Exploring the Secrets of the Astral Apartments

A year ago, I heard that plans were in the works to remake Rosemary’s Baby, and my reaction was exactly what you’re thinking now: NO. The film is a masterpiece, and to remake it would be nothing short of cinematic blasphemy.

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In the days that followed, however, I found myself mulling over the central question: what would a Rosemary’s Baby set in the New York of 2014 would be like? For starters, the idea of Guy and Rosemary finding an affordable apartment in a place like the Dakota is simply ludicrous, even by Hollywood standards. But would the Woodhouses, a young, struggling, artistic couple, even care to live in Manhattan in the first place?

The more I thought about where to set the infamous Bramford, the more I kept coming back to one of my all-time favorite apartment buildings: The Astral, in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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Before I continue my remake pitch (which I reiterate is a terrible idea and SHOULD NOT HAPPEN), let’s take a closer look at one of Brooklyn’s finest buildings. Stretching a full city block on Franklin Street (between India and Java), Astral Apartments was built in 1885/86 by industrialist/philanthropist Charles Pratt (namesake to Pratt Institute) and looks pretty much the same nearly 130 years later.

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Pratt Institute Library Collection

Designed in the Queen Anne style, its facade is a fascinating assortment of bays and recesses, brick and terracotta detailing, fire escapes and balconies, and just about every size and shape of window you can imagine.

 

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Something about the Astral has always felt eerie to me. Maybe it’s all those recesses and windows – so many places for someone to be watching you from.

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Or maybe it’s the enormous arched entrances, which seem more like portals than doors.

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The Astral’s 125 apartments apartments are separated into six different sections, each with its own slightly different entrance design.

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Even the name The Astral (“of the stars”) conjures up an air of mystery and the occult:

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In fact, the name comes not from the supernatural, but from Pratt’s nearby oil refinery, known for its Astral Oil, a safer, less flammable lighter fluid (“Will not explode!” is a great brand slogan).  Pratt built the Astral Apartments specifically to house his refinery workers in a safe and healthy environment, a very progressive idea in a time when thousands suffered in the squalor of tenements.

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Pratt Institute Library Collection

In addition to comfortable, well-ventilated apartments, Pratt also provided residents with a library/lecture hall at the India Street corner.

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Here’s the first floor of that library circa 1895…

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Pratt Institute Library Collection

…and today, now a laundromat:

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In researching the Astral, I learned that the library originally included a reading room/lecture hall in the basement, seen below circa 1900.

[Astral Library]
Pratt Institute Library Collection

While the first floor space is long gone, was there any possibility the basement reading room might still exist? Last week, I headed into the bowels of the building with the super…

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Sadly, the library was gutted decades ago to make way for the building’s boiler.

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However, if you look behind the boiler…

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…you’ll find the library’s original fireplace still in place:

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See it there on the right?

[Astral Library]
Pratt Institute Library Collection

The fireplace has some nice detailing…

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…including this bit of advice: “Waste neither time nor money.” Also, note the building’s founding date inscribed below:

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Another neat remnant from the library…

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…I’m told these braces originally held a bookshelf:

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Finally, you can see these two columns in the above picture:

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A little bit of detailing at the top:

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Pratt also provided a kindergarten for residents, seen below circa 1895:

[Astral Kindergarten]
Pratt Institute Library Collection

Today, that space houses the Brooklyn Label cafe:

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The interior space has been heavily renovated, though you can still see one of the original columns on the right:

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For such a large building, many of the most interesting details are actually quite small. One of my favorites is impossible to make out from the street…

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…but if you go up to the roof…

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…you’ll see that the roof posts are capped with a really interesting – and somewhat creepy – terracotta design, alternating between two faces: screaming in horror…

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…and maniacally laughing:

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Of course, these most likely represent the theatrical masks of comedy and tragedy. But what an unusual addition, especially considering that you can’t see them from the ground. Sadly, most have been destroyed by lightning strikes or vandalism.

