The Astral is undoubtedly one of Greenpoint’s most iconic edifices. So much so, it even inspired it’s own novel. It sure is a purdy old pile o’ bricks, straight out of Victorian London, and with a great history to boot. While you may not know the fascinating story of the Astral, you’ve likely been inside the building while brunching at Brooklyn Label, or maybe you have noticed its picturesque brickwork while exiting Dandelion Wine shop, bottle (or two) in hand. So what makes this historic building distinctive enough to be designated both a city and a national landmark? Well, as mama always told you, it’s what’s on the inside that really counts.
But first a little backstory. During the 1850s, the bourgeoning shipbuilding industry in Greenpoint brought rapid development and increased population to the previously bucolic neighborhood. After the Civil War, Greenpoint emerged as the industrial center of New York City, manufacturing such products as glass, porcelain, pencils, iron, and refined oil. As the population continued to grow, the need for better housing became profound, particularly for local workers and their families.
If you’ve had the chance to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, you may be familiar with the dreadful housing conditions of centuries past. It was typical for working families to live in small, overcrowded tenement apartments with poor ventilation, minimal light, and no indoor plumbing. An 1894 study found New York City to be the most densely populated metropolis in the world, with more people per square acre in the Lower East Side than in Bombay.
In the mid-to-late 1800s, Greenpoint was not spared this urban plight, the neighborhood described in the Brooklyn Eagle as having a real problem with “how to live decently and economically.” Hey, we still feel ya today. Along came a string of tenement reform acts, but these laws did little to improve conditions. The most significant advancements came from small, individual efforts such as Alfred T. White’s Tower and Home Apartments in Cobble Hill, and you guessed it, Greenpoint’s own Astral Apartments.
The Astral was built in 1885-86 by Charles Pratt. Pratt made a mega-fortune as a pioneer in the oil industry, making him Brooklyn’s wealthiest resident and its leading philanthropist.
In 1867, he founded the petroleum company that would make him millions and opened a refinery on the East River waterfront near 12th Street (pictured at left). This refinery soon became the leading operation of its kind in the country. One of the company’s most famous and successful products was “Pratt’s Astral Oil,” a less flammable and therefore safer lighting fuel that was said to be “perfectly odorless.” It was sold all over the world, one advertising slogan proclaiming that “the holy lamps of Tibet are primed with Astral Oil.”
Pratt later sold his oil interests to John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil (because, come on, who didn’t?) and went on to become a great humanitarian, building churches, schools, and universities such as Pratt Institute. Pratt’s philanthropic endeavors were deeply rooted in his personal attitude that a healthy environment produced healthy, spiritual people who would contribute to society and become responsible citizens.
Pratt carried these ideas over to the design of the Astral. Built for his refinery workers, the Astral marks one of the earliest examples of progressive housing for the working class in the United States. And while we can’t neglect the obvious benefit to his company’s profits (i.e. healthy workers = harder workers = dollar bills, ya’ll), let’s just say he had mainly humanitarian interests at heart. Charles Pratt hired the firm of Lamb & Rich to design the building, local architects with a prolific portfolio and a knack for the high Victorian. The firm also designed many of Pratt Institute’s impressive buildings, but a personal favorite is one of their earliest commissions, Henderson Place. This picturesque little gem of a development, located on East 86th Street and East End Avenue, was built for “persons of moderate means.” Lamb & Rich seemed to be experimenting with many of the architectural features that would later appear on the Astral, including wide arched entryways, a heavy stone base, terra cotta decorative details, and projecting bays.
After doing their fair share of research into other progressive apartment houses, Lamb & Rich settled on a couple of English prototypes to guide their Astral designs, including some of those built by philanthropist George Peabody in London. The Astral’s complex façade incorporates features from the Queen Anne and Romanesque styles, with decorative molded bricks, asymmetrical massing, arched entryways, roof gables, carved sandstone and terra cotta ornamentation. The bays and recesses add dimension to the facades and create a charming, English country house feel. But the features on the interior are what made the Astral such an innovative and high-quality living environment.
The Brooklyn Eagle wrote a glowing review of the building’s design that sums up its most pleasing amenities: “The most desirable features of the best houses are found here – admirable light, thorough ventilation, ample sanitary arrangements and entire security from the dangers of fire.” The rear courtyard and building plan allow for an abundance of windows in each apartment (at least one per room) providing sunlight and air. Additionally there are six stairwells (one on Java Street, three on Franklin Street, and two on India Street) that originally contained “buttoned” windows that could be removed during the summer to allow for ventilation. These unique windows were a feature first used in London to alleviate the filth and stench common to tenement stairwells. Each apartment was equipped with a stove, hot and cold running water, and a separate room that contained a toilet. Communal bathtubs were in the basement (talk about getting to know your neighbors!), which was quite a luxury at the time, especially for the working class.
The first floor and basement included a large lecture room and a library (pictured at left), which was initially only for Astral residents, but later opened to the public as part of the City’s library system. In case you are wondering, the fireplace in the background of the photo is said to still exist in the basement, and the inscription on the mantle reads “Waste Neither Time nor Money.” Ground-level stores were intended to operate as co-operatives, co-owned and run by residents. The rear courtyard acted as a playground for the children, with parents or guardians able to keep a watchful eye from all those windows above.
There was a kindergarten that educated children while parents were at work. Each resident was allotted a portion of the roof to dry their clothes. Rents ranged from $12-30 (about $300-$750 in today’s dollars). Sign me up!
If all of these communal features seem a little socialist to you, you are not alone. For these reasons the Astral was target of arson not once, but twice in its early history. Luckily it’s claims of being fire-proof were well-founded.
While maintenance and restoration are somewhat lacking, the Astral still stands today as one of Greenpoint’s finest structures. It continues to provide quality housing and contribute to the character and history that make our neighborhood so special. The Astral is designated an individual New York City Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its contributions to progressive housing, and its significance and beauty is undeniable.
Many say it is their favorite building in the neighborhood. What do you think Greenpointers?
Special thanks to the archives at Pratt Institute.