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Brooklyn College’s History Intersects with FDR’s New Deal

President FDR at the then-newly established Brooklyn College campus. PHOTO/ CUNY Academic Work
President FDR at the then-newly established Brooklyn College campus. PHOTO/ CUNY Academic Works

By Sandy Mui

Published: April 18th, 2018

At the intersection of Bedford Avenue and Campus Road lies Brooklyn College. The campus is divided into two quads, with a streetlight connecting both quads. On any given school day, students can be seen hurriedly making their way from one side of the campus to another.

One of the buildings on the West Quad is Roosevelt Hall. The building—generally known to house music classes—represents Brooklyn College’s rich history, which is embedded right in its name.

“Isn’t it named after Teddy Roosevelt?” Andy Salcedo, a junior majoring in television and radio, asked. “It’s either him, Eleanor, or FDR.”

It was not Teddy, but Salcedo nailed it in one of the other famous Roosevelts: FDR. In fact, the Brooklyn College campus in Flatbush was constructed as a Public Works Administration (PWA) project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The New Deal—widely known as a set of relief programs FDR launched to alleviate the effects of the Great Depression—led to the construction of five buildings on the Brooklyn College campus, including Roosevelt Hall. The other four original buildings were Boylan Hall, Ingersoll Hall, the Brooklyn College Library, and a heating plant.

All of these buildings still exist, though aspects of certain buildings might be different. Boylan Hall was first called the “Academic Building” and was only later named after the president of the college at the time, Dr. William A. Boylan. Ingersoll Hall was named after then-Brooklyn Borough President Raymond Ingersoll. Roosevelt Hall—the final building in the plan—initially served as Brooklyn College’s gymnasium, but the college is planning to transform it into a science complex that expands the college’s research capabilities.

“I am glad to come here today and to wish Brooklyn College the fine and successful future that it deserves,” Roosevelt said on campus, when laying the cornerstone for the gymnasium. “May it live through the generations to come for the building up of a better American citizenship.”

Brooklyn College, originally housed in many buildings in downtown Brooklyn, moved to what was once a 40-acre field in Flatbush. At the time, it was occasionally used as a golf course when the Ringling Brothers Circus was not in town. The journey to Flatbush was not easy, as the owners were asking for $5.5 million. According to Bklyner, Brooklyn College almost ended up in the area surrounding Bay 19th Street and 21st Avenue in Bensonhurst, since it was a more affordable option and was larger (60 acres) than the Flatbush site.

Fortunately, then-New York City Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia personally received President Roosevelt’s approval for the funds, and the project was on its way with a loan-grant of $5.5 million from the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works. Construction of the Flatbush campus began in 1935, and the college employed local workers and educated local residents—the children of first-generation immigrants to the United States.

“This project is killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “It is not only putting to work thousands of people who need work, but it is also is improving educational facilities now and for generations to come.”

During the time of the Great Depression, it was only natural for there to be a rise in radical politics, neighborhood organizing, and labor activism. Brooklyn College was no different. The college quickly established a reputation for student activists who organized for economic and racial equality, including federal aid for low-income students, unemployment insurance, civil rights, and civil liberties. Brooklyn College was often called the “little red schoolhouse” for its “reputation as a center of left-wing sentiment,” according to the college’s historian Murray Horowitz in the Flatbush Neighborhood History Guide.

And, while many aspects of the college are now different than what existed in the 1930s, student activism remains true today. Brooklyn College students recently participated in the National School Walkout to show their support for the victims of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting and to chant for gun control.

Still, this part of Brooklyn College’s history is rather unknown and may not be of interest to some students.       

“I don’t really have a reaction,” Katherine Miranda, a junior majoring in fine arts, said upon learning about the college’s connection to the New Deal. “It is kind of nice to know that a building was constructed for a public university through help from the government during a time when people really needed help.”

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