The PLAV haul was relatively small but with a few excellent objects, most notably a hand painted bar drink menu, which we dated to the 1950s. We sold this piece to our friends at Duke’s Liquor Box in Greenpoint.
We found a moldy bag of large, 48-star flags in the basement; after a thorough laundering the flags flew again proudly.
A file cabinet in the commander’s office held a stack of old dance posters; a few still remain at our shop.
Lastly, an odd handmade jail sign still baffles us today. Please send all best guesses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Disclaimer: No laws were broken; all salvaged pieces were bought or traded for cash and Arizona iced tea.
But what, you might ask, is the PLAV?
The red brick building can’t escape your notice. Set apart by a spread of concrete walk on either side, the stout structure at 535 Leonard Street on a residential street in Greenpoint, between Nassau and Driggs, demands your attention like a proud, stubborn old man.
It’s a little worse for wear. At some point it lost the pediment of its facade, leaving behind a curious pink triangle of an architectural bald spot. It’s also suffered other slights of age and history—bricked-in windows, bent iron fencing, cracked sidewalks—but somehow these flaws haven’t diminished its presence or persistence.
Sold in 2010 for conversion to condominiums that have yet to emerge, the building was originally a 19th-century schoolhouse before becoming the home of the Polish Legion of American Veterans (PLAV), which remained for over half a century.
The building was first erected in 1869 as Public School 43 by local architect S.B. Leonard, who also gave the street its name. He was the first Superintendent of Buildings and Repairs for Brooklyn’s new Board of Education, back when Brooklyn was still a separate city. An architect in a new post in a new educational system, Leonard only managed to design a handful of public schools. All of these, including P.S. 43, were crafted in the Romanesque Revival style, an aesthetic choice that influenced the work of Leonard’s successors and gave Brooklyn some of its most beautiful buildings. It’s also much of the reason the PLAV home makes such a statement on its block.
“One thing the Polish immigrants found in America was a dual national pride.”
Romanesque Revival was born out of the work and writings of a young German architect, Heinrich Hübsch, in the 1830s. Hübsch wrote a controversial treatise against the neoclassical building trend of the previous half century, and he attempted to come up with an ideal aesthetic for the climate and needs of Germany, one in keeping with technological advancements and modern sensibilities. This overtly historicist approach was novel at the time, especially for its honesty in culling from the past. In the midst oflaunching an international architectural debate, Hübsch ended up developing what later became known as Romanesque Revival, or neo-Romanesque, architecture, taking his inspiration from early medieval structures such as the Twelve Churches of Cologne and Speyer Cathedral.
Hallmarks of this style were heavy walls, subtle tiered stonework, and sturdy, round arches; the style is called rundbogenstil if it features prominent window treatments, or “eyebrows,” as it does here on the PLAV building. (The Puck Building on Houston Street, in Manhattan, is another example).
Romanesque Revival proved popular in America in the mid-19th century, and it’s easy to see why. Americans still looked to Europe for aesthetic and intellectual cues, and this style was both on the cutting edge and economically viable, as it could be achieved using brick rather than stone. As it turns out, many buildings created in this style in the U.S. were executed in bright red brick and matching mortar, a notable Victorian trend, as was the PLAV building.
James W. Naughton, who succeeded Leonard as Buildings Superintendent, was responsible for making additions to Leonard’s buildings, creating some of the most treasured landmarked schoolhouses in Brooklyn in the neo- Romanesque style. Two of his most noteworthy schools are P.S. 108 in Cypress Hills and his Boys High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, considered his masterpiece. P.S. 9 in Prospect Heights is a red-brick neo-Romanesque building by Leonard with Naughton additions, and its elaborate, matching Annex across the street, a Naughton gem, took the Romanesque Revival to its ornate heights. If Leonard hadn’t initiated this architectural direction, it’s unlikely Naughton would have taken it up.
P.S. 43, on Leonard Street, was a much simpler design: a deep rectangular building with a square facade and no added wings, holding 18 classrooms (student capacity was about 840). It also didn’t keep its original name for long, and its student body seemed to outgrow it fairly quickly. Within its first decade it was changed from P.S. 43 to P.S. 59, which was an offshoot of the nearby P.S. 34. Not long after, it came to be called “Horace Greeley School,” named for the wellrespected founder and editor of the New York Tribune, which it kept at least through the beginning of the 20th century. For the remainder of its schoolhouse life, it was referred to simply as P.S. 59. An article in 1903 assessing the state of public schools said P.S. 59 was already suffering from dampness at only 25 years old. The school at that time was also renting the basement of the adjacent church, St. Paul’s, to help house all of its students. (This church at 541 Leonard Street, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, was erected, by some accounts, at the same time as P.S. 59, in 1869.)
The article suggested that the school be abandoned and sold, as the moderate costs of adding “modern heating” and “artificial light” still didn’t address all the building’s woes or meet its student needs. One factor affecting Greenpoint before World War I was the large influx of immigrants to the area; it’s been noted that schools were cramped to the point of overcrowding.
