The Gowanus Canal flows through a section of Brooklyn that is changing from a post-industrial wasteland, consisting largely of former factories, to a residential neighborhood with a Whole Foods Market. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the canal a Superfund site in 2010, and dredging began in 2020 to remove the toxic sludge that had settled at its bottom.
This remediation process might not sound appealing, but Christopher Devine ’05, who was living nearby, developed an affection for the Carroll Street Bridge spanning the canal. The 134-year-old blue bridge with landmark status is “retractile,” meaning its span slides away on rails to allow boats to pass through. There are believed to be only four bridges like it in the United States. “The Carroll Street Bridge earned a very special place in my heart,” Devine says.
Now Devine has transformed the bridge, the canal, and other sites from that part of Brooklyn into a LEGO set. The Brooklyn Studio, an architecture firm that specializes in rehabilitating historic row houses, produced 130 of the sets for clients and collaborators as a holiday gift. The firm is selling a “limited” run of additional sets, with proceeds going to the Historic Districts Council, which advocates for preserving historic New York City places.
Devine wasn’t always as interested in architecture. As a freshman living in Noyes House, he knew nothing about its designer, Eero Saarinen, whose iconic mid-century modern tables and chairs are ubiquitous on Instagram these days. “I thought it was the ugliest building in the world,” Devine recalls thinking. After Vassar, he began studying architecture and design on his own and ended up in marketing and public relations at Danish high-end electronics company Bang & Olufsen.
In 2021, Devine became marketing director at the Brooklyn Studio, where he found there was a shared love of LEGO sets. Devine says the office had sets of the Roman Colosseum, the Titanic, and the Eiffel Tower. So, for this past holiday season, the firm decided to create sets depicting the borough where they are based and do much of their work.
“I saw it as an opportunity to adopt a playful and fun approach … to the discipline of historic preservation,” Devine says.
To turn Gowanus and its surrounding area into a LEGO set, Devine first sketched an idea on graph paper using colored pencils. Then he sent it to Steve Mayes, a United Kingdom–based independent designer of unofficial LEGO models. Mayes used BrickLink, an online LEGO brick marketplace that also has design software, to transform Devine’s vision and source the 25,795 bricks needed for the initial holiday run. After as many as 30 iterations and 18 weeks of work, the sets were ready to be packaged and shipped. For the second run, Devine expects they could need up to 70,000 more bricks.
The final product is 339 pieces and depicts the “architectural evolution” of the area, Devine says. It goes from the Gowanus Canal, the Carroll Street Bridge, and the former National Packing Box Factory, to the brick, brownstone, and limestone row houses of Park Slope, to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Grand Army Plaza, and Prospect Park. All of those date back to the 19th century or early 20th century.
Devine was amazed to see how Mayes, who has visited Brooklyn only once, was able to capture the neighborhood. Mayes knew what pieces to use for the cornices and dormers of the row houses and how to turn three bricks into a tugboat for the canal, for example. “To me, it’s just a raw material,” Mayes says of LEGO bricks. “There are so many pieces and colors available now, you can pretty much build anything you want.” Mayes also went for accuracy; he examined the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation report for the bridge and Google Street View images Devine sent him of row houses.
It might have been a quirky approach, but Christopher Devine ’05 says, “I saw it as an opportunity to adopt a playful and fun approach to the discipline of historic preservation.”
The set’s locations should be familiar to Vassar alums in the area. “It’s designed to trigger or evoke emotion in folks who are looking at it,” Devine says. “People have memories of taking their kids up these streets or of playing in Prospect Park.” New York City tour guide Craig Nelson ’95 says the LEGO treatment is warranted. “Brooklyn, still to this day, if it was not part of the five boroughs, would be one of the biggest cities in the country,” says Nelson, who recently helped lead a walking tour in the borough for the Vassar Club of New York. “It definitely deserves its own LEGO representation set.” The area around the Carroll Street Bridge is “a quirky little place in Brooklyn, but now people research it and learn more about it,” Nelson says.
Devine, who is now starting his own strategic communications agency, says he has found inspiration for a new LEGO set—the Vassar campus. He’s done a rendering of the Thompson Library and attempted one of the architecturally significant building he admits to underappreciating as a student—Noyes. Transforming Saarinen’s building “is going to be nearly impossible, given the LEGO pieces that are available,” he says, but “a more skilled designer could find a way to do it.”—Max Kutner ’11