Located in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, the Brooklyn Army Terminal is an interesting architectural landmark. It comprises two eight-story warehouses, three piers and other buildings, and is also a train storage facility with space for 2,200 cars.
Nowadays, it is used for light industry, but its origins date back to 1918 and the demands of World War I. A visit to Building B’s atrium with its abandoned railroad tracks, which is open to the public, offers a glimpse of architect Cass Gilbert’s innovative design. It is an early example of early 20th-century modernism, and one can clearly see the influence on Brutalism of the 1950s, mainly through Gilbert’s use of concrete.
During WWI, steel was in short demand and concrete was a way to save steel. Gilbert was a celebrity architect famous for his skyscrapers, including New York City’s Woolworth Building, which was the world’s tallest building when it was completed in 1913. He also designed the Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
Gilbert believed architecture should adhere to historical traditions, yet he was clearly an influence on modernists, even if they, like Frank Lloyd Wright, decried his use of ornamentation. Gilbert was even on the design committee for the Chrysler Building. His work on the University of Texas camps in Austin — Sutton Hall and Battle Hall — are highly lauded, and their Spanish-Mediterranean Revival look set the style for the school’s expansion in the 1920s and ’30s.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal was one of six terminals approved by Congress on May 6, 1918. The terminal cost $32 million (approximately $576 million in today’s money) to build but the war was over by the time it was completed by September 1919. At the time, it was the world’s largest concrete building complex.
Congress eventually granted licenses to use the piers the army wasn’t using, and transatlantic liners docked there. In 1926, during the height of Prohibition, the army installed an incinerator to disposed of seized alcohol.
During WWII, the BAT was the largest military supply base, with its own dedicated rail lines, and its own fire and police departments. BAT’s website claims the facility moved 33,565,835.38 metric tons of cargo and 3.2 million soldiers during the war. Following the conflict, BAT received the bodies of several thousand bodies of servicemen.
Following the war, more than 200,000 soldiers arrived or departed through the terminal for military service, including Elvis Presley.
The U.S Army stopped using the facility in 1967. The New York City government bought the terminal in 1981 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Nowadays, the terminal is used for commercial and light industry.
The terminal is worth a visit and is a short ferry ride from Wall Street in downtown Manhattan, which costs $2.75 each way, the same as a subway ride. The Statue of Liberty is clearly visible from the ferry as well as the impressive Manhattan skyline. While in Sunset Park, take a walk to Industry City, a refurbished warehouse area with shops and restaurants.
Walking past Building B atrium’s abandoned rail tracks, one can look up at the staggered balconies with a blue sky clearly visible through the glass ceiling. It is a fascinating glimpse of a piece of history that was once architecturally ahead of its time.