While the neighborhood has been known as “Little Poland” to locals for at least the past fifty years, as early as 1919 records estimated that 80% of the population were immigrants, with 50% being Polish/Slav. The first wave of newcomers from Poland began in the 1870s, when the area was known for its lumberyards and shipbuilding. Many were displaced peasants fleeing poor economic conditions, hoping to take advantage of the opportunities for work, while others were political refugees, with homelands that had been occupied by oppressors for decades. And while public schools faced the task of providing cultural and linguistic integration as much as formal education and adequate classroom space, one thing the Polish immigrants found in America was a dual national pride—both in their Polish heritage, and in the new country that permitted them to express and celebrate it. So, from the outset, Polish immigrants established national organizations to preserve and support their cultural identity.
World War I marked a turning point for the Polish population, and it saw the birth of many Polish national organizations as well as veterans’ groups, including the PLAV. Prior to the Armistice ending the war, Poland had been under foreign domination for over a hundred and twenty years; it wasn’t even on the map. Its government had been dissolved and its lands successively annexed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia, whose occupying forces sought to diminish Polish culture and replace it with their own.
With the end of the Great War, Poland had its landsreturned, and a new government was established. This gave Polish Americans an even greater sense of national pride as both Poles by heritage and Americans by choice, especially since America had played an important role in restoring Poland to its people. Polish American veterans, some 20,000 of whom fought in World War I, saw themselves as freedom fighters for their homeland. As veterans, they had a dignity as both deliverers and the delivered.
So it’s no surprise that after the Armistice a fresh crop of veterans’ associations emerged, along with new Polish nationalist groups. A few veterans’ organizations had existed before this time, notably the V.F.W. (Veterans of Foreign Wars). Such groups helped secure funds, benefits, and opportunities for those suffering in their civilian lives after their tours of duty. Often these benefits came about through fundraising or lobbying Congress. But, particularly after World War I, people recognized the need for moral support among former troops. As chronicled in the film The Best Years of Our Lives, many returning from war could no longer adjust with ease to normal civilian life. The War was notorious for inducing “shell shock” and other debilitating psychological conditions. It was also often hard for veterans, many of whom left right after high school, to translate their soldiers’ skills into relevant job experience. Often the people veterans felt most at home with were other veterans.
These problems were especially true for Poles, some of whom stayed on in Europe after the war to help liberate their homeland. But because Poland hadn’t been a legitimate country before the War, in some cases the American government didn’t recognize these ethnic Polish veterans as true American citizens, as their immigration had taken place under the auspices of the occupying governments, now overthrown. Some of those who had the most difficult time were the peasants who arrived in the U.S. after being denied education or literacy while under occupied rule. They weren’t always well-equipped, in terms of language or skills, to advocate for their rights as American citizens or as veterans, and American veterans’ groups couldn’t always meet their needs.
So, in the midst of the blossoming of veterans’ groups after the War, we also note the emergence of a fewspecifically Polish veterans’ associations, as well as the reemergence of some older Polish national organizations. Some of these provided material help, some were more politically attuned to the state of affairs in Europe, and some were primarily concerned with providing a social outlet and boosting morale among veterans of Polish descent. The Polish Falcons, like the Polish National Alliance, were fraternal organizations dedicated to providing insurance policies for their Polish members, and their efforts and membership greatly increased after the War. The Polish Army Veterans of America (PAVA) was formed to support those soldiers who stayed on fighting in Poland after the Armistice, and it used fundraising initiatives to tend to their members’ various needs, including injury, unemployment, and homelessness or displacement.
The American Legion’s Greenpoint post, headquartered at St. Stanislaus Church, took on a particularly Polish flavor, in keeping with the local population. The group was famously launched in 1919 with the express purpose of boosting veterans’ morale, primarily achieved by lobbying Congress for rights and benefits, like compensation or leave time and travel arrangements for those still on duty.
The role of the PLAV, the Polish Legion of American Veterans, which purchased P.S. 59 in 1947, was a fraternal and social organization, not unlike the Lions’ Club or the Polish Falcons. But rather than provide insurance packages or fundraising projects, it fostered camaraderie among Polish veterans while keeping abreast of the political situation back in Poland. As the liberation of their country after a century of oppression restored the locus of Polish identity, it also encouraged an enthusiasm for the development, security, and protection of their fledgling new government and its people. Founded in 1921, the PLAV offered its building for some local events and was represented at the annual Pulaski Day Parade. The PLAV also held various Armistice Balls and local socials. In 1984, it received a Congressional Charter, signed by Ronald Reagan. Many of the activities held at the Leonard Street PLAV aren’t widely documented in English, although the group often collaborated with other veterans’ groups in the area.
While the Polish population of Greenpoint rose after World War II and again after the fall of Communism in 1989, the organization continued with a steady stream of members. It also took a keen interest in events in Poland since its most recent liberation. But by the 21st century the Greenpoint post was losing its footing, and in 2010 it sold its old headquarters to a developer who was careful to preserve the building’s facade and the integrity of its architecture.
Incidentally, St. Paul’s Church at 541 Leonard Street, which once upon a time housed some of P.S. 59’s students, led something of a parallel life with its longtime neighbor, P.S. 59. By 1933, St. Paul’s also housed a veterans’ organization, the V. F. W., although it isn’t clear if its Nulty Memorial Hall comprised the entire church or simply its basement. And, in a coincidental twist of fate, 541 Leonard Street was also sold in recent years and has already been converted into condominiums.
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