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Another neat flourish – zig-zaggy rails in the rooftop fence:

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There are several other neat hidden details, like the lion heads at the base of the arches…

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…significantly deteriorated from age:

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Flanking the main entrance…

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…two odd faces wink down at passersby:

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On either side of the Franklin Street facade, a really beautiful emblem…

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And beneath the bay windows…

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…a very pretty plant motif:

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But the real beauty of The Astral is in its inventive use of recesses and bays, like this three-story arched recess:

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I’m not kidding when I say this building has a lot of different window styles and sizes:

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And then there are the simple patterns set set into the brickwork that accent the building:

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An arch detail:

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Circular windows above an entrance:

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I love how the apartments get their own fire escape balcony:

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Inside, things are a bit cramped as one might expect for a building meant for early 20th century refinery workers:

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This is the lobby at the main entrance…

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…while the side entrances open onto the stairs:

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Long, thin corridors lead off of the stairwells to apartments…

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…often with less than a few feet separating doors:

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Many of the original floorboards remain:

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Looking out one of the large arched windows from the stairwell:

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Finally, I headed to the backyard…

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More zig-zags on the gate:

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I love the courtyard of the Astral, which feels like the archetypal New York rear apartment facade. While we’re remaking movies that clearly do not need to be remade, this would be great for Rear Window.

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The courtyard is dotted with all sorts of mysteriously small, sealed doors:

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Last but not least, there’s a great little alley leading back to India Street…

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…with a neat little arch over the stairs:

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So here’s the pitch! Guy Woodhouse, a struggling musician, and his wife Rosemary move to Brooklyn in the hopes of finally making it big with his hipstery band. After moving into a small apartment in the Astral, it doesn’t take long for Guy to realize that his hipstery band sounds extremely similar to the literally hundreds of rival hipstery bands in the neighborhood, and that his chances for success are very minimal. To make matters worse, mom and dad threaten to stop paying the rent, and it looks like Guy might actually have to get a 9-to-5 job.

That’s when Guy hears the strange chanting coming through the walls…and meets his strange neighbors the Castevetts, who have lived in the Astral since long before the Brooklyn renaissance…

Terrible idea? I agree! As I’ve said from the outset, THIS SHOULD NOT HAPPEN. But I’ve always thought of the Astral as Greenpoint’s version of the Dakota – perhaps not as singularly iconic, but full of character nonetheless.

Anyway, I suppose it’s all moot; they just announced the Rosemary’s Baby remake will be set in Paris. Clearly, they know what they’re doing.

-SCOUT

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30 comments

  1. Great post. Thanks for all of the photos. I love this kind of attention to detail.

  2. They did the remake. It’s a TV miniseries starring Zoe Saldana.

  3. I’d guess, but I might be wrong, that the little storage doors might lead onto coal cellars or bin recesses?

  4. Some of those terracotta guys remind me of the campus you covered a while back. Wish you could have gotten in to one of the apartments. Who owns the building now, I wonder…or are they co-ops now? Mr. Pratt was a wonderful employer and landlord!

    • According to Streeteasy, it looks like it’s all rentals. Apparently they had trouble a few years back with bedbugs and ceiling mushrooms (and a weird super, but I’m afraid to click on that link in the article): http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2007/10/02/floods_bedbugs_toxic_mold_more_at_greenpoints_astral.php.

    • Terrific article. Know the building very well. owned by a corporation that does very little repair and maintenance. It is a magnificent gem that needs substantial internal restoration, but would make a great coop or condo conversion.Has deteriorated substantially from the 1930s to the 1970’s, but like the neighborhood is on its way up. When cheap, bland modern buildings are being constructed all over, why not restore an architectural treasure instead?? Would love to be more involved.

  5. You have the most amazing career!!!

  6. It’s Pratt Institute, not University. I lived there for five years. The building exterior is beautiful, the interior not so much. The landlord does the bare minimum with upkeep.

  7. I am not so sure those metal brackets held bookshelves. They appear to have another purpose, you can see one in the picture with the original fireplace that it held some sort of metal grating on the wall covering the wall and windows instead of shelves. Another thing to notice in that picture- the door is covered by a bookcase. Either it’s a later addition or was not meant to be seen or used by residents.

  8. How sad that every damn contractor in NYC murders the balance of building design whenever new front doors are installed ! Sadly always replacing the old original double doors or doors placed center and replacing them with doors off center, throwing the entire balance of a buildings design out of whack with ugly modern glass doors.
    It truly makes me angry that owners/landlords have no eye for aesthetics or that even architectural masterpieces are ruined by cheap contractors installing such replacements with no respect to the architectural heritage of a building or neighborhood or streetscape.

  9. Wonderful article. Thank you for all the detail.

  10. Great job as always! Thanks Scout!

  11. Man, i truly love your site. Always a treat when something new appears. Keep it up please!

    C.

