The first time I got up to the abandoned observation deck of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower was in 2005 when it was still all offices. The 26th floor with the deck was occupied, but luckily the 27th floor above was empty. Once we were up there, we noticed that the deck was actually two different decks - one terrace extended out from the South side of the building, and one from the North side. We went out a window and down a ladder onto the North deck. I was expecting some great views, and perhaps for security to come and escort us out. What I wasn't expecting was a history lesson on the Revolutionary War.
What we were on used to be a public observation deck, and for what I can only assume was the Bicentennial in 1976 16 signs were installed - 8 on each deck. Each sign describes some historical happening of the American Revolution, and points out the area where the event took place on the landscape of Brooklyn some 400-odd feet below. In 1977 the building was landmarked with the signs still up. A short time afterward the deck was abandoned. Since you can see the backs of the signs from the street, they're now considered part of the landmarked facade and can't be removed. So they stick around an abandoned observation deck, a lost little part of an older New York City, waiting to impart their lessons as a reward to the lonely few whose curiosity leads them to venture there. Look up the next time you're in the neighborhood - they're the tiny white rectangles on the gates of the uppermost terraces.
I've since returned many times with many people, and have gotten a full photographic collection of the signs. Each of the signs on the South deck (I'll cover the North deck in part 2) describes a specific action by either the British or Continental army during the early days of the Battle of Brooklyn - together, they illustrate a fairly standard pincer movement by the British. The amazing thing is that as you're reading the descriptions of the battle, you can see the entire terrain - from Staten Island, to Flatbush, to the Gowanus Canal - where it played out 233 years ago.
Below is a photo of the South observation deck from above - each number corresponds to the location of the related sign. To the left is Eastern Atlantic Avenue and Bed-Stuy. To the right is Western Atlantic Avenue, and the Gowanus area. Straight ahead is Flatbush Avenue, Prospect Park, and Southern Brooklyn.
The location of the numbers on the map correspond to the relevant sign. Black is for the British Army, Red is for the Continental Army, and the arrows describe the troop movements. The person is where the Observation Deck is located. For those of you not familiar with Google maps, you can scroll around to view the entire area.
View Williamsburgh Savings Bank Signs - South Deck in a larger map
Photos of the signs themselves are below, along with the text. You can click on the photos for a larger picture.
1. BRITISH FORCES ASSEMBLE ON STATEN ISLAND.
"In July, 1776 a fleet of British vessels landed troops on Staten Island. They were unopposed.By the middle of August a total of 32,000 British and Hessian troops - supported by more than 350 ships in the Harbor - had gathered on the island. It was the greatest assemblage of military and naval armament launched by England up to that time."
2. BRITISH LAND AT GRAVESEND.
"On August 22nd, 1776, 15,000 British and Hessians under the command of General William Howe landed unopposed on the beaches of Gravesend Bay. Another 5,000, mainly Hessians under General Von Heister landed on the 25th. As one observer said, 'the Disembaration...exhibited one of the finest & most picturesque Scenes that the imagination can fancy or the Eye behold.'"
3. BRITISH MOVE TO FLATBUSH.
"Soon after landing, a unit of 5,000 British and Hessians under Cornwallis moved to Flatbush to probe the American outer line of defense. The outer line consisted of a terminal moraine, or hill, running diagonally across Brooklyn. Through this hill ran four roads or lanes at low points called passes. American troops were deployed at or near these passes. The Flatbush pass, one mile north of the village church, was at the center of the American outer line."
4. MAIN COLUMN OF BRITISH FLANKS THROUGH FLATLANDS.
"By the evening of August 26 General Howe had moved 10,000 men - or one-half his total force - to Flatlands. From there, while the American troops were diverted by probes of his other units at Flatbush and in the Gowanus, he would launch a flanking attack around the unguarded east end of the American outer line."
5. HOWE'S TROOPS MAKE SECRET NIGHT MOVE THROUGH UNGUARDED PASS.
"On the night of August 26th, the main column of the British Army moved off cross-country from Flatlands leaving their campfires burning. Early in the morning, they captured a small American patrol but, still suspicious that there might be more Americans in the pass, they forced a local innkeeper, William Howard, to show then an alternate way through the hills above the pass."
6. AMERICANS DISCOVER BRITISH ENCIRCLEMENT TOO LATE.
"About 8:00 AM on the morning of August 27th an American scouting party under Colonial Miles came upon the rear end of the British flanking column moving west along the Jamaica Road. The Americans had been outflanked and would soon be in the gravest peril as the other two British units pressed forward to close the pincers."
7. GRANT PUSHES AGAINST AMERICANS IN THE GOWANUS.
"While Howe and Clinton were executing the flanking movement in the east, British General James Grant, with 5,000 troops was moving against the west end of the American line in Gowanus. About 3:00 AM in the morning of the 27th he was discovered on the slopes of the hill near present day 20th street. This was said to be the first formal field confrontation of the Americans with another army."
8. THE FIGHTING AT GOWANUS.
"About 9:00 AM on August 27th General Grant recived news of the success of Howe's flanking movement and began to strike hard against Stirling's men. Stirling, realizing the imminent convergence of the two enemy units from Flatbush and the east, sent most of his force of 1800 to safety across the Gowanus canal. Keeping some 250 Marylanders, he made a desperate stand near the Vachte Cortelyou house until two o'clock in the afternoon, when he and most of his men were captured."
All photos on this page were taken by Mike Epstein - he's a lot more great shots of the building and view here and here.
Part 2 is here