A terracotta memorial to music: The Brooklyn Academy of Music

Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in 2011 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

Manhattan likes to think it’s the be-all and end-all of culture, but we beat them. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is America’s oldest performing arts center and was founded in 1861.

Ok, it wasn’t in this location or building at 30 Lafayette Avenue, but we still have the props. The original BAM, dating from 1859, was located on Montague Street, what was then Brooklyn’s business and cultural center.

The original Brooklyn Music Academy on Montague Street in 1861. Lithograph from Harper’s Weekly via the Library of Congress

This building burned down in one of the more spectacular fires in the area in 1903, and when the decision was made to rebuild it was decided to go all out to show Brooklyn’s pride, which suffered a major blow when the city was absorbed into the greater area New York City.

Brooklyn architecture 30 Lafayette Avenue

After a design competition, the city fathers, Henry Herts and Hugh Tallant, commissioned the design of the new BAM. Herts & Tallant were among the best theater designers in town, responsible for some really great spaces, like the Art Nouveau masterpiece New Amsterdam Theater, designed in 1903, the same year they designed the Lyceum Theater, which was designed by many architects Historians have been considered to be the most beautiful theater in town.

Brooklyn-Architecture-Bam-30-Lafayette-Avenue-Fort-Greene-2 ​​(1 of 1)

The BAM should not just be a concert hall, but a complete cultural center with an opera house, a theater, an auditorium and offices, all of which are connected on the ground floor by a common lobby and a common foyer above, could be converted into a banquet hall or ballroom.

Brooklyn Architecture BAM 30 Lafayette Avenue Fort Greene

The colorful, polychrome, terracotta exterior compliments the nearby Brooklyn Masonic Hall, which was built simultaneously by a completely different architect and organization. The two buildings are among the best in Fort Greene as well as in Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Architecture BAM 30 Lafayette Avenue Fort Greene

The facade is made of granite with cream-colored bricks and terracotta decorations. Fat putti playing musical instruments and garlands adorn the facade.

Brooklyn architecture 30 Lafayette Avenue

The opera house with 2,200 seats was opened on November 14, 1908 with a Faust production with Enrico Caruso and Geraldine Farrar. Other lights that graced the stage are Isadora Duncan, Paul Robeson, Sarah Bernhardt and Rudolph Nureyev. Franklin D. Roosevelt also spoke to a crowded house in 1940 with thousands listening from the street. Winston Churchill spoke here too.

Brooklyn Architecture 30 Lafayette Avenue Brooklyn Academy

We can credit Harvey Lichenstein with the renewal of BAM as one of the most innovative and important cultural institutions in the city, which not only led to the restoration and conversion of the spaces within the building, but also inspired the arts to return to Brooklyn in large measure. The Brooklyn Academy of Music is once again the cultural heart of Brooklyn.

[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]

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