The Military Garden

Full-Screen-enlargeOld Military Garden buildings, well past their prime in the 1860s

In the late 1870s and 1880s Brooklyn readers evidently couldn’t get enough of old Brooklyn reminiscences from old Brooklyn residents, for the local papers were full of them. The heady nostalgia was undoubtedly precipitated by the milestone building of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the loss of a good swath of the old neighborhood due to its construction; the old city was virtually unrecognizable by this time, and the old Brooklynites were dying off. When it came to thoughts of merry-making and entertainment in the city’s formative years, no place was mentioned more often or with greater reverie than the Military Garden.

The concept of a garden as a venue for events and entertainment came to full flower in the nineteenth century, and virtually every American city had multiple variations (today’s Madison Square Garden is a holdover name from this era). Gardens did indeed have gardens, at least initially, until the economic advantages of year-round attractions would compel enclosures. The venues would, for a time, retain their garden-like atmosphere with indoor trees and prodigious plantings, but eventually the conceit was abandoned altogether in favor of more practical appointments. Lost in this evolution were certain gracious charms, like those of a lighted, verdant promenade for courting couples.

Situated in the center of the lot now occupied by the Brooklyn Law School and Municipal Building behind Borough Hall, the Military Garden was about two acres of landscaped promenade fronted by a row of compact wood-frame structures comprising a hotel, bar, restaurant, and small theater. The expansive gardens were laid out with shrubbery interspersed with flowers and variegated lamps, punctuated by numerous arbors and private boxes, and bordered with gleaming white statues of celebrated figures like Washington, Napoleon, and Wellington.

Niblo’s Garden, abt. 1831

In its heyday, from the early 1820s until about 1850, the Military Garden was considered one of the two most preeminent venues in region. The other was New York’s famous Niblo’s Garden, on the northeast corner of Prince and Broadway, where the phrase and concept of the Broadway show would eventually be born. Brooklyn’s Military Garden property was originally a lager beer saloon next to a summer house in what was, in 1805, “the country.” It was purchased and brought to full prominence by an eccentric and beloved Frenchman and his wife, Louis and Madame DuFlon. Over the course of their proprietorship, the DuFlons created an enchanting resort for everything from political rallies and fireworks displays to fancy-dress balls and hot-air ballooning. They hosted many a visiting dignitary, including the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824, and President Andrew Jackson in 1833.

There was even some international intrigue associated with the establishment when in 1828 a Dutch thief, who had allegedly made off with some royal jewels, fled to America and was put up in the Military Garden hotel by local acquaintances. When pursuit by the authorities followed, the thief was reportedly stowed for a time in a chamber under the main stairway. Eventually it was decided that a flight to South America was in order, and his cohorts arranged for passage. Under cover of night they conveyed him to the ship, but which turned out to have no intention whatever of sailing south. It was a Dutch Sloop of War, which proceeded with dispatch to its homeland where the criminal was tried and hanged.

The DuFlons retired in the early 1840s, and for a time the resort, renamed the Brooklyn Garden, continued to flourish under leased management. But by the mid-1850s the area around City Hall had already begun its transition to the functions of large-city government and finance, and the neighboring establishments had become decidedly honky-tonk. The days of an evening promenade and a novelty ice cream under a blossoming arbor had come to a close.

We will devote this paper of our series to some incidents connected with the locality of our new County Court House and Supervisors’ Building, opposite the City Hall, on the site occupied and known during the earlier sixty years of this century as the Military Gardens.

We ought to premise that the region surrounding our City Hall, and this new building being put up for the courts of the county, supervisors, etc., is not only of deep interest to the inhabitants of Brooklyn, from its political connexions, but from hundreds of old local historical associations.

The line of Fulton Street up to this point, and so on to the junction of Fulton and Flatbush avenues is the original road, pretty much the same now as it has been from the settlement of Brooklyn over two hundred years ago.

The neighborhood of our City Hall was, even in old times, a sort of central spot, where the people of Brooklyn, and the county, met to transact business, or, on the Sabbath, for religious worship.

Walt Whitman
Excerpt from Brooklyniana XVIII
The Brooklyn Standard (1861)

Photograph courtesy the Brian Merlis Collection.

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Image Details:

Brian Merlis Collection




Ca. 1865


City Hall Square