A New Yorker's day is not complete without a pause at a personal landmark – a faded sign for an antiquated product, a forgotten factory with foggy broken windows. It is a reassuring, reorienting, but momentary break. This summer I extended that wayward glance at 529 Waverly Avenue in Brooklyn, currently the home of one of the borough's three breweries, Greenpoint Beer Works. The brewery, which is a featured stop on Urban Oyster's Wednesday night Brewed in Brooklyn tour, has been housed there since 2003, but the building dates back to at least 80 years, perhaps further. Once the home of Reid's Dairy, which was eventually taken over by the much larger Borden Company in 1928, much of the building's history is yet to be uncovered.
Like residents, historians of New York City share the sentiment (perhaps not the diction) that buildings are "texts” – that tales of the city and its residents can be read in the composition, use, condition, and location of history’s most forthright medium (architecture), and that these stories are important for a discipline whose topics and methodologies are constantly broadening. My companion throughout the research of the brewery building was the indispensable “Hints on Researching New York City Buildings," written by Columbia's Professor of Historic Preservation Andrew Dolkart, and I would recommend it to historians and laymen alike for its usefulness, range, and accessibility. If you are embarking on your own historical research into a building that has caught your eye, below is an abbreviated “desk guide” for beginning your research, as well as a few of my own insights and leads “For the Adventurous” who want to dig deeper than online resources allow.
The Desk Option:
Luckily, both of these agencies have searchable online databases of records of nearly every lot and building in the city. The first step is to visit the city's Department of Buildings website, and on the right side of the page, you will find the Buildings Information System, where you can search for buildings by entering the borough, street, and house number where directed. Explore the wealth of information on the display page (Property Profile Overview), but take special note of the tax block and lot numbers and the Department of Finance Building Classification. For records of New Construction and Alterations (among so much more), scroll down the page and click the “select” box on the bottom left. Important to note: The DOB didn't exist by borough until 1892, and didn't exist citywide until 1936. Records of new construction and alterations were brought in as needed, so buildings may appear out of nowhere. Once you have the tax block and lot numbers for the property you are researching, you can search the Department of Finance's Automated City Register Information System, or ACRIS. Here you can find property transaction records for buildings in all five boroughs dating back to 1966.
For the Adventurous:
Get on the train and head to downtown Manhattan, where three offices will be of particular use – the Department of Buildings (280 Broadway), the Municipal Archives (31 Chambers St.) and the Real Property Records in the Department of Finance (66 James St., 13th floor). At the DOB you can find significantly more information on alterations and construction records, including the contractors involved and other interesting details. The Municipal Archives houses tax records, tax photographs, and early Building Department records. And at the Real Property Records, you can find ownership records, conveyances and deeds (WARNING: Deeds may be handwritten, may be poorly translated into microfiche, and will certainly be written in legalese – they are not easy to read.)
The DOB and DOF offices are open Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 4:30, and the Municipal Archives is open from 9:00 to 4:30, Monday through Thursday, and from 9:00 to 1:00 on Friday. Wherever you go, be sure to bring along the proper reference numbers for the buildings you are researching (available online through the Buildings Information System and ACRIS). Most information can be found at these offices, but each borough also has its own DOB and DOF, though their hours, and the quality and quantity of information they have available, vary greatly. Try to call ahead before visiting any of the borough municipal buildings to make sure they have what you need.
Maps provide a wonderful visual aid for history aside from being beautiful in their own right. The New York Public Library has a wide variety of maps available online, and it is one of the best and most accessible cartographical resources for the region. In their online digital gallery of maps and atlases of New York City, you can search or browse through tax maps, atlases, and topographical maps from all five boroughs and dating from 1855-1948.
For the Adventurous:
All the maps online and many more are available for viewing in Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, located on the first floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the NYPL's main branch) on 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan. The Map Division is open from 1:00 to 7:30 on Tuesday and Wednesday and from 1:00 to 6:00 on Thursday through Saturday. Keep in mind that the Map Division might not have some maps for your borough – for example, the tax maps of Brooklyn are available at the Brooklyn Historical Society. So before going over, search their online catalog, and if they don't have what you need, the library staff will probably know where to send you.
If you are researching several buildings in a neighborhood, or you do not have an exact address, it may be easier to search for some of this information on a map rather than leafing through records. Luckily, the city has created NYCityMap, an online Geographic Information System (GIS) that integrates information from many different agencies into one useful web application. You can search by address or you can zoom to a neighborhood and click on buildings to find out basic information like when it was built, square footage, and zoning. The system will also link you to all of the DOB and DOF information discussed above, as well as to things like the Poll Site Locator, the Hurricane Evacuation Zone Finder, and the Rat Information Portal (which is morbidly abbreviated as RIP), where you can find out if furry friends have been reported in your building, and what the city is doing about it.
The best advice I can give as to a process would be to reflect on how I would have conducted my research of 529 Waverly Avenue in hindsight: check to see if the address is in a historic area or if the local historical society has any information; visit whomever has the block/lot tax maps; visit the site and take note of the similarities, distinctive features, and cornerstones of buildings; look up building addresses on the DOB website; then if you find a building is connected with a name or a business, try searching the New York Times online archive – the example at left mentions the Reid Union Dairy, a one-time occupant of 529 Waverly Avenue. Articles from 1851 to 1922 and from 1987 to the present are free, while those from 1923 to 1986 are available for a fee. Also check the Brooklyn Daily Eagle – the years 1841 to1902 are available online from the Brooklyn Public Library, and additional years are available at the library itself.
I never found the architect for 529 Waverly Avenue, or if the architectural similarities in the neighboring buildings were more than coincidental. And the building may have been built in 1931, according to DOB records, but we cannot be certain until we do more digging. But working with history, while giving shape and causality to the past, means accepting that some things are lost. For those of us who love and want to understand the places and relationships that have become part of our being, I can think of no more rewarding activity then delving into those everyday abandoned stories oneself.