Bay Ridge has many majestic old buildings, adapted from their old purposes to new ones, just barely obscuring their origins behind a little remodeling and new signage. The one that most recently caught my eye was 7601 Fourth Avenue, a two-story brick structure with an attractive cornice; it’s more grand than an ordinary apartment or office, yet not as fancy as an old movie palace.
It was built as a Knights of Columbus clubhouse, though perhaps not as imposing as other Knights of Columbus buildings erected around the same time, like the one on the corner of 86th Street and 13th Avenue, with its two-story columns around the front door; it was built ca. 1931 (or converted? see below), with a gym and locker room, a library, kitchen, dining room, council chambers (accommodating approximately 160 people) and more meeting and storage rooms—plus a caretaker’s duplex. (Local community-board meetings are sometimes held here.)
UPDATE: A building of very similar design—including tall columns at the entrance—was built at the same intersection in 1898—the clubhouse of the Dyker Heights Club. The Eagle reports it was on the northeast corner, meaning it was directly across 13th Avenue from the Knights clubhouse, or the paper misreported, and the present building was adapted from the existing one.)
The grandest K of C building in Brooklyn is at 1 Prospect Park West; “The nine-story building was built [in 1925] not only to house the group’s activities, but as a venue for outside rental, with a large ballroom/banquet hall and an auditorium,” Brownstoner reported. “The building also had hotel rooms for rent to members and guests, at $35 a night.” (Similar structures went up around the country, such as those in South Bend or Gary.)
The Bay Ridge clubhouse hardly compares to these, but it’s still impressive when judged by itself. It was built in 1924, according to its cornerstone. (Department of buildings files suggest construction, or at least permitting, began in 1921 or 1922.) The Knights of Columbus chapter—Thomas Dongan Council No. 1251—that occupied the building had previously met at a hut at the Bay Ridge Receiving Ship, at the foot of 74th Street, starting in 1919. “The building, which is of frame, is 40 by 110 feet and contains a large entertainment hall which will accommodate more than 300 persons,” the Brooklyn Eagle reported. “In addition to this there are two secretaries’ rooms, a hostess’ room, a library containing 1,000 volumes, a reception room and shower baths. The entertainment hall is equipped with a stage. It is intended to hold weekly dances at the hut.”
(Webster defines a receiving ship as “a usually obsolete or unseaworthy ship moored at a navy yard and used for new recruits or men in transit between stations.” The Bay Ridge one was part of a naval base that basically occupied the entirety of Shore Road, from “the Bay Ridge Parkway”/67th Street to the army base. Barracks were built here, between the waterfront and Shore Road, housing 20,000 men during and after WWI, in 175 buildings. The opening of the K of C hut in 1919 attracted so many people they had to use the reservation’s mess hall, which could accommodate thousands. The barracks were controversial among local residents, who pushed for their closure, which seems to have gone through in 1921, according to a small item in the Eagle, though a photo of the barracks in 1922, from Shore Road and 71st Street, survives in the New-York Historical Society archives. They would all eventually be torn down and the land given to the city, which would convert it finally into Shore Road Park.)
Council 1251 had been meeting since 1907 (for its first twelve years, I don’t know where!).
The first certificate of occupancy on file for 7601 Fourth Avenue, from 1925, is a mere card that states its purpose simply as “Club House.” A subsequent C of O, from 1949, gets more specific about what that entails: in the basement, bowling alleys (which would have hosted Knights of Columbus Long Island Bowling League games, scores for which were reported in the Eagle throughout the 30s), bar, boiler room and caretaker’s apartment; on the first floor, billiard room, card rooms and office; on the second, a ballroom with a hat check. (It could hold 325 people, 250 men and 75 women; how to calculate the gender breakdown by floor is anyone’s guess, though certificates of occupancy did it all the time.)
