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‘Arti-Facts’: BFS’ 50 Years on Pearl Street

This year, Arti-Facts—BFS’ award-winning history column—will pay homage to the 50th anniversary of BFS fully moving to Pearl Street. After 100+ years of calling Schermerhorn Street home, BFS began moving into Pearl as early as 1970, however it was not until the 1973–1974 school year that the entire school opened a school year at the new location—formerly home to Brooklyn Law School.

Below are separate short stories about the history, which were released as the Arti-Facts column, each Sunday in The Weekly—BFS’ weekly digital newsletter.

History of the History of Pearl Street

Before we begin to talk about the history of Brooklyn Friends School on Pearl Street, we really need to go a little farther back and look at the history of Pearl Street itself. While there is not much documentation on our Pearl Street here in Brooklyn, it stands to reason that it shares a similar history to our sister Pearl Street located just across the river in lower Manhattan. That fact is confirmed in the book Brooklyn by Name: How the Neighborhoods, Streets, Parks, Bridges, and More Got Their Names. The history of Pearl Street goes all the way back to the early indigenous inhabitants of this area, the Lenape. Historians know that the Lenape ate copious quantities of oysters because oysters were plentiful and the shells lasted a very long time. Tremendous piles of thousands of oyster shells have been found throughout the New York City area. Archaeologists call them shell middens. One such mountain of oyster shells gave Pearl Street, originally on the waterfront in lower Manhattan, its name. It stands to reason that the Pearl Street we inhabit today—which also originally extended all the way to the East River, was named for the same reason. In fact, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the two Pearl Streets were actually once one Pearl Street, separated by the East River. There are many streets right in our vicinity that have been confirmed as Lenape walking paths, including Fulton Street, just blocks from our front door. What Pearl Street looked like exactly when it first was named is left to our imagination at this point. It is that same imagination that allows us to look forward with wide eyes to all of the great things that BFS students on Pearl Street today will accomplish.

Pearl is Born

Let’s fast-forward to 1927, when Brooklyn Law School was looking for a new home. On June 3 of that year, Brooklyn Law purchased the title to the lots of 373–381 Pearl Street for $261,000. In today’s money that would be approximately $4.5 million—a bargain. The building firm of Thomas O’Reilly & Sons won the contract to build what would be known as 375 Pearl Street. The seven-story building, constructed of brick, limestone, and marble—to be known as Richardson Hall—was dedicated on November 10, 1928. It was designed by the architect firm of Mayers, Murray, & Phillip. Just one year after the project was started, more than 3,000 onlookers were at the dedication ceremony, as William Payson Richardson—the co-founder and first dean of BLS—laid the cornerstone of the building that would bear his name. Little did a small school a few blocks away on Schermerhorn Street realize that someday, it would become their beloved home. At that same time, thanks to a major gift by Dr. William Snyder—the school’s physician and a BFS parent—Brooklyn Friends had just added a third floor to its own school to accommodate expanded enrollment. Head of School Dr. Guy W. Chipman—who led BFS from 1918–1931—finally had an office big enough so that he could “put his feet up on his desk.”

Those Iconic 7th-Floor Windows

When BFS purchased the building, there was a significant amount of construction done inside to transform a law school into a building that was appropriate for an independent school for children of all ages. Recently, thanks to a trip to the Brooklyn Law School archives, we were able to learn what each floor was used for prior to BFS’ arrival. We know, for example, that there was a large auditorium on the main floor, located just behind the elevators. We will have more on that in a future Arti-Facts. Today, we focus on what is possibly the most distinctive characteristic of 375 Pearl Street—the beautiful arched windows on the seventh floor. Now divided into many Lower School classrooms and offices, the seventh floor was originally one huge room that spanned the entire width of the building, and served as Brooklyn Law School’s library. With incredible natural light streaming into the room high above Pearl Street, the library opened in 1928 with either 14,000 or 50,000 volumes, depending on which BLS history book you believe. While the number of volumes in the library might be up for debate, the number of women in this photo is not—in fact, if you squint, you can see both of them among the nearly three dozen intense law students studying in the early 1930s! Today, 95 years later, BFS’ first, second, and third grade students learn in classroom spaces where the solid oak tables—each with room for four students to do their work—once stood. The elaborately-decorated ceiling beams are long gone, but the arched windows serve as a forever reminder of what once was. 

Mortgage Burning Time!

By the time the 1970s drew to a close, BFS was—for the most part—settled in nicely at 375 Pearl Street. Believe it or not, in 1980 the school was still doing renovations. They had owned the building for a decade and used it—in earnest—for most of those years. The move from the original building on Schermerhorn Street had been hard for some, but according to the former Head of School, Stuart Smith, “The move—like most events in the past 10 years—was considered by most as just another day in a vital learning community.” These words were written by Smith in the May, 1980, edition of The Life newspaper—two years after he left BFS. “Many considered it just another logical step for a school that was dedicated to taking risks that often involved change.” One thing that was very much celebrated that same month was the fact that BFS paid off the mortgage on the new building. There were many joyous “mortgage burning” events held at BFS and throughout  Brooklyn in the spring of 1980, including theatrical performances in the Pearl Street Meeting House and a special brunch at the famous Brooklyn steakhouse which had been in business nearly as long as BFS—Gage and Tollner—with invited guests Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey. Over the past decade, BFS had done everything it could to raise the money for all of the renovations the building needed to make the transition from Brooklyn Law School to Brooklyn Friends School. One of those little-remembered circumstances was the fact that during the early 1970s, before the entire school had moved in and occupied Pearl Street, BFS sublet parts of the building to tenants. The usable sections of the sixth and seventh floors were utilized by the MTA, while parts of the third, fourth, and fifth floors were used by the New York City Civil Court System. By the fall of 1972, construction was completed on the sixth and seventh floors, and the Lower School was able to fully move in—and thankfully—51 years later—they are still there! The Lower School, that is, not the same students, they are much older now! 🙂

