The Brooklyn Army Terminal, also referred to as the ‘US Army Military Ocean Terminal’ or the ‘Brooklyn Army Base’ is an inter-modal rail and marine terminal originally conceived as an efficient means of getting troops and material across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe during World War I. Construction began in 1918 (this year is the 100-year anniversary!) and was completed 17 months later, in September 1919, exactly 10 months after the war had ended. The Terminal’s design was easily adapted to a variety of uses in peace time and during prohibition, it warehoused confiscated liquor from the city’s speakeasies.
At the time of completion it was the largest concrete building in the world, and was said to contain “as much building material as the Great Pyramid of Cheops, and longer than the Woolworth Building is tall.” I bring up the Woolworth Building because the buildings were designed by Cass Gilbert, best known for his Beaux Arts and Gothic buildings, including the US Custom House, the Broadway Chambers Building, and of course, the Woolworth Building. Though the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s modern, utilitarian style was markedly different from Gilbert’s best-known works, the design was highly innovative for its time: the complex was constructed without girders, using steel-reinforced concrete slabs and included 96 centrally controlled elevators, the largest elevator installation at that time. Irving T. Bush, known today as the father of what’s called inter-modal transportation, commissioned Gilbert to design the Brooklyn Army Terminal and his name now adorns the nearby Bush Terminal Park.
The Brooklyn Army Terminal complex is made up of two nearly-identical buildings, with the primary difference being Building B’s central atrium. Freight trains could drive directly into the atrium and unload cargo. Two overhead electric cranes could move the width and length of the space and load cargo onto the atrium’s offset balconies, which facilitating movement of goods into each level and sector of the building. Once deposited into the warehouse, cargo could be moved through the buildings by means of a network of connecting skybridges, and eventually moved down onto three enormous waterfront piers and loaded onto ships.
When the U.S. entered World War II, the terminal more than made up for its years of relative inactivity. More than 20,000 military and civilian personnel were employed there in the headquarters of the New York Port of Embarkation, a network of more than a dozen facilities that moved 3.2 million troops and 37 million tons of military supplies to fronts across the globe. Arguably the most famous soldier to deploy from the Army Terminal was Elvis Presley. He greeted fans and a dozens of photojournalists in September of 1958 when he shipped off from Brooklyn to Germany.
The facility was decommissioned by the military in 1966 and the US Postal Service moved operations into the ground floor following a fire in a prominent Manhattan branch. In the 60s and 70s, the facility fell into a period of decay. Ownership transferred to the city of New York in 1981, and the monumental task of restoring the structure for modern industrial use began in earnest when the NYC Economic Development Corporation stepped in to manage the building. Today, over three million square feet have been renovated for use by a diverse mix of tenants, including the NYPD’s intelligence division, chocolatier Jacques Torres, New York City Bioscience initiative center and the Museum of Natural History.
While you’re there for one of our shows, check out Swale, a floating forest and 5,000-square-foot edible garden built on a barge. Created by artist Mary Mattingly, the public artwork travels to piers around New York City offering educational programming while inviting visitors to collect free herbs, fruits and vegetables. The goal of the project is to strengthen stewardship of public waterways and land while working to promote edible perennial landscapes. Swale will be at the Brooklyn Army Terminal from May 5 through July 1.
We’ll be at Brooklyn Army Terminal throughout the summer for free screenings! The first is a special community screening of En el Séptimo Día on Saturday, June 23rd