Sunset Park Brooklyn Waterfront
Sunset Park is a neighborhood on the western Brooklyn waterfront roughly bounded by Prospect Expressway (17th/16th Streets) on the north, Greenwood Cemetery on the northeast, 8th Avenue on the east and 65th Street on the south.
European presence in the area began when the Dutch arrived in the 1600s, but the area remained largely undeveloped until Irish immigrants began arriving in the early 19th century. Scandanavian immigrants joined the Irish in the second half of the 19th century.
The first major shipping development on the Brooklyn waterfront was the creation of a shipyard in 1781 by John Jackson and William Sheffield further north in Wallabout Bay. The U.S. Navy bought the shipyard in 1801, creating the New York Navy Ship Yard, later known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Commercial development of the waterfront continued slowly until the 1840s when the Atlantic Docks complex opened north of Sunset Park in Red Hook with a 40-acre basin containing 100 dock spaces and 20 acres of four-story warehouses.
Despite all this development to the north, Sunset Park's waterfront industrial development was restricted by the distance from the city's commercial center in Manhattan, lack of railroad freight service, shallow conditions just offshore and the absence of a deep water channel that would permit passage of large ships. This limited investment in the waterfront to small shipyards and manufacturers, such as the small Bush and Denslow Manufacturing Company oil refinery. However, as Manhattan's docks reached full capacity at the end of the 19th century, pressure for expansion of shipping capability from Brooklyn spurred new development in Sunset Park.
The catalyst for development of the Sunset Park waterfront was the creation of the Bush Terminal, which dominates the area between 31st and 51st Streets. It was built by developer Irving Bush (1869-1948), largely in the period between 1902 and 1915. The Bush Terminal was the most extensive of the Brooklyn dock works, composed of deep water piers, large warehouses and manufacturing lofts, all served by a dedicated railroad system, carfloats, float bridges, and a truck fleet. Bush Terminal was the first American example of a completely integrated manufacturing and warehousing facility, served by both rail and water transportation under unified management. It is also a rare surviving example of an isolated urban freight railroad served primarily by water transport of railcars.
Irving Bush was the son of Rufus T. Bush, a partner in the Bush and Denslow Manufacturing Company, which owned a small refinery operating at the foot of 41st street as a subsidiary of Standard Oil. When Rufus Bush died in 1890, Irving Bush inherited two large waterfront lots and an incomplete pier filled with refinery ash.
Bush later stated that his idea for the Bush Terminal grew out of his boyhood fascination with ships and belief that there must be a better way to handle cargo than existed at the time in New York Harbor. Bush left his position at Standard Oil in 1895 to concentrate on his development and by 1900 had enough shipping and warehouse business lined up to begin work in ernest. Bush's idea was novel in that his buildings basically served as apartments for businesses, making clean, well-lit space and robust transportation infratructure available to manufacturers of all sizes in a way that up to that point had been limited to only the largest corporate concerns.
The company was officially incorporated in 1903 and by the time construction was largely complete in 1915, the facility covered 200 acres. The terminal was a catalyst for development in the area and at its peak employed over 30,000 people, many of them recent Italian and Scandinavian immigrants. The Bush Terminal was a model for future development, inspiring the Brooklyn Army Terminal just to the south as well as what would become the Bayonne Naval Base in New Jersey.
The depression in the 1930s cooled activity at the site somewhat and Bush separated the factory lofts to the north (run as the Bush Terminal Buildings Company) from the pier, railroad and warehouse operations, which were run as the Bush Terminal Company with Bush as president until his death in 1948.
Mercifully, the timing of Bush's passing saved him from having to watch the decline of the innovative shipping empire he had worked so hard to build. The advent of containerization in 1956 and the development of more spacious ports in New Jersey to handle those containers lead to a steep decline in shipping through Sunset Park. The area was left dotted with numerous abandoned facilities, although the area remained fairly busy with industrial activity and a small amount of shipping.
More detailed historical information as well as photos of the Bush Terminal in its heyday are available from the Libray of Congress' Historic American Buildings Survey.