  12. As LP said the remake as a miniseries is shooting, but in Paris 😉

  13. I lived there for a year in the late ’90s. No heat or hot water for six months and roaches would literally pour out of cracks in the floorboards. The super was a useless perv and the landlords (the Pistilli Brothers in Astoria) refused to address any of the issues. It looks nice on the outside but the Astral is a depressing, claustrophobic dump.

  14. Love your blogs and photos! You should have a tour to raise the money you need.

    I love old buildings and houses and would love to do what you’re doing.

    Brenda from Texas

  15. Another thoughtful and thought provoking post, thank you Nick.

  16. Nice article…FYI, the correct architectural style of the building is classic Romanesque, not Queen Anne…the arches, heavy rustication, and acanthus leaf detail are diagnostic and typical of modern Romanesque architecture. A beautiful building nonetheless, and I agree–that movie should never be re-made!

  17. Patrick Adams, one of the leads in USA’s Suits, is evidently in this remake. His instagram (@halfadams, I think) is riddled with behind the scenes photo’s, mostly of props and costumes, but some location hints may be visible.
    Speaking of Suits, for a show set in NYC they really make a very a very poor showing of finding Toronto streets and buildings that look at all like New York, even to this philistine.

  18. the apartments are large (even by brooklyn standards) and cheap – at least as of a few years ago. the super used to use vacant apartments to shoot amateur porn.

  19. Love your stuff. But – always a but, isn’t there? The architecture is Richardsonian Romanesque, not Queen Anne. A very cool style in its own right (Toronto’s 2 main government buildings are in this style), but different.

    Keep posting!

  20. I was born and raised in Greenpoint…….literally born at 1116 Manhattan Avenue corner of Clay Street. My Paternal Grandmother owned 38 Clay Street for many many years and my Aunt took over until her death. The building has now been sold ironically to people I knew as a child.

    THE ASTRAL in the very late 60’s and 70’s had their problems big time with drugs. There are numerous nooks and crannies as you may have noticed on your tour where many a drug deal went down and went bad also. I don’t ever think there was a time when not a week went by without The Astral Apts being in the news for something. If it weren’t for drug overdoses, it was someone raped, breaking and entering, fatal fighting and who knows what else and with a six story walk up building (NO elevator) it was scarry going in there at times. I had a friend named Laura who lived there and yes, the apartments were rather large considering the area. But whenever Laura went out, her Father or Uncle who lived next door to them had to watch her leave the building and she would have to call home so that upon her return they could keep an eye out for her as she entered the building.

    Another unique apartment building in Greenpoint was on Manhattan Avenue and Dupont Street. The entrance is on Dupont Street and I remember all the marble how it shined so bright in the hallways. The hallways in that building were rather spacious which I think should have been smaller allowing the individual apartments to gain more footage as some of the interiors were tight. But who knows what the architects thoughts were at the time. Thanks for allowing me the pleasure of going down “memory lane”.

  21. I am writing a history of the Heidelberger family and think 180 Franklin Street, the Astral Apartments may have been owned by brothers Walter C. and Peter Heidelberger from about 1900 to 1940. I remember visiting there about 1939 with my grandfather, Walter C. and spending the day in their office which was located by the side door on the right of the pictures. If you know how I could confirm their ownership I would appreciate the information. I would love to visit the building again to see what I can remember about this unique building. Sincerely, Lynn MacEwen

  22. Would love to see you document 1201 Shakespeare Ave in the Bronx and some of the surrounding buildings. They are amazing. Thank you for posting all the pictures and information. It’s fascinating.

  23. Mae West lived here.

  24. Great post as always, Nick, you never disappoint! I’ve carried this movie with me for better and for worse, and I always manage to get goosebumps when walking past this. Glad you got to dig a bit deeper!

    Feel free to check out my new blog, where I am mapping music and pop culture landmarks in New York City. I appreciate all feedback!

    Cheers,

    Hannah

  25. This was a great article, thank you! I lived across the street for a while, and was in Brooklyn Label about 2-3 times a week. I am back in Cleveland now.

    The Astral WOULD be perfect for a story like that. It is rent stabilized, with many rent CONTROLLED residents still. It is conceivable that someone might move out of an aparment and the LL not be able to renovate it enough to destabilize the unit, so they leave it alone (i.e. the Sol Goldman apartments or the Gottliebs).

    Loved Greenpoint. If I moved back to NYC, that’s where I’d live. Although, I understand I’d need a heck of a job to afford the rents now. 🙂

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