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Our History

Brooklyn Historical Society has been a cultural hub for civic dialogue and community outreach since 1863.

Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Browne Post, with a second location at Empire Stores in DUMBO, Brooklyn Historical Society has a long history of thoughtful engagement and community outreach.

A Growing City Preserves its Past

Brooklyn Historical Society 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 third largest city in the country. Civic pride was at an all-time high. Many of Brooklyn’s citizens believed they needed to commemorate their city’s rural past before it quickly faded from memory.

The founders of the LIHS were among the city’s most prominent citizens, whose families could trace their Brooklyn roots back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They established the society as a library committed to preserving the history of America, New York state, and, most important, “the counties, towns, and villages of Long Island.”

Map of the original towns that constituted Brooklyn, ca. 1790, photograph of print, V1973.5.339; Brooklyn Historical Society.

A Growing City Preserves its Past

Brooklyn Historical Society 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 third largest city in the country. Civic pride was at an all-time high. Many of Brooklyn’s citizens believed they needed to commemorate their city’s rural past before it quickly faded from memory.

The founders of the LIHS were among the city’s most prominent citizens, whose families could trace their Brooklyn roots back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They established the society as a library committed to preserving the history of America, New York state, and, most important, “the counties, towns, and villages of Long Island.”

Bird's-eye-view of the borough of Brooklyn showing parks, cemeteries, principal buildings, suburbs.

Bird's-eye-view of the borough of Brooklyn showing parks, cemeteries, principal buildings, suburbs.

Geo. Welch, circa 1897, map, G3804.N4:3B8A3 1897 .W4; Library of Congress.

Brooklyn's Beacon of Intellectual Inquiry

Founders also envisioned the LIHS as a center for dialogue about history. In the nineteenth 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 terra-cotta facade, intricate brickwork, and myriad decorative details. It also features an innovative truss system that supports the ceiling of the central reading room.

Entrance to Long Island Historical Society

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 terra-cotta facade, intricate brickwork, and myriad decorative details. It also features an innovative truss system that supports the ceiling of the central reading room.

Explore the history of our sites and spaces

A Century of Change

By the early twentieth century, Brooklyn had become part of the City of Greater 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, the ground-floor space was subdivided and rented to commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution’s operating expenses. During the mid-twentieth 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.

Ken Stecter, Red Cross Office, ca. 1914, v1973.2.238; Brooklyn Historical Society.

By the early twentieth century, Brooklyn had become part of the City of Greater 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, the ground-floor space was subdivided and rented to commercial tenants to raise funds for the institution’s operating expenses. During the mid-twentieth 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.

[Library visit], 1973, Gelatin silver print, v1974.31.120.2; Brooklyn Historical Society.

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 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.

Over the years, BHS has updated its building to meet twenty-first-century needs, while remaining true to architect George Browne 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.

Next: Explore the history of our building at 128 Pierrepont Street in Brooklyn Heights