This Gowanus ASPCA constructing protected the Brooklyn animals

Editor’s Note: This post was originally run in 2014 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded in Manhattan in 1866. It was founded by Henry Bergh and is the oldest animal welfare society in the western hemisphere. Bergh believed that animals had a right to be respectful and kind to humans and had to be protected by law from those who acted differently.

An illustration of Henry Bergh stopping an overcrowded tram in 1872. Image from ‘Harpers Weekly’ on the New York Public Library

His first efforts were to protect horses from abuse, as well as try to reform slaughterhouses and end cockfighting. His cause was soon taken up by many. Just nine days after his organization was officially announced, Bergh was able to pass the city’s first anti-cruelty laws.

The laws enabled the ASPCA to enforce these anti-cruelty laws, and with just three employees, the organization set out to initially focus on those who abused horses and cattle. In 1867 they had special ambulances to support and rescue horses on the city streets, as well as to rescue cats, dogs and pigeons. When Henry Bergh died in 1888, 37 of the 38 states in the union had ASPCA chapters and anti-cruelty laws on their books.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus

Brooklyn opened its first chapter shortly after Mr. Bergh founded the organization in Manhattan. He was a frequent speaker in Brooklyn and often testified on animal cruelty issues in Brooklyn. One such case involved the sale of “milk” in Brooklyn in 1870. This was substandard, contaminated milk produced by Brooklyn cows raised in inhumane conditions in the city and then mostly sold to the poor.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus Aspca

The interior of 233 Butler Street in 1913. Photo via American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Forty-Eighth Annual Report

ASPCA’s first Brooklyn office was at 162-164 Carlton Avenue. They then had an office at 114 Lawrence Street and from there they moved to 233 Butler Street in 1913. The company was very popular with Brooklyn’s philanthropists. When they needed a much larger building, they were fortunate enough to receive generous donations to a new facility that would enable them to care for Brooklyn’s abused and abandoned animals.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street

The first building in 1913 before expansion. Photo via ‘American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Forty-eighth Annual Report

The company commissioned the architecture firm Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker. The company succeeded James Renwick, one of the most important and influential architects of the 19th century.

William Renwick was James’ nephew. His partners were James Lawrence Aspinwall and Fitz Henry Faye Tucker. Aspinwall was related by marriage to James Renwick. He and William Renwick were with Senior Renwick when James died in 1895.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus

Both were partners before James Renwick’s death, and both were good architects independently. Not much is known about Tucker. The company designed several of Manhattan’s most impressive early skyscrapers, including the Aspinwall-designed American Express Building on 65 Broadway.

William Renwick continued the family tradition of beautiful Gothic Revival architecture by designing the neighborhood home for Grace Church (Episcopal) on 13th and Broadway. This church was designed by James Renwick in 1846.


Much of the money for the ASPCA building came from the Schermerhorn and Bowdoin families. In addition to financing the construction of the building, Ms. Edith Bowdoin also donated a granite horse trough which is still in front of the building, although it was filled out a long time ago. It has to weigh a ton and it doesn’t go anywhere.

Renwick et al. Designed a humble looking but substantial building that was larger than the ASPCA’s new shelter in Manhattan. Brooklyn rules! It had a formal lobby and reception room.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus

Ambulance drivers in front of the building in the early 20th century. Photo via ASPCA Archives

Despite its size, the maps of Sanborn show that the building was expanded by 1922. It appears that the original building, with its central arched brick entrance, has been duplicated to the east. There was a door with the ASPCA seal between the twin buildings. The building was also extended upwards, with another floor crowned by a cornice made of brick arches.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus

Ambulance drivers in front of the building in the early 20th century. Photo via ASPCA Archives

Although there were still many horses in the city that often needed grooming, they were quickly replaced by trucks. Their first motorized ambulance was a truck with a horse trailer that could rescue injured and battered horses.

Most of the ASPCA’s attention now went to smaller pets such as cats and dogs, and the occasional exotic animals such as monkeys and snakes. Over time, the horse-drawn ambulance was replaced by a motor vehicle that could bring cats, dogs, and other small animals to the shelter. The roof of the new building was designed with a terrace that also served as a dog run. As a national and local organization, the ASPCA has been a leader in veterinary medicine.

Brooklyn Architecture 233 Butler Street Gowanus

For the next 66 years, this was the headquarters and hideout of the ASPCA in Brooklyn. Pet adoptions took place here, and Brooklynites could also report animal abuse and hand in abandoned animals. They ran programs for children, including drawing and essay competitions on the care and respect of all animals, and sponsored lectures for adults. The office was also able to issue dog licenses and had a veterinary clinic.

In 1979 the ASPCA moved out of this facility. The organization is now in Manhattan and has mobile spay and neuter clinics. The Brooklyn facility on Linden Boulevard in east New York is now part of the New York Department of Animal Care and Control.

The building on Butler Street is one of many Gowanus houses in the middle of transition. In 2017 it was planned to convert the building into a retail and restaurant location. According to the Department of Building records, the dog kennel on the first floor will become a café, while elsewhere in the building there will be a taproom and commercial space. The existing tenant, RetroFret Vintage Guitars, will continue to have sales and repair areas for instruments on the first floor and in the offices above, as plans show.

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