No Relief?

When the Brooklyn Heights Library is demolished, what will happen to the art on its facade?

Art East Preservation
The Brooklyn Heights Library main entrance sports six bas reliefs on its limestone facade. (Ehblake / Wikimedia Commons)
The Brooklyn Heights Library main entrance sports six bas reliefs on its limestone facade. (Ehblake / Wikimedia Commons)

Community members and preservationists are worried that a local developer will pull a Trump on a Brooklyn library and send its art to the trash.

In an unusual move, New York–based Hudson Companies this week filed plans to demolish the Brooklyn Heights Library at 280 Cadman Plaza West before they close on a deal for the site with its owner, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL). Despite assurances that the art on the facade will be saved, city officials haven’t issued a commitment in writing to preserve the work.

280 Cadman Plaza West. The new BPL branch will occupy the ground floor. (Courtesy Marvel Architects)

280 Cadman Plaza West. The new BPL branch will occupy the ground floor. (Courtesy Marvel Architects)

If all permits are approved by the Department of Buildings (DOB), exterior demolition could begin in January to make way for a 36-story, mixed-use tower designed by Brooklyn-based Marvel Architects. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported this week that the branch, which closed in July and now operates out of temporary quarters, wants to get up and running inside the new building as soon as possible to minimize disruption to patrons. (Marvel Architects is also designing the new library.)


(Courtesy Marvel Architects)

(Courtesy Marvel Architects)

As part of the BPL’s $300 million capital repair campaign, the deal with Hudson and this new—smaller—library will generate a surplus $40 million in funds that will go towards renovations at other branches. The Business & Career Library, long headquartered at the Brooklyn Heights branch, moved to the main library this summer, though the neighborhood branch will retain specialized services for freelancers and entrepreneurs when it reopens.

The reduced size of the new library caught the community’s attention and the deal behind the site attracted the feds. In May, the New York Post reported that federal and city prosecutors are investigating whether the $52 million redevelopment deal was a quid pro quo for contributions to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s nonprofit, the Campaign for One New York. Hudson’s winning bid for the library site was a full $6 million less than another developer’s.

Although ongoing investigations will not affect the demolition timeline, the fate of the library’s facade is still undecided. The six bas-reliefs by artist Clemente Spampinato surround the main entrance and depict industry and businesses; crafts; sciences; knowledge; literature; and arts. In New York, his architectural work graces the auditoria, gyms, and facades of public schools in the five boroughs.

Brooklyn Heights Public Library (Image via Redwood Gallery)

Brooklyn Heights Public Library. (Image via Redwood Gallery)

Back in 2011, Brownstoner contributor Suzanne Spellen (a.k.a. Montrose Morris) praised the library’s art when she dismissed its “not great architecture.” Designed by architect Francis Keally, one of the architects behind the main branch at Grand Army Plaza, the building opened in 1962 but looks like a throwback to the WPA era. Separated from the neoclassical post office and courthouses across the street by a grand allée on Cadman Plaza Park, it defines the character of the corridor despite its design shortcomings.

Advocacy groups Citizens Defending Libraries (CDL) and Love Brooklyn Libraries, Inc. fought hard to keep the library open in its original building, but are now hoping that at least Spampinato’s work will be preserved in some capacity.

“There’s a longstanding tradition of incorporating art into the grand civic architecture of public libraries. From the [NYPL’s] Main Branch on 5th Avenue to the library on Grand Army Plaza, art is an integral part of the identity of New York library systems,” said Michele Bogart, professor of art history at Stony Brook University and former vice president of the Art Commission (now the Public Design Commission). A Carroll Gardens resident, Bogart suggested the BPL should incorporate the reliefs, which are 20 feet tall and 11 feet wide, into the new tower’s branch as an important continuation of tradition and a gesture to the neighborhood losing its public facility.

In addition to architectural sculpture adorning libraries, there is a venerable history of spolia in New York’s public works. Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, a preservation advocacy group, said the reliefs could be repurposed in another municipal capacity, like the Marine Grill’s opulent mosaic murals greet straphangers at Fulton Street. Alternatively, preservation activist Theodore Grunewald said the library reliefs could go to a museum, citing the Pegasus sculptures from the Coney Island High Pressure Pumping Station that now live in the Brooklyn Museum’s extensive collection of architectural objects.

The Public Design Commission (PDC) reviewed Spampinato’s pieces when they were installed in 1963, Bogart said, and the PDC still has a chance to weigh in on the significance of the library sculpture.

A spokesperson for the developer confirmed in an email that the reliefs will be saved in some capacity: “Hudson Companies will carefully remove the reliefs and store them for the duration of the construction period. The ultimate decision for the reuse will be made by the Brooklyn Public Library, which is committed to making sure they are preserved either at the new branch or another location.” Echoing Hudson, a spokesperson for the BPL confirmed that the library will make the final decision about the reliefs, although there is no confirmation yet about whether “another location” means a different branch or another entity like a museum or private collection.

At press time, Marvel Architects could not be reached to discuss plans for incorporating the reliefs into the new library, and PDC executive director Justin Garrett-Moore could not be reached for comment on the commission’s plans, if any.

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