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Brooklyn Historical Society debuts its new Dumbo outpost at Empire Stores

The 3,200-square-foot gallery space focuses on the past and future of Brooklyn’s waterfront

A promenade alongside a building with a red brick facade. In the distance is a bridge. There is water on the other side of the promenade. Max Touhey

For decades, the hulking warehouse known as Empire Stores, one of Dumbo’s remaining vestiges of its past as a working harbor, stood empty. Even as the neighborhood transformed around it—following a familiar pattern, from industrial hub to artists’ haven to gentrified enclave for the upwardly mobile—the huge brick building remained, if not exactly an eyesore, then a derelict reminder of what the Dumbo used to be.

But as the next wave of development sweeps along the Brooklyn waterfront—repurposing once-forgotten structures into shiny new mixed-use projects, all in the name of adaptive reuse—it was inevitable that Empire Stores would undergo its own transformation. In 2013, Midtown Equities secured the 19th-century building and announced plans to turn it into a hub for 21st-century Brooklyn, with offices (West Elm is the anchor tenant), retail, a rooftop beer garden, and space for cultural institutions.

And now, four years later, West Elm has moved in—the brand has been in the building since last year—and that promised cultural space is finally making its debut. The Brooklyn Historical Society’s new 3,200-square-foot outpost within Empire Stores opens to the public today, marking the first expansion in the institution’s 154-year history.

Philip Greenberg

“The history of this building and the chapters it’s gone through [acts as] a microcosm of the history of the neighborhood, and to some extent, the city,” says Marcia Ely, BHS’s vice president for programs and external affairs. In that sense, the location was a perfect match for the museum, which serves to educate people on the many facets of Brooklyn’s lengthy history.

The new space is considerably smaller than BHS’s Brooklyn Heights headquarters, located in a landmark building on the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton streets, which means that this outpost can only feature so much. But according to Deborah Schwartz, the museum’s president, it also means that BHS Dumbo is able to have more of a precise focus. “The anchor for this space is the waterfront,” she explains. “That’s what is front and center in terms of the mission, and distinguishes it from general Brooklyn history.”

An installation view of the new BHS Dumbo.
Philip Greenberg
The museum’s gift shop.
Philip Greenberg

That comes to the fore with the first exhibit, “Shifting Perspectives,” which provides an overview of the transformation of the Brooklyn waterfront. It’s fairly comprehensive, covering not just the area immediately surrounding Empire Stores, but also parts of the borough that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, Superfund sites in Gowanus and Greenpoint, and beyond.

Images from the early 20th century, including works by Berenice Abbott and Rudy Burckhardt, are juxtaposed with photographs by present-day shutterbugs (including Curbed contributor Nathan Kensinger), providing crucial context on the, yes, shift that has occurred on the water’s edge in Brooklyn. “It gives people a sense of how different Brooklyn was—it was not a shiny penny for a long time,” says Schwartz.

An installation view of “Shifting Perspectives.”
Max Touhey

And the museum will do an even deeper dive into the borough’s waterfront with its second exhibit, due to open in December. That show, which will simply be called “Waterfront,” will provide a more thorough—and thus, more complex—history of the coastline, tracing its earliest origins to its role in New York’s industrial revolution to the current push for residential redevelopment.

BHS Dumbo will also have plenty of family-friendly programming, and in the coming months, events at the Pierrepont Street location will connect to the new space at Empire Stores. Jennifer Egan, for example, will lead a discussion on June 21 with other authors who’ve written about the Brooklyn waterfront.

The museum overlooks an atrium within Empire Stores.
Max Touhey

Ultimately, the museum hopes that this new outpost will help in its mission of further connecting the dots between Brooklyn’s past and its present, along with serving as a hub for the neighborhood. Thanks to its location, within one of Dumbo’s best-known—and now newly revitalized—buildings, it’s well on its way.

Empire Stores

53-83 Water Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201 Visit Website