Brooklyn Historical Society
Founded in 1863, Brooklyn Historical Society is a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn’s extraordinary 400-year history. Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Post and opened in 1881, today’s BHS is a cultural hub for civic dialogue, thoughtful engagement and community outreach.
Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) was founded in 1863 as the Long Island Historical Society (LIHS) during a time of tumultuous change. In only a few decades, Brooklyn had grown from a tiny agricultural backwater to the 3rd largest city in the country. Civic pride was at an all-time high. Many of its citizens believed they needed to commemorate Brooklyn’s rural past before it quickly faded from memory.
The founders of the Long Island Historical Society were among the city’s most prominent citizens, whose families could trace their Brooklyn roots back to the 17th and 18th centuries. They established the Society as a library committed to preserving the history of America, New York State, and most especially, “the counties, towns and villages of Long Island.”
Founders also envisioned the LIHS as a center for dialogue about history. In the 19th century, the Society’s roster of speakers included newspaper editor and reformer Horace Greeley, writer Arthur Conan Doyle, and abolitionist and women’s rights activist Julia Ward Howe. Its membership included a number of women (usually wealthy), but no people of color.
Initially, the LIHS occupied several rooms on Court Street. The institution grew quickly, and its leaders planned to move the Society into its own building. In 1868, they acquired land on the corner of Pierrepont and Clinton Streets in present-day Brooklyn Heights, but the Depression of 1873 stalled construction plans.
Financially recovered by 1878, the Society held a contest and selected renowned architect George Browne Post to design its headquarters. Opened in 1881, the Queen Anne-style building is notable for its bright terracotta façade, intricate brickwork, and myriad decorative details. It also features an innovative truss system that supports the ceiling of the building’s central reading room.
By the early 20th century, Brooklyn had become part of the Greater City of New York, and the Society evolved to meet the needs and demands of new generations of Brooklynites. During World War I, the LIHS contributed to the war effort by transforming its 600-seat auditorium into a Red Cross headquarters.
As the century marched on, the Society’s membership declined. After 1926, this space was subdivided and rented to commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution’s operating expenses. During the mid-20th century, its fortunes mirrored those of the borough of Brooklyn, which experienced deindustrialization, economic decline, and social change. For decades, it operated only as a library, although it continued to add to its collections.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the institution reestablished itself as a museum and education center. The institution, which changed its name to Brooklyn Historical Society in 1985, broke new ground by embracing social history practices and exploring the diversity of Brooklyn’s history and people. It established a pioneering oral history program, reaching out to as-yet unchronicled Brooklyn communities and capturing their experiences. The Society also began featuring exhibits such as Black Churches in Brooklyn and AIDS/Brooklyn, the first exhibit to cover this topic at a history museum in the United States.
BHS’s Othmer Library and Archives houses the most comprehensive collection of materials related to Brooklyn’s history and culture in the world. Each year, thousands of students, scholars, and many other researchers visit to examine manuscript collections, historic maps, photographs, and many other materials. These collections have fueled cutting-edge scholarship on urban history, the built environment, social history, and more. A leader in museum education, BHS serves over 10,000 students and teachers a year at its Brooklyn Heights building and at other partner sites around the city.
Over the years, BHS has updated its building to meet 21st-century needs, while remaining true to architect George Post’s innovative vision. In October 1999, BHS undertook a full-scale restoration of its landmark building to create new exhibition space and climate-controlled storage for its valuable collections. In 2014, BHS completed a renovation of the first and lower levels to create an even more welcoming public space. The institution also launched its critically acclaimed new exhibit, Brooklyn Abolitionists: In Pursuit of Freedom, which reveals the unknown stories of Brooklyn activists who fought for freedom and racial justice in the 19th century.