Bush Terminal Warehouses
The center of the Bush Terminal was a set of six warehouses constructed between 1895 and 1905 along the waterfront bulkhead between 44th and 50th Streets. The waterfront piers were located on the west side of the warehouses and the Bush Terminal Railyard was located on the east side. Two of the six units have been demolished.
Additional one-story warehouses were built in 1906 on the east side of 1st Avenue, adjacent to the railyard and serviced by railroad sidings. The sidings are now inactive and many of the original buildings have been replaced.
Bush Terminal Railroad
The Bush Terminal Railroad was built to provide service to Bush Terminal tenants and was a key element of the integration of the facility. Sidings into all buildings from rail arteries running down the avenues allowed materials to be be directly transferred to and from rail cars, eliminating the difficulty and expense of transporting products to and from rail depots by truck at a time when rail transport was the primary mode of conveyance for all but the shortest distances. The railroad was linked to the rest of the country either by float bridges at 51st Street or the LIRR Bay Ridge Line at 65th Street. In its early years, the Bush Terminal took responsibility for rail freight transfer on the rail line, with the tenants only responsibility being to get their items to/from the transfer lobby via the freight elevators in all buildings.
The railyard was located just to the east of the terminal warehouses and occupies the six blocks between 44th and 50th streets. At its peak, the railyard could handle 1,000 cars.
The rail system also included smaller team track yards at 29th, 37th, 39th, 48th and 54th Streets. Such yards are so named because in an era before trucks, teamsters with wagons and teams of horses would come to such yards to load and unload railroad cars.
The New York Cross-Harbor Railroad was formed in 1983 to take over the underused facilities of the Brooklyn Terminal Railroad, Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal and the New York Dock. The facilities later came under the perview of the New York New Jersey Rail, providing rail carfloat connection between Greenville Yard in Jersey City, NJ and the Bush Terminal in Brooklyn.
As I was coming down 52nd Street on my first visit to the area in 2008, I saw a locomotive coming down the avenue but was not close enough to get a photo. Supposedly, such service occurs once a day or so and I did get photos of indentation in the mud around the lightly-used tracks.
7/10/2008 01:22 PM
Track entering the Bush Terminal - note the depression in the mud from the train that had just passed
Bush Terminal Piers and Float Bridges
The waterfront behind the Bush Terminal Warehouses was home to nine piers, four of which predated the Bush Terminal. Piers 1-5 were built by Bush between 1903 and 1909 and were 150-feet wide and 1,330-1,351 feet long.
These "finger piers" were optimal for manually-loaded "break bulk" cargo but were made obsolete by containerization, which required large amounts of space for container unloading and storage. With the subsequent diminution of activity on the piers, in 1974 the city contracted with a private contractor to fill the areas between the piers with clean construction-related fill. However, in 1978, work was stopped when the contractor was cited for violations related to the quality of the fill. In 1982 the city learned that liquid waste had also been disposed of at the site, leaving it contaminated and unusable and requiring the area to be fenced off and abandoned. Between 1999 and 2004, studies were done at the site and a cleanup plan was developed. In 2006, the mayor and governor announced a $36 million plan to clean up the site and redevelop it into Bush Terminal Park, with extensive passive and active recreational facilities.
On the southern end of the pier area are two carfloat aprons at the foot of 50th Street on the waterfront. The southern #1 apron is sunk and unused, but the northern #2 was renovated in 2007 and is used to carry rail cars via barge from Greenville Yard in New Jersey.
While riding the Staten Island Ferry on a visit to the city in 2013, I happened upon a car float operation across New York Harbor.
First Avenue, 51st - 58th Streets
Bush Terminal on the north and the Brooklyn Army Terminal on the south is separated by seven blocks of active waterfront.
5200 1st Avenue is an abandoned warehouse on the southwest corner of at 52nd Street. It is perhaps most memorable for the unique script of the 1892 date marker on its imposing eastern wall.
Interestingly, the western half of the warehouse appears to be maintained and used as studios.
