Brooklyn Structure: The Swiss Chalet by Greenpoint
It’s a bit of a surprise to stumble upon it on Manhattan Avenue in the heart of Greenpoint – a timber frame building with a Greek name and a bit of Swiss design flair. Keramos Hall at 857-861 Manhattan Avenue was a social activity center in the late 19th century, suffered pathetic disfigurement in the 20th century, and was given a new lease of life with a 21st century restoration.
This rather unusual building was built by Thomas C. Smith in 1886-1887. While Smith was a building contractor – he was developing property around the corner on Milton Street, including his own house at 136-138 Milton Street – he was also involved in Greenpoint affairs, notably running Greenpoint’s Union Porcelain Company, which made practical and decorative ceramics.
The ceramics shop explains the name of the building: Keramos is Greek for potter or ceramic (and the word “ceramic” is derived from Keramos).
From the start, the building was a mix of advertising on the ground floor and offices above. Local organizations like the Greenpoint Hebrew Civic Council had offices in the building and it was a popular place for local business and community groups like the Greenpoint Taxpayers and Citizens Association and the Sons of Veterans to hold banquets, dances and annual get-togethers.
The Seventeenth Ward Young Men’s Republican Club was headquartered there in the 1880s. The club was described as “the best” by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1892 – and its “dance receptions” in the hall were part of the club’s “incessant entertainment.”
At the time the Greenpoint Historic District was designated in 1982, which includes the building, it was siding and missing the distinctive tower roof and cornice.
Although covered by siding, some details remained visible, including the Union Porcelain Company’s blue and white tiles facing the steps of the stairs.
The building was restored to its fullest in 2012 by Kamen Tall Architects. The following year, it received the Lucy G. Moses Award for Restoration and the Excellence in Preservation Award from the New York State Preservation League. The project restored the grandeur of the fretwork – including the griffins sitting quietly in the gables – and recreated some of the missing elements like the gable roof on the square tower and the bracketed cornices.
The Wooden House Project conducted a fascinating restoration interview with the architect and owner of the building who purchased it in 1962.
The beautifully burnished stick-style structure is on the corner of Manhattan Street and Milton Street and directly across from another Greenpoint landmark, St. Anthony of Padua, which was built in 1873.
At least in today’s Brooklyn, pretty much everything about Keramos Hall is unusual: the quirky Swiss-style decorations, the use of wood for a large commercial building, and the stick-style architecture.
[Photos by Susan De Vries unless noted otherwise]
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