When you live in NY, you’re taught to keep your head straight. Never look down, never look distracted or you’ll end up getting mugged or something. But sometimes, you have to just look up if you want to see the cool stuff – ghosts of New Yorkers that just stand above our heads day in and day out and we never, ever realize that they’re there.
What the hell are you talking about? is what you’re saying but see, there are still lots of buildings left, hidden on side streets, that have names on them. I don’t mean names like the Elizabeth Apartments and stuff, I mean names of men who were kind of big deals for a short while. And because of this, I always look up, especially while my husband is driving. I don’t do it while I’m driving, what kind of a yutz do you think I am?
Anyway, to get on with this “ghost” I’m babbling about, we were coming home from Greenpoint (where I lived in the 70’s, where I could never afford to live now) and the husband took some side streets cause the BQE was a parking lot as usual. While he was using insane amounts of profanities, none of which I can repeat here, I saw this building at 548-550 Union Street and it said George F. Driscoll. It’s next to The Brooklyn Casket company. Just sayin’ cause I’ve never actually seen a casket factory is all.
Ok, so big deal. Some dude has his name on a building. What? You wanna freakin’ prize or something? No, I don’t, I want coffee but am too lazy to get off my fat ass and make it. So why don’t you read a little and learn a little, ok? Wow.
George F. Driscoll probably built this here building because he was a building contractor. He was born in New York in 1871, most likely the youngest son of Thomas and Eliza. According to the 1870 census, Thomas owned an “Eating Saloon” in NYC. George was only nine years old by the time his mom died, sometime between 1877 & 1880. Eventually he took on the trade of bricklayer and in 1892 can be found living in Brooklyn with his big brother, William the plumber. By 1901 he had gotten married and started his own company which was incorporated in 1911. And so on it went until George passed away in 1941. From what I can tell, the business continued until at least the 1950’s, possibly run by one or all of his sons.
I know this isn’t ridiculously exciting, I mean a building contractor built a building and slapped his name on it. Whatevs. But, his company built some very cool stuff and put tons of folks to work during the depression winning the bids to construct many of the schools we NYC kids went to. The earliest reference I can find is from 1922 when he built the 21 room addition to PS72 in Maspeth which I believe is now Martin Luther HS. In 1926 he started work on PS208 in Brooklyn and PS117 in Queens. In 1928 there was PS12 at 72nd St. in Winfield, now Woodside, Queens and then PS106 in Edgemere/Rockaway.
In 1930 it was a brand new high school in Queens called Grover Cleveland – the one the city almost shut down and which happens to be the one I graduated from over twenty years ago. He later went on to build Andrew Jackson HS also in Queens. Now that I type this, I can swear a teacher once told me that they were built by the same person at the same time and looked exactly the same, inside and out. But this was over two decades ago, and I may just be making stuff up.
In 1931 he got the contract for the enormous postal facility at 29th street and 10th Ave in Manhattan. He also built Abraham Lincoln HS in Brooklyn and several bank buildings in Long Island – although I suspect they meant Queens since parts of that borough were still referred to as Long Island back then. After his death, his company built the “new” Brooklyn Red Cross Center on a plot of land bounded by Washington, Old High, Nassau and Adams streets in 1954.
So there you have it, a blue collar Joe who worked his way up to getting his name on his very own little building but who built some very big, important buildings. I can only hope they don’t tear this one down and replace it with some ugly glass box full of tiny apartments where the rent is too high and there are too many bicycles lined up in front of it. It isn’t the most architecturally fascinating spot in Brooklyn, but if you went to a NYC public school, there’s a good chance that the plans for it were started in that space and that one little thing connects many of us in a neat, little, unexpected way.
So remember, when you walk around this big city, look down on occasion so you don’t step in anything, look around so you don’t get into trouble and don’t forget to look up every once in awhile. You may discover someone interesting looking down at you.