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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

BAM’s Prehistory, Pt. 3: The First Academy for the Third City

Stereoscope card with original BAM Building

Brooklyn historian Carol Lopate points out that as with the founders of the Apprentices Library in the 1820s, most of BAM’s founders in the 1850s “had been born outside of Brooklyn and had made their money by their own industry in a rapidly expanding commercial world.” Among this new Brooklyn elite was trader A.A. Low, whose son Seth Low would become Brooklyn mayor in the 1880s and mayor of New York City in the early 20th century; and Henry E. Pierrepont, who made a fortune in Brooklyn Heights real estate, and who served as BAM’s first president. In a speech at the first founders’ meeting, A.A. Low proclaimed:
I hold that we often err in thinking and styling our city the third city of the Union. That the city contains a large number of men, women and children we are ready enough to admit; but until it possess larger attractions to men of letters, men of science and culture, to men of intellect, in fact to men of every walk and condition of life … until it possesses these things in as large a measure as some other cities of the country such as Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati and St. Louis and many others, I would be slow, for one, to style our city the third city in the union.
Dissatisfied with the perception of Brooklyn as a provincial, overgrown village, the founders devised a funding strategy to erect a new opera house and to begin programming of a major music venue. Setting up a joint stock corporation, $50 shares were sold to Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents in order to raise the capital stock of $150,000 needed for the project. Land on Montague Street between Court and Clinton Streets, near City Hall (now Borough Hall), was purchased for $41,000. As the construction of the building ensued, many mishaps and unforeseen expenses arose, including the collapse of the original roof, all of which necessitated raising $50,000 more from the Brooklyn business community.

In the end the building was built, programs were programmed, and during his inaugural speech on BAM’s opening night board member Simeon B. Chittenden boasted that BAM was opening “without a penny of debt”—though theater scholar Paul Nadler has more recently posited that “there was in fact a ‘considerable debt’ which was not retired until mid-1862 at the earliest.”    

The building committee hired the young but accomplished New York City architect Leopold Eidletz—who at the time was most well known for designing “Iranistan,” the eccentric Bridgeport, Connecticut mansion of P.T. Barnum—though the rather conservative founders, men who after all were community leaders in what was then known as the “City of Churches,” likely responded more positively to Eidlitz’s design of St. George’s Church, which is still standing at Stuyvesant Square on East 16th Street. The public took a keen interest in the erection of a new Brooklyn landmark, with both Brooklyn and New York newspapers regularly reporting on the building’s progress. The day after BAM opened the Brooklyn Daily Eagle triumphed: “There have been financial crashes, but the funds were forthcoming, there have been dismal croakers daily asserting that the thing was impossible, and were daily refuted by the solid brick walls that were rising before them … the croakers and the panics were alike unheeded, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a practical reality.” 

Reviews of the Montague Street building itself, however, were decidedly mixed. The consensus was that the building was somber, perhaps too subdued in its Gothic references. Essayist Phillip Lopate has recently stated that Eidlitz was “something of a structuralist, who attempted to ‘express’ the interior functions of the building in its interior design.” The Eagle noted that “the gayer colors are completely excluded, and gilding is almost completely ignored, still the bright red upholstery and the heavy purple curtains of the boxes relive wonderfully when the place is lighted up.” The Times reported that the edifice “seems to present a huge mass of red brick, with a multitude of little windows patched over it,” though the paper conceded that “The oftener we see the building, the better we like it.”

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