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Architecture is a defining interest in Jeremy Lechtzin’s life. He lives in New York, where towering wonders invite the skyward stare. But he spends as much time looking down and squinting. A brick that’s not like the others. Dates etched in stone. The particulars of a sewer cap. These are the details that interest him.
“I do spend a lot of time walking around looking for these little oddities, trying to figure out, is that an uninteresting oddity or an oddity with a story behind it?” he said.
Mr. Lechtzin reports on an oddity in The Times this week, but it isn’t little. In 1870, nearly every street address in Brooklyn was changed. He tells the story of a fledgling bureaucracy stumbling to keep up with a growing city, and flawed reforms that are still felt by Brooklyn residents today. It’s told with reams of Mr. Lechtzin’s research and months of archival digging.
Mr. Lechtzin, who lives in Brooklyn Heights with his family, is a lawyer who represents start-up companies, but he’s also a historian of the borough’s architecture. A vice president of the Brooklyn Heights Association, an influential neighborhood group in New York, he is on the association’s Landmark Preservation Committee and is writing a book on the urban history of the area.
He landed in the neighborhood in the 1997, as a New York University law student looking for a place quieter than downtown Manhattan. But he didn’t know he had planted his interests in such rich soil: Brooklyn Heights was the first designated historic district in the city.
Several years ago, Mr. Lechtzin encountered Aliza Aufrichtig, a self-described “Brooklyn history nerd,” at a meeting for archive enthusiasts, and they stayed in touch through their mutual interest. Ms. Aufrichtig joined The Times as a digital designer and graphics editor in 2019, and last June, when Mr. Lechtzin pitched a story on the great Brooklyn numbers switch, Ms. Aufrichtig shared it with the Metro desk.
The tall piles of research material Mr. Lechtzin has at home are grist for a good book; a newspaper article with limited space is another thing. But the story of a misguided new street plan, with personality and humor, has relevance in today’s city. Brooklyn still has fractional addresses assigned in 1870, and duplicate street names — Washington Street, but also Washington Avenue — still vex the unfamiliar visitor.
Ms. Aufrichtig designed the online article to look like a 19th-century newspaper, “almost an homage to the current research process Jeremy has undertaken,” she said. Lettering is intentionally askew in places, and to mimic aging newsprint, the background of the article takes on a deeper yellow hue the longer readers view it. Instead of one plunging scroll downward, online readers navigate columns, bottom to top, as in the newspaper.
“Normally that’s something we would never do, something that goes against our cues of design — for most stories it wouldn’t work,” said Meghan Louttit, a deputy editor on the Metro desk. “But every once in a while you have to challenge readers.”
The columns of digital type offered “natural breaks that allowed us to group the images that allowed readers to take in the whole story,” Ms. Louttit said. Jeffrey Furticella, Metro’s photo editor, said he had gone down a “rabbit hole” of historical photography.
“My first question was, what photography even exists from this period?” he said. “Where does that photography exist, if it exists at all?”
With the help of nine historical institutions, including the Center for Brooklyn History, the New York Public Library and the National Archives, Mr. Furticella was able to present to Times readers a transformative era of photography, with work by George Bradford Brainerd and Mathew Brady, pioneers in the field. Present-day photography from Karsten Moran, a frequent contributor to The Times, helps the project “make sense to someone walking down the street,” Mr. Furticella said. Woven in among old maps and clippings are new pictures of weird addresses and relics that mark the missteps of a few incompetent urbanists a century and a half ago.
“People would say, ‘Everyone knows the numbers changed around 1871 or ’72,’” Mr. Lechtzin said. “I said: ‘This is ridiculous. I find that unsatisfying. What do you mean they changed?’ It turns out the story is a lot more complicated than that.”