Brooklyn Label: Rediscovering the Astral’s Legacy

The Astral (Pratt Institute archives)

A lot of local history is quickly disappearing, but one place that is holding strong is Brooklyn Label (180 Franklin St.) and the historic building it calls home. French Greenpointer Robert Arbor, proprietor of Le Gamin (108 Franklin St.) re-opened Brooklyn Label in the historic Astral Building. The former management did little to recognize the amazing history of the space, something that Arbor has dedicated himself to changing.

The Astral Apartments are not only landmarked, but the building is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Arbor and his manager, Alex Russell, are determined to honor the building’s rich history and its patron philanthropist Charles Pratt, the oil baron and the richest man in 19th century Brooklyn.

Completed in 1883, the Astral Apartments were unique in their day: Unlike the flimsy tenement buildings that sprang up all around the city without basic amenities, the Astral was a kind of gift to the Greenpoint community and a solidly built showcase.

In contrast to tenements, Pratt’s building had plenty of natural light, air and even indoor plumbing, unheard of luxuries for most tenement dwellers. And the building was stunningly beautiful too!

The philanthropist hired famed architects Hugh Lamb and Charles A. Rich who also designed his stately Pratt Institute campus. Pratt commissioned them to design the Astral as a model for worker housing. Lamb & Rich based the Astral design on innovative tenement housing built by American philanthropist George Peabody in London who was a personal friend of Pratt’s.

Astral Kindergarten (Pratt Institute archives)
(Pratt Institute archives)

The Romanesque revival building was hailed upon its opening as a marvel and still retains its charm today. The ground floor of the Astral was originally planned for storefronts. In 1894, however, the Astral Kindergarten opened in the space the Brooklyn Label occupies today. The school was open to tenants first, then other neighborhood children, soon local children crowded into the school.

Mary Ovington White (Pratt Institute archives)

The famous Mary Ovington White, the co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was named by Pratt as director of the settlement house that ran the kindergarten, but the school also educated local adult immigrants in English at night.

 

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Restaurant manager Alex Russell is also a painter who has created an eight-foot-high portrait of Charles Pratt that honors the founder in the interior of the restaurant. He plans further work that will recognize the building’s amazing history. Alex learned how to paint from his mother, an accomplished portrait painter that has won the New York Portrait Artist Award and has her work hanging in the Boston Supreme Courthouse and Rockefeller Center and the apple did not fall far from the tree in Alex’s case.

The elegant Pratt portrait is the first step in the process of reclaiming the building’s fascinating history. Arbor is also working with Pratt Institute to find historic photos and other artifacts that will capture the Astral’s past. Arbor is planning an event later in the year to unveil the historic decorations and celebrate the Astral’s history. Brooklyn Label is not only a restaurant that serves great meals, but also offers a great side dish of local history. The preservation efforts at Brooklyn Label are a breath of fresh air at a time when so much local history is quickly vanishing.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

3 Comments

  1. ken wiebke says:

    Wonderful to hear of the concern for this great building NAACP co founder name Mary White Ovington I believe.

    Reply
  2. Joe says:

    I read somewhere that Mae West grew up in the Astral.

    Reply
    • Geoff Cobb says:

      I have often heard this rumor. She may have lived there, but definitely did not grow up there. We have no proof she ever lived there.

      Reply

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