7/25/2008 06:11 PM
Department of Sanitation Garage (Brooklyn District 7): 5100 1st Avenue at 52nd Street
Enticingly, 53rd Street west of 1st Avenue is named "Whale Square", which seems to imply some kind of relationship to New York's long defunct whaling industry. However, a NY Times report from March of 2007 indicated that the street was renamed by the Whale Oil Company, a fuel oil distributor that built an office on the waterfront in 1948. The company was later acquired by Standard Oil, although the fuel oil depot seems to still be quite active (and unbranded).
Brooklyn Army Terminal
The Brooklyn Army Supply Base (also known as the Brooklyn Military Ocean Terminal) was built in 1917-1918. It one of seven such facilities created to handle increased overseas shipping demand during the first World War when the limitations of the existing commercial facilities quickly became obvious. Bush Terminal owner Irving T. Bush made initial studies for the base based on both his own experience with his facility and a municipal plan from 1906 that had never been realized. Quartermaster General George W. Goethals had overall responsibility for construction.
The base originaly had one open pier and three piers with two-story sheds along about 1,350 feet of bulkhead, two eight-story warehouses parallel to the bulkhead and each other, a boiler house, an administration building, and assorted other smaller structures. The base covered 97 acres and building space totalled around 5 million square feet. The location provided direct access to the LIRR Bay Ridge rail line to the south and the Bush Terminal to the north, interconnected by the Bush Terminal Railroad. The two massive warehouses (measuring 200' x 980' and 306' x 980' respectively) designed by Cass Gilbert included skylight-covered interior courts that allowed cranes to transfer materials between different floors.
The site selection was driven by a number of factors. Primary was the location near both existing rail lines and ship channels that would not require additional dredging. The location also provided adequate land suitable for the foundations of the large warehouses, a consideration that ruled out the undeveloped marshy areas of New Jersey. Although the requirement for floating rail cars from New Jersey would seem to be a disadvantage, the lack of a belt rail line would have ultimately required an even more extensive amount of car floating between New Jersey terminals.
The base was not completed until after the 11/11/1918 Armistice ended the World War, although the base was used for the post-war return of men and equipment from Europe. Between the wars, some of the terminal was leased to private shipping and warehouse firms, with most of the rail freight being handled by the LIRR. With the coming of World War II, the base cranked up to what would be its peak, handling over three million troops and thirty-eight million tons of supplies. Many of the items handled, like Sherman tanks, were unusually heavy and required installation of special cranes.
The base was used to a more limited extent during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The Army vacated the in 1975 and turned it over to the city in 1981. After decomissioning by the Army, the facility was used by the Navy, the city and private shipping firms.
More detailed historic and architectural information on the Brooklyn Army Terminal is available online in the Library of Congress' Historic American Buildings Survey
Part of open pier 1 and all of warehouse piers 2 and 3 have been demolished. Pier 4 was rebuilt with automobile parking to support commuter ferry service to Manhattan by NY Water Taxi.
65th Street Rail Yard
South of the Brooklyn Army Terminal at the foot of 65th Street is the Bay Ridge Railyard.
The Long Island Railroad's Bay Ridge Line was originally built in 1876 by the New York, Bay Ridge and Jamaica Railroad, which began passenger service with this as the western terminus in August, 1876. Three months later, the railroad was sold to Long Island railroad baron Austin Corbin (1827-1896) and reorganized as the New York and Manhattan Beach Railway Company to provide passenger service to Corbin's new Manhattan Beach Hotel on Coney Island. Corbin eventually acquired the entire Long Island Railroad by 1881.
Corbin died unexpectedly in 1896 and with his expansionist appetite silenced, the quickly-expanding Brooklyn Rapit Transit system and the LIRR signed an agreement in 1899 that allowed the BRT to consolidate Brooklyn's rail lines and the LIRR to focus on service to points east. Expansion of the BRT made the ferry to Manhattan obsolete and service terminated in 1898. The LIRR station closed in 1909 during the Bay Ridge Line's massive grade-crossing elimination project and passenger service on the Bay Ridge Line ended completely in 1924, although this remained a yard for the freight division of the Long Island Railroad. The yard was abandoned during the 1980s and 1990s before being renovated and reopened in 1999 as a storage, switching, and intermodal transfer yard.
