Before Trader Joe’s—The South Brooklyn Savings Institution

By Eileen Minnefor

Have you ever shopped at the Trader Joe’s at the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue? Have you ever wondered what that building was originally intended to house? Many people are familiar with the tablet mounted on the building commemorating the site’s role in the Revolutionary War. Not as many know that the building itself had a long history as an important banking institution in the neighborhood.

Unveiled in August 1926, two years after the building had opened, the text on the tablet reads: “Near this place during the Revolutionary War stood the Ponkiesberg Fortification, from which Gen. George Washington is said to have observed the fighting at Gowanus during the battle of Long Island, August 27, 1776.”

The original occupant of the building was The South Brooklyn Savings Institution. The second oldest savings bank not only in Brooklyn but on Long Island, The South Brooklyn Savings Institution was founded in 1850 to serve the needs of the growing borough. The bank first occupied the Brooklyn Athenaeum building at the northeast corner of Clinton Street and Atlantic Avenue. According to the bank’s historian, the bank “showed such encouraging progress,” five years later it purchased a building at the southeast corner of Clinton Street and Atlantic Avenue. The bank continued to prosper to such a degree “that it seemed advisable to erect a new bank building,” which opened in 1871 and “became a landmark in what was then the leading retail section of Brooklyn.” Ultimately, however, even that building became “inadequate for the demands made upon it,” and in 1919, the bank purchased the site for a new building just one block away, at the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. (The building at 185-191 Clinton Street at the southeast corner of Atlantic Avenue was remodeled and modernized by the bank and reopened in 1939 with 20 apartment suites above the ground floor.)

Brooklyn Eagle Photographs—Brooklyn Public Library—Brooklyn Collection

The new building was opened at the corner of Court Street and Atlantic Avenue on September 24, 1924. At that time, the bank issued a pamphlet summarizing its history, which stated: “For almost seventy-five years The South Brooklyn Savings Institution has been closely identified with the progress of the neighborhood where it was first located. The bank has grown in size and importance with the growth and development of South Brooklyn as a residential and commercial center.”

The building was designed by architects McKenzie, Voorhees & Gmelin, the same firm that designed the Brooklyn Municipal Building on Joralemon Street and that would become known for innovative Art Deco skyscrapers in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The bank’s building exterior was limestone, and the banking room initially occupied the entire main floor. Officers of the bank worked on a platform at the rear of the bank, “communicating to a small Conference room and to the Board room, which [was] conveniently located in the extension.”

At the time of the new building’s opening, the bank ran ads in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, stating: “We feel proud of the new building, typifying as it does the dignity and permanence of this 74 year-old institution.” In 1930, the bank changed its name to South Brooklyn Savings Bank and in 1975 to Independence Savings Bank. The bank then sold itself to Sovereign Bank in 2006. Trader Joe’s opened its store in the building in September 2008.

This is the first in a series of brief glimpses into the history of selected buildings in Cobble Hill.



Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 23, 1924.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 28, 1926.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 19, 1939.

Brooklyn Paper, September 27, 2008.

Mead, D. Irving, Historical Sketch of The South Brooklyn Savings Institution (1924).

Morrone, Frances, An Architectural Guidebook to Brooklyn (2001).

Historical Note—Guide to South Brooklyn Savings Bank records, Brooklyn Historical Society.