Recently, my husband and I toured the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which is a huge industrial complex situated in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Our tour was offered through the New York Adventure Club, which arranges visits to all kinds of fun, interesting, and off-the-beaten-path destinations in NYC and the metro area. If you’re not familiar with them, check ‘em out! And if you get a chance to do a tour of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, you should check that out, too, because it is a really fascinating place to visit.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal was built in 1919 by Irving T. Bush, who had previously built another industrial complex in Brooklyn known as Bush Terminal. Due to his experience with intermodal shipping (e.g. rail to ship, ship to rail, etc.), Bush was appointed as head of the War Shipping Board during World War I and was tasked with the shipping of troops and supplies to Europe. As such, he suggested building a complex that would be similar to Bush Terminal but that could be utilized just by the Army. And so, the Brooklyn Army Terminal came to be!
The Brooklyn Army Terminal (BAT) was designed by Cass Gilbert, who is better known for his more ornate designs of the Woolworth Building and the U.S. Customs House. But BAT needed to be built quickly and needed to be functional, so the design is definitely NOT in line with what you’d expect from the designer of the Woolworth Building. In fact, it was built entirely of concrete and the most interesting (and unintended) design features that I witnessed on the tour came from the imprints left behind by the wooden forms the concrete was poured into. (The ceilings actually looked like they were made of wooden planks that had simply been painted over, but nope! The wood look was just an imprint left behind by the wooden forms.)
Construction of the BAT began in 1918, and the terminal reached its full height within 4 months. The BAT was completely finished in 1919 (within 16 months altogether!), and it likely could have been completed even quicker if not for the fact that the war ended, which meant there was no longer a sense urgency for the terminal to be finished. Once complete, the BAT was the largest concrete building in existence and its five buildings encompassed a massive 4 million square feet. To give you some context, the new World Trade Center building is 3.5 million square feet, so imagine a building that size but laying on its side. That’s the Brooklyn Army Terminal (plus a little extra!)
Since the BAT was completed about 10 months after WWI ended, it didn’t get to serve its original purpose at the time. However, it was retained and utilized by the Army through the 20s and 30s until it became essential again during WWII where it served as the nerve center for deploying troops and supplies to Europe. At the peak of the war, the BAT employed more than 25,000 employees and was the headquarters of the NY Port of Embarkation. The Terminal consisted of warehouses, administrative offices, shipping piers, and lots and lots of railroad tracks. There were about 17 miles of tracks during its heyday, and all the roads and parking lots at the terminal now were mostly railroad tracks at one point. And though most of the tracks are long gone now, there is still an active track today that runs through the BAT and travels all the way up to 29th St.
In 1966, the Brooklyn Army Terminal was decommissioned by the U.S. Army and it was later sold to the city of New York in 1981. It’s since been redeveloped as an industrial park and is now managed by NYC’s Economic Development Corporation. Today, it is home to about 100 companies and their warehouses, manufacturing and distribution centers, artist studios and more. There are only about 4,000 employees on site nowadays, which is a far cry from the 25,000 during the war, but the BAT is still one of the largest industrial centers in NYC.
During our tour, we visited a couple different buildings and discovered that most of the BAT has actually been renovated over the years (so don’t think you’re going to be touring a big abandoned complex). However, you will still get to see some of the unrenovated sections, which make for excellent photos! Our tour began outside near the waterfront where we learned about how trains would be loaded onto barges and sent from New Jersey to Brooklyn via transfer bridges and we saw both an old (and sinking) transfer bridge as well as the more modern transfer bridge that is still in use today.
After, we visited one of the skybridges that connects two of the complex’s buildings, and you can see layer upon layer of chipping paint on the walls (and will note that the bridge also has a bit of a slant to it!) There are several skybridges at BAT because back in the day, you needed a way to safely travel from one building to the next without having to cross over any of those 17 miles of railroad tracks. We crossed over to where the old administrative building was located and were able to see the locations of some of the current tenants, most of which are food manufacturers such as Jacques Torres, City Saucery, the Konery, and more.
Next, we headed over to see the atrium in Building B, which for me was the coolest part of the tour for sure. Inside, you will see some of the old train tracks as well as two endless walls with staggered balconies. The reason they were staggered was to allow a gantry crane from overhead to pick up cargo and drop it onto the various balconies, which were all at different levels within the building. By staggering the placement, you always had easy access to each balcony. Cargo would then be moved within the buildings via the skybridges (and the 96 elevators that were in use at that time!) until it would eventually be sent out to the piers to be put onto ships. The atrium is massive, but you don’t really appreciate the size until you begin to walk from one end to the next and realize just how long it actually is!
And so where does Elvis come into all of this? Well, troops would arrive at the BAT via train, often in the middle of the night and also often not knowing where they were or where they were going next. When Elvis was a soldier back in 1958, he boarded a train in Ft. Hood, TX, which brought him all the way to the BAT, where he boarded a ship to Germany from Pier 4 (which is basically where you catch the NYC Ferry today!) Soldiers would walk straight from their trains to the ships, so Elvis technically didn’t go into the atrium or “leave” any of the BAT buildings at all. The atrium would have been used more for moving cargo whereas soldiers pretty much just hopped from train to ship right out by the piers.
After visiting the atrium, we made our last stop on the tour in Building A, which is being utilized primarily for something called BioBAT. This is a partnership between the city and SUNY Downstate to encourage biomedical companies and researchers to stay in NYC and conduct their research here rather than leaving the city or state. The anchor tenant is an organization called IAVI – the International Aids Vaccine Initiative – who has been with BioBAT since 2008. The building has 60,000 square feet of space available for biotech and biomedical research, and we were able to tour some of the unrenovated space on one of the upper floors. And after, we got to wander through the tunnels in the basement, which apparently were used in the 1920s to store confiscated alcohol during Prohibition until the bottles were either smashed or, sadly, dumped into the harbor. 😥
Once we finished meandering through the basement, we came back up to ground level and wrapped up the tour. Mike and I then wandered down to the waterfront to check out Swale, the so-called “floating food forest”. You can find Swale popping up in various locations around NYC, and with a donation, you can go onboard and do a little foraging (which you apparently can’t otherwise do on city property). They’re only at the BAT waterfront until August 26th, though, so go check them out while you can!
Overall, we had a fantastic time visiting the Brooklyn Army Terminal. The tour was two hours long and offered a great sense of both the Terminal’s past and present uses, and I was particularly blown away to learn about the role this massive complex played during WWII and the number of people and cargo that passed through here. You can easily access the Terminal now via the Sunset Park – Brooklyn Army Terminal stop on the NYC Ferry, and if you get a chance to visit soon, I promise you won’t be disappointed!