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At 95, The Repurposed Brooklyn Army Terminal Still Impresses

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Four million square feet of indoor space. Thirty-two elevators. Ninety-five years old. Sunset Park's Brooklyn Army Terminal is massive, unusual, and wholly unexpected. Originally built in 1919 to transfer copious quantities of manpower and supplies from land to sea and back again, these days parts of the complex have been converted into office space. But its architecture—with arches everywhere and one awesome atrium, designed by Cass Gilbert of Woolworth Building fame—remains a marvel.

The story of this amazing place was narrated by Andrew Gustafson of Turnstile Tours, who led a tour last month as part of Archtober.

During World War I, the United States realized it didn't have an efficient means of getting troops and material across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. The solution: massive transfer facilities that could take what was needed off of trains and put it onto ships. Irving T. Bush, known today as the father of what's called intermodal transportation, commissioned now legendary architect Cass Gilbert to design the Brooklyn Army Terminal. The team initially eyed the New Jersey waterfront, which had more convenient rail links. (To get to Sunset Park involved going over 150 miles north to Selkirk, N.Y., to cross the Hudson and come back down south to Brooklyn.) But the terminal's builder's couldn't find land that could physically support complex of this size. Well, they could have, but it would have been cost-prohibitive to erect such a giant structure on the swamps.

Turner Construction began work in 1918 and completed the project a mere 17 months later, in September 1919, with the help of 7,000 workers. The war, however, had already ended and the facility didn't get to serve the purposes for which it was created until decades later.

When the U.S. entered World War II, the terminal more than made up for its years of relative inactivity. Some 3.2 million soldiers passed through, along with 37 million tons of supplies. When Elvis Presley shipped off to Germany in 1958, he went through the Brooklyn Army Terminal.

It ceased military operations in 1966 and eventually, after a massive fire, became a postal-sorting facility, serving in that capacity until 1975. The city bought it from the federal government in 1981, and since then it has been gradually redeveloped into an industrial office park. Currently, over 100 businesses with 3,500 employees are located there. It is run by the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which is renovating more of the complex to create more office space.

Today, the most impressive thing is the inside of Building B, which has an open-air, eight-story-tall atrium and railroad tracks that span its length. The balconies are staggered so that the massive crane that once moved among hem could pick up anything from anywhere and put it down... anywhere else. Building A is nearly identical in size, but does not have a central atrium.

If you would like to take a tour of this facility, Turnstile Tours offers them on a regular basis. The next tour is on Saturday, November 29 at 11 a.m. It costs $22 a person.

—Evan Bindelglass is a local freelance journalist, photographer, cinephile, and foodie. You can e-mail him, follow him on Twitter @evabin, or check out his personal blog.
· Brooklyn Army Terminal [official]
· Cavernous Depot in Sunset Park is Brooklyn's Army Legacy [Curbed]
· All Archtober coverage [Curbed]
· All Brooklyn Army Terminal coverage [Curbed]