Among all the experiences and information offered to us “Along the Shore” of Brooklyn this week, staying at the St. George Hotel at 55 Clark Street seems a minor footnote we hustled out in the morning and dragged home at night to review the day and sleep the sleep of the well-walked. What I’ve learned, again, is that “I dunno nuttin’ about nuttin.” I can, however, see the St. George as a mirror for the life of Brooklyn.
I had never heard of Brooklyn as the home of Protestants; my associations are with the Irish and Jews who came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, so it’s hard for me to work up too much sympathy for the gentry who fled Brooklyn Heights after the newcomers arrived from the Lower East Side across the new Brooklyn Bridge. Nevertheless, I can appreciate that the new building (1885) was part of a larger change as it became easier to work in Manhattan and live just across the East River, and I can see that those who enjoyed their bucolic neighborhood would move farther into Brooklyn to avoid the hustle and bustle and unwelcome new neighbors.
As Brooklyn grew and changed, the St. George was expanded again and again, with the most exciting–or most egregious– changes being the 30-story tower, a roof deck, ballroom, and salt-water swimming pool. There was even a beacon atop the roof; imagine the horror of the remaining old-timers! In 1931, the St. George was New York’s (not just Brooklyn’s) largest hotel; there were 2632 rooms occupying the full block bounded by Clark, Pineapple, Hicks and Henry streets. This parallels the borough’s growth and annexation to New York City, the influx of less affluent residents, the rise of commerce during the same time period
Then, during the Depression, hard times came to Brooklyn and to the St. George: crime, vacancy, homelessness, and foreclosure in 1933. A fire in 1995 destroyed part of the building, and it was not until 2002 that, as Brooklyn again became a destination for Manhattanites, this time fleeing high rents rather than tenements, that the St. George was bought and plans made to rebuild and reuse it. http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/29/realestate/streetscapes-st-george-hotel-the-hard-life-of-a-brooklyn-heights-grande-dame.html
Now, the St. George is again in use, again being maintained, again reflective of Brooklyn life. A business projection is that there will be 1,500 hotel rooms in Downtown Brooklyn in 2012; the St. George is no even longer counted among them, but it is a condo/coop and a student residence that is an integral part of Brooklyn Heights.
Historic architecture details can be seen both inside and out, and even the swimming pool is still a part of the Eastern Athletic Club. At the entrance on Henry St, architectural features of the old structure coexist with the new student TV lounge and pool room.
There’s way too much to digest now, but this little tiny snapshot is a start.