Bensonhurst Architecture: Here Comes The Cornice

A catty corner view of Villabate Alba Pastry Shop at 7001 18th Avenue- you can see how shadows emphasize the building's architectural details

Have you ever noticed the crown molding that runs along the sides and tops of older buildings? It’s called a cornice and it was all the rage around the turn of the last century, when many of the oldest remaining buildings in Bensonhurst were constructed.

While the decorative elements of a cornice can be beautiful, there is a functional side as well. It’s main purpose is to send water away from the building’s facade. A cornice also provides shade from the sun, helps highlight architectural details with its shadows and hides gutters and drainpipes along the ledge of a flat roof.

I was passing by Villabate Alba Pastry Shop and suddenly had more than sfogliatelle on the brain. I stopped to admire the well maintained north side of 18th Avenue between 71st and 72nd Streets.  Villa Bate’s block is made up of beautiful duplicate three story brick and limestone buildings from the first decade of the Twentieth Century.

The north side of 18th Ave between 71st and 72nd streets still looks good after 100+ years

When these structures were built, much of the surrounding area was farmland. Around 10 blocks south, through fields and dirt roads, was the New Utrecht Reformed Church. It was erected 80 years earlier than these buildings, in 1828, and probably didn’t look all that different from the way it does today. About 12 blocks south were the grand homes of Ditmas Park-style development Bensonhurst By the Sea.

After ten years or so, most of those old venerable homes in Bensonhurst By the Sea were razed and the community’s farms were paved over. Simpler, more modern houses were built as affordable housing for Jewish and Italian immigrants escaping the poverty, crime and over-crowded conditions on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

A close-up of the block's tops. The cornices are probably pre-fabricated sheet metal

Through it all, these buildings survived. Not so much as a testament to the past but as evidence of an adaptable style that still works well today. These buildings incorporated solid craftsmanship with what were cutting edge technologies at the time, like mass produced pre-fabricated fixtures and moldings including, you guessed it, cornices.