Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.
It is a common assertion that New York City is in constant flux, and this sensation has monumental bearing on the evolution of New York’s neighborhoods, even trickling down to its buildings. Take pristine Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn: It may be difficult to imagine this block looking much different than it appears today, with a collection of historically and architecturally significant treasures befitting its prime location. (After all, Hezekiah Beers Pierrepont, the man for whom the street is named, was a major advocate for the development of Brooklyn Heights.)
Most of the historic buildings, which have been meticulously preserved, harken back to an age of civility, grace and propriety commonly associated with the Victorian era. Despite the restored facades and repurposed spaces, each building possesses a unique history that cannot be erased with subsequent renovation. One building that illustrates this phenomenon is the Herman Behr Mansion, one of the area’s most stately and stellar structures with quite an interesting past.
Located at the corner of Pierrepont and Henry Streets, the mansion was built for industrialist Herman Behr and his family in 1888. Prominent Brooklyn architect Frank Freeman designed the home in his signature Romanesque Revival style, with construction completed a year later at a cost of $80,000. New York Times writer Christopher Gray described the house as "one of the real treats of Brooklyn Heights, a Romanesque color-fantasy of salmon brick, terra cotta and rockfaced sandstone with crazy animal ornament reminiscent of modern, violent comic books—grimacing lizards, lions and dragons." It was and is considered by many to be New York City’s finest Romanesque Revival house, with all the hallmarks of that style: "a fortress-like design with heavy masonry walls, rusticated stone, round arched windows and entranceways, tile or slate roofs with gables, chimneys and balconies with a pleasantly asymmetric composition," according to Forgotten New York.
And the interior of the building was said to be as impressive as its exterior. Befitting a house of its stature, the mansion was richly adorned in luxe mahogany, cherrywood and oak with ivory enamel detailing, marble fireplaces with intricately carved mantelpieces and paneled ceilings of ivory and gold. The first floor featured the lobby, parlor, drawing room, dining room and library (with domed gold ceiling) and the second floor contained the bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms for the Behr family. The third floor contained a chamber hall and smaller rooms and in the attic was a studio, storage space and servants’ quarters. The basement, predominantly used by the servants of this grand house, contained the kitchen, a billiard room, butler’s room, servant’s sitting room and laundry. This Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, published in May 1890, offers a stellar description of the house’s interior and exterior.
Despite inhabiting this beautiful mansion, Brooklyn would not be a forever home for the Behrs. In 1919, Herman’s son Karl, who now lived in the house with his wife and family, decided to relocate to upstate New York. The mansion was subsequently sold and became the Palm Hotel, also referred to as the Hotel Palm. The Palm added a six-story extension to the rear of the property to accommodate additional rooms, but this was hardly the most detrimental change to the house. In its declining years, the Palm operated as a brothel, serving a very different neighborhood clientele than what the Behrs were accustomed to. At the time, "bars and rowdy taverns crowded the streets, prowled by sailors and ruffians from down by the water"—quite a departure from the quiet neighborhood of Pierrepont’s day.
The building would not remain a house of ill-repute for long. This unchaste and debaucherous establishment would soon transform in a most interesting way. In 1961, the building became a residence for the Franciscan Brothers, in conjunction with their operation of nearby St. Francis College. They held the building until 1977, when it was purchased by a real estate developer and converted to rental apartments (some of which were rent stabilized). In 2008, the 20,000-square-foot property was sold for nearly $11 million, containing 26 rental apartments, an elevator, and a garage. Although segmented, parts of the historic interior remain, creating unique apartments with original details. The building underwent a massive façade renovation in 2012 and some of the units were renovated at this time.
The building currently contains studios and one-bedrooms, some with interesting layouts such as this spacious one-bedroom duplex from December 2015 for $3,150. Another one-bedroom apartment, listed just last month at $3,300, features decorative fireplaces, stained glass windows and a Juliet balcony. However, not all units are as impressive—a studio listed recently for $2,450 does not feature any historic or intriguing elements. Given the desirability of this building (and neighborhood), this unit was rented fairly quickly (again, not a surprise).
The current tenants undoubtedly have a stunning architectural marvel to call their home. Even more, they are now a part of the evolving history of this magnificent building—a combination of high society, salaciousness, notoriety and rebirth. What could be more quintessentially New York?
Lisa M. Santoro, AICP is an urban planner, preservationist and writer with a strong interest in architecture and historic places, especially concerning Brooklyn, her hometown. She holds a Master of Science degree in Urban Planning with a concentration in Historic Preservation from Pratt Institute.