Farewell to an Old Lunch Pal

As we celebrate these past 50 years of BFS on Pearl Street, we say goodbye to one of our longtime friends who has been here with us from the earliest days. Well, at least we say goodbye to its corporate identity. For more than five decades, Blimpie has served our community on the corner of Pearl and Willoughby streets. This past week, it officially changed its name to Sam’s Pearl Street Deli, Inc. I know Sam—and much of his crew—friends like Alex and Dolly, along with several others. They greet me by name everytime I enter, and Alex makes a really good breakfast sandwich. I have been assured that the food will be even better than in the past, and that shedding the Blimpie franchise tag was inevitable for the corner deli due to financial details I really didn’t understand. Here is the thing, that was the last Blimpie in Brooklyn—there are no more. The first Blimpie store opened in Hoboken in 1964 when three high school friends decided to open a sandwich shop. The “Blimpie Best” was one of the first sandwiches in history to have a name. I learned that on The Food That Built America on the History Channel. At its height, there were more than 150 Blimpie’s in the tri-state area, but today there are just several scattered around Long Island, Queens, and the Bronx. Other chains such as Subway, Jimmy John’s, Jersey Mike’s, and just your good-old local deli, deflated Blimpie just enough to make the brand obsolete. Still, Sam’s Pearl Street Deli, Inc., will no doubt continue to serve this street proudly. “Same food, same people,” Dolly told me proudly from behind her register. Still, what if I want to re-live the late-night college craving of that long, flat, 12-inch “Blimpie Burger” with everything on it? I think the safest answer to that question is to simply go to sleep.  

Hiding Right Out in the Open 

Sometimes, we don’t notice the beauty that’s been right in front of us the entire time. Of course, I am speaking of 375 Pearl Street. There are so many interesting aspects of this building that we pass by every single day, yet hardly notice. Of course, we all acknowledge the “golden doors,” the iconic hand-operated elevators, and—as mentioned in an earlier Arti-Facts—the stunning arched windows located on the seventh floor. Some, more savvy daily visitors, might notice that carved into the wall above those golden front doors, is not the name Brooklyn Friends School, but the name of the building’s original tennant. There are carved works of art surrounding the entrance, depicting legal scenes throughout time. However, the odds are that you have never noticed the really beautiful—and plentiful—artistic, dark brown square panels that adorn the outside of the building between each floor. What you definitely don’t know is that these carvings were put into place long before a single brick was put into place, or one concrete delivery was made to this building’s construction site. In fact, if you look at the close-up of the photo here, you can see that other than steel beams, those panels are the only things that adorned the new structure. Since this was nearly 100 years ago, there is no one around to ask why this is—but perhaps these were very heavy, and/or needed to be notched into the walls themselves. Still, it seems like an odd order of operation.

Head North, Young Pearl! 

We are extremely grateful for our newly paved version of Pearl Street—yes, it has been paved! So this seems to be a good time to look back at the Pearl Street of yesteryear. This photo, from nearly 100 years ago, is simply amazing and the first one like it many of us have ever seen—a view of Pearl Street, leading away from BFS, heading north. Today, this photo is one of the very few still in existence to show what our school’s street looked like—heading toward the East River—long before Brooklyn Friends moved into the neighborhood. You can clearly see 375 Pearl Street on the right—at the time the home of Brooklyn Law School—and so many other things that no longer exist. Past the school on the right, which is now NYU, you can see the large warehouse and showroom of desk manufacturers, A. Pearson’s Sons. Their street address was 247 Myrtle Avenue, a section of Downtown Brooklyn which, in the late 1920s, was becoming an important wholesale furniture center, according to The New York Times. Myrtle Avenue used to run between Adams and Jay Street, and beyond. It is now made up of pedestrian walkways and—further down—MetroTech. You can see the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Train Line, which was torn down in 1969. Remnants of that line remain as the M. You can also see Pearl Street disappear into the distance. Today, we all know that Pearl Street ends just past BFS. The truth is, however, it doesn’t end. Less than a half a mile away, straight as an arrow, heading north, Pearl Street picks up once again, and heads all the way to John Street Park, on the edge of the East River. In the days this photo was taken, you could have taken Pearl Street all the way to the water, unhindered. Today, you need to navigate a lot of obstacles, including the Marriott Hotel, and a whole lotta other stuff. By the time BFS moved onto Pearl Street, things had changed and today we only have blurry photographic evidence of all of this. Thank goodness for old photos. 

More to Come!