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LANDMARKS PRESERVATION COMMISSION OKAYS CHANGES TO WILLIAMSBURGH SAVINGS BANK'S RETAIL SPACE

Jan. 11, 2017 - The former banking hall at 1 Hanson Place has a design of jaw-dropping glamor. And it's located in what is arguably Brooklyn's most famous building, Fort Greene's Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which has an iconic four-faced clock tower.

But finding retail tenants for the space is complicated, says its owner — who went to the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) on Tuesday to ask for permission to make some retailer-friendly architectural changes to the space.

Because the banking hall is an interior landmark — a special status that has been granted to just a few Brooklyn properties — its historic architectural features cannot be altered without the LPC's approval.
Madison Realty Capital, which owns the ground floor, basement and mezzanine space, is "actively pursuing many retailers," Andrew Salomon, the firm's managing director of commercial development, said at a public hearing at the preservation agency's Lower Manhattan headquarters.

But with these potential tenants, conversations hit "a roadblock of understanding what the layout of the space is going to be," Salomon said.

The problem with the layout, from a retailer's point of view, is "circulation," meaning customers' ability to walk freely around the space.

The banking hall was designed to resemble a cathedral. The ground floor is set up as a nave and two side aisles, with bank-teller cages along those side aisles, said Ward Dennis, a preservation consultant who's working with Madison Realty Capital.

The teller cages block people from walking through the aisle space. The remedy, as proposed by Acheson Doyle Partners, the architecture firm hired by Madison Realty Capital, is to cut passageways through several teller cages.

In testimony, Barbara Zay of the Historic Districts Council called the architects' plan "very tasteful and respectful of most of the existing masonry" but asked if more of the metalwork on the teller cages could be left intact.

Several commissioners also felt the design should be modified slightly to retain more of the metalwork.

Commissioner Frederick Bland said the "litmus test" for judging the plan is whether it retains "the notion that this is a bank hall." He felt that the plan passed this test.

The commission voted unanimously to approve the plan — with the caveat that the architecture firm work with LPC staffers to figure out how to retain more of the metalwork on a passageway through the teller cages on the southern end of the space.

The commission also approved the replacement of signs on the Williamsburgh Savings Bank's exterior, which now say "Skylight One Hanson," with signs bearing the name of the banking hall's future tenant.

Twenty-Two Kinds of Marble in the Banking Hall

Many Brooklynites are familiar with the banking hall — because in the fall and winter, the ground floor is a venue for Brooklyn Flea and the basement is used by Smorgasburg food purveyors.

The Neo-Romanesque Williamsburgh Savings Bank's stunning banking hall is graced with eye-catching design details such as a mosaic depicting Henry Hudson's ship, the Half Moon, and a map of Brooklyn's Dutch colonial settlements.

Twenty-two kinds of marble were used to construct the banking hall — which Madison Realty Capital bought as a retail condominium for $18 million in 2015, city Finance Department records indicate.

The bank was built in 1927 to 1929. Its upstairs floors were offices until a few years ago. Dentists were their predominant tenants.

Then these floors were converted to condo apartments.

Until a recent surge in Downtown Brooklyn residential development, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank was the tallest building in Brooklyn.