The Previous Generation

Every so often I get a reminder that I don’t know New York’s history so much as I’m good at looking things up when I need to. When I was looking for “tower” photos a while back, I found the picture above, and it stumped me. The caption is “Brooklyn and New York from Prospect Park” but I didn’t recognize most of what’s in the photo.

Some things are easy: the triumphal arch left of the big tower is the centerpiece of the Grand Army Plaza, which is at the northern corner of Prospect Park. The orientation of the arch shows that we’re looking mostly west and a little north, which is confirmed by the presence of the Singer Building very far away, on the right. (It’s the last spire on the right in the Manhattan skyline.) The wide and empty street on the right has to be Eastern Parkway, with the empty lots on the right waiting for the construction of apartment houses. So far so good, but what is that body of water in the foreground and what is the tower right behind it? For a moment when I read the title, I thought the tower was the tower of St. Augustine’s Church at Sixth Avenue and Sterling Place – we worked on the church some years back, and its rough brownstone appearance is sort of embedded in my head – but it’s not. The location and shape are wrong. The tower of St. Augustine’s is visible about halfway between the tower at the center and the right edge of the photo.

It turns out that this was Brooklyn’s distributing reservoir, the functional equivalent of the reservoir that used to be where the New York Public Library now stands. The Croton water system for New York had a big storage reservoir at the future site of Central Park and a distribution reservoir closer to most of the usage downtown; the equivalent system in Brooklyn had a storage reservoir in Cypress Hills, at the northeastern edge of Brooklyn, abutting Queens, and a distribution reservoir at “Mount Prospect,” adjacent to the future site of Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza. I was vaguely aware of the Cypress Hills reservoir but not the Mount Prospect reservoir. Both are long gone.

The triangle of land between Flatbush Avenue, Washington Avenue, and Eastern Parkway was originally supposed to be part of Prospect Park, but Olmsted and Vaux had it removed, as they didn’t want their park split in two by Flatbush Avenue. The reservoir is at the northern end of that triangle (note that north is down and to the left in this 1888 map):

The tower served to increase pressure before distribution: water was pumped up to a tank at its top and then gravity fed back down to the city of Brooklyn to the north wand west. If the pumps failed, the elevation of the reservoir meant that water would still be available, but with reduced pressure.

The streets in the south half of the triangle were demapped and turned over for use by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum shortly after 1900. After the reservoir was abandoned, the north half of the triangle was turned into a small park and the site of the new main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. There has not been a “Reservoir Street” in Brooklyn since before 1940, which is surely a winning trivia question.

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