 69 tons of iron were trucked to Allen’s Alabama base, the Wheeler Building itself was demolished.

Contractors then built a new structure in its place with floors aligned with those of the adjacent Art Deco building, giving Macy’s level selling floors across the two structures for the first time. (As part of this realignment, the replacement building was given a double-height first story, decreasing its number of stories from five to four.)

Once in Alabama, the facade castings were stripped of lead paint and, when necessary, repaired. Each large fracture was reinforced with a “backer plate” behind it, and the remaining void was filled with steel-based putty.

Mr. Lezak called the reinstallation “incredibly challenging,” because it required the engineering of a new substructure to marry the historic facade to the new building’s windowless front wall. (The facade for that portion of Macy’s shopping floors now has false windows.)

Painted lily-pad green, the resulting 98-foot-wide expanse of ornate architectural iron is a head-turning spectacle, even amid the jumble of stimulations today’s Fulton Street provides. Pedestrians who take the time to look up from their phones are rewarded with a visceral sense of the former grandeur of upper Fulton Street, especially because the Wheeler facade’s neighbor to the west, the 1888 Vosburgh Building, also retains its handsome Northern European Renaissance-style facade.

Old and new are still jostling each other on Fulton Street, and for those with a taste for diversity, the strip’s eclecticism has its charms.

“I love the history and want to save as much as possible, but I also really enjoy the atmosphere of the new Brooklyn,” said Caison Elliott, an Alabama-born engineer, while standing on a scaffold high up beside the Wheeler facade last summer. “We’ll be here and you’ll note the time of day by the songs that are playing on the radios downstairs, by different vendors selling which CDs, by the sound of people yelling down below, by the sound of kids getting out of school and by the smells of different foods: the Halal carts and the Mexican vendors.”

“You can trace the time of day through all these changes on the street below when you work up here,” he added. “It’s almost like a sensual clock.”

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