Fraternal organizations reached their peak in American culture in the first quarter or so of the 20th century. In 1907, more than 6 million American men belonged to such groups, and half a million women (in similar sisterhoods), according to Albert Clark Stevens’s Cyclopædia of Fraternities. (The population of the country in 1900 was 76 million.) Throughout the 1930s, the Eagle devoted whole pages to their doings. A 1926 Knights of Columbus parade in Prospect Park drew 5,000 participants. When the Thomas Dongan Council (No. 1251) held an essay contest, the event attracted almost 600 members and guests. The Thomas Dongan Council had a glee club; it hosted bazaars, communion breakfasts and children’s Christmas parties; it featured speakers like the Eagle sports editor and a minor Brooklyn Dodger; it sent boys to camp upstate for the summer.
Such clubs were so popular that just across the street, in the house on the corner, now home to Grace Daycare Center (7604 Fourth Avenue), was for many years a Masonic Club. (I attended a small trading-card expo there, in what must have been the late 80s or early 90s.) It was likely built in the 1930s, and its first certificate of occupancy, from 1937, lists a game room, meeting rooms, a card room, club rooms and a caretaker’s room; so does another from 1968. The Brooklyn Masonic Guild sold the building in 1995, and it became a school in 1997, though as far as the department of buildings is concerned, the basement is still a game room, the attic still a card room, the second floor still club rooms.
Membership in fraternal orders began to fall off during the 60s, and as WWII vets died off, few took their places. “Baby boomers who came of age around 1970…were not joiners,” according to an article in the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “‘During the Vietnam War, across our country, there was a feeling that no organization could be trusted,’ [one Freemason] said. ‘The people of that age did not participate. They did not get involved in service organizations.’” And neither did their kids. Other factors likely played a role: an improved social-safety net (fraternal orders could be counted on to help out if you fell on hard times); a decline in religious affiliation; the decline in trade unions; and advances in technology that made socializing easier and staying home more appealing.
In the mid to late 80s, 7601 Fourth Avenue was still in use by the Knights of Columbus, according to the tax-photo archive. The Thomas Dongan Holding Corporation sold the building in 2000 to the 7601 Realty Co. LLC, which took out a mortgage of almost $1 million. Papers were filed with the department of buildings earlier, in 1997, to change the use of the building to medical offices. The address today houses Bay Ridge Medical Imaging, which partitioned the game- and ballrooms and filled them with MRI machines and CT scanners.
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, an extension was built, between the original structure and the neighboring Castel (or Castle) Apartments, where today you find the building’s entrance. Before that, there was a door below the grand window that faces Fourth Avenue, topped with a modest pediment.
The Thomas Dongan Council name graces the awning of the extant Knights of Columbus clubhouse (8122 Fifth Avenue), far less grand than the one it seems to have replaced: it’s a private storefront bar, not dissimilar in appearance from an American Legion hall. (The building is privately owned, by Maria Peritore, according to public records. She also owns a home in Bay Ridge, between Colonial and Narrows.) Several of these kinds of Knights of Columbus hangouts also survive in Dyker Heights and Bensonhurst, many of them similarly downsized from larger clubhouses; the Admiral Dewey Council went defunct while meeting in a storefront at 6727 Thirteenth Avenue, far less luxurious than the old clubhouse at 5114 Fourth Avenue.
Thomas Dongan was an Irish 17th-century governor of colonial New York—the state’s first Catholic governor (and the last until Al Smith, in 1919). “He was a man of courage, tact, and capacity, an able diplomat, and a statesman of prudence and remarkable foresight,” according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. “[H]e stands forth as one of the greatest constructive statesmen ever sent out by England for the government of any of her American colonial possessions.” Dongan is best remembered for his “Charter of Liberties and Privileges,” one of the most liberal in colonial America, according to a 1902 editorial in the Times (which attracted a very positive response from readers).
After New England and New York consolidated, Edmund Andros became governor of both (shortly before he was arrested by Boston rebels and ousted from the North). Dongan retired briefly to Staten Island—Castleton is named after his manor, Dongan Hills after him—and his mansion there survived until 1878, when it burned down, at which time the Times mourned it as “one of the most interesting and valuable historic relics in the vicinity of New-York.” (In Manhattan, Dongan Place bears his name, a very short block up by Fort Tyron Park, connecting Broadway to Arden Street, roughly parallel to Sherman Avenue.) Dongan didn’t live on Staten Island long, however; he soon moved back to England, where he became Earl of Limerick, and he stayed there until he died, in London, in 1715.