In 1997, the LIRR privatized its freight services and formed the New York and Atlantic Railway (NY&A), which uses the 65th Street Yard as a transfer point for trains that ultimately make it to the mainland over the Hell Gate Bridge. Most notably, municipal garbage is transfered to trains which then take it to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio or Virginia.
The yard is also used by rail cars that are floated across the bay by the New York Cross Harbor Railroad, which uses the old Bush Terminal carfloat apron at the foot of 51st Street to the north and brings the cars down First Avenue and through the Brooklyn Army Terminal to the 65th Street Yard. During the 1999 renovation of the rail yard, the NYCH considered moving their operations to the 65th Street yard and the 65th Street floatbridges were rebuilt to handle the larger railcars being used at the time. However, the move never took place and the floatbridges at 65th Street remained unused.
There have been dreams for over a century of a tunnel between Brooklyn and New Jersey, with more specific proposals in recent years for a freight rail tunnel under New York harbor to connect the Greenville Branch in Jersey City to the Bay Ridge line. Rail cargo from the south and west currently must either be offloaded to trucks in New Jersey (further clogging NYC's roads and bridges) or sent further up the river to the closest Hudson River crossing at Selkirk (adding significant time and expense to shipments). The eastern portal of the tunnel would be to the west of the Bay Ridge Yard, probably between 8th and 13th Avenues. Consideration has also been given to a tunnel that would provide a subway connection to Staten Island as well as adapting the entire Bay Ridge Line as part of a new Circumferential Subway Line that would wrap around Brooklyn and Queens and provide direct service over Wards Island into the Bronx.
First to Second Avenues
Looping back to the North, the blocks to the east of the Bush Terminal and the Brooklyn Army Terminal are home to a considerable amount of light industry and commercial activity, housed in a variety of interesting-looking buildings.
5102 Second Avenue (between 51st/52nd Streets) is a sturdy-looking three-story warehouse that caught my eye for some reason. The NYC Department of Buildings website indicates its first certificate of occupancy as a new building was issued in 1924, which would explain its styling. However, the building does not have any exterior indication of who the current tenant(s) are or if there's anything of particular interest about its past.
Commodore Manufacturing distributes Christmas ornaments and has a number of buildings in the area, including a very solid-looking warehouse from built in 1917 at 140 43rd Street.
The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal
The South Brooklyn Marine Terminal is an 88-acre area on the waterfront between between 29th and 39th Streets, north of the Bush Terminal Warehouses. In 2007 the Axis Group signed a 15-year lease with the city Axis to use the SBMT primarily as a port of entry for finished automobiles and a processing facility for vehicles intended for wholesale distribution in the U.S. and abroad. Axis will also maintain general stevedoring services for containers, break bulk and other cargo. Axis plans to aggressively market SBMT for locally-demanded commodities such as niche containers and construction materials. (NY Observer)
The South Brooklyn Railway
The South Brooklyn Railway (SBK) was organized around 1887 as a short extension of the Brooklyn, Bath and West End passenger railroad. In 1892, the company entended its route to connect with a ferry terminal that had opened in 1887 at the foot of 39th street to provided service with the southern tip of Manhattan. The interchange at 2nd Avenue permitted freight cars from the Bush Terminal to be connected to the SBK. The route ran from the terminal across 2nd Avenue, east through the Davidson Pipe Yard and across Third Avenue before connecting with the BMT at 4th Avenue and running underground to the large BMT railyard at 5th Avenue. The SBK ultimately continued east before running south along McDonald Avenue and terminating at the Coney Island yard.
The SBK was taken over by the NYC Board of Transportation in 1940, which ultimately became the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Freight business declined through the 1970s and the final freight run occurred in 1978. The right-of-way east of Fort Hamilton Parkway was abandoned and was largely paved over in the 1980s. The Davidson Pipe Yard became the site of a Costco warehouse store in 1996. However, as of Summer 2008, the SBK line still serves freight duty for the MTA, hauling new subway cars and using the small team track yard west of 2nd Avenue for storage.
7/25/2008 06:49 PM
Track interchange between track to the 5th Avenue Yard and the track down 2nd Avenue
Bush Terminal Factory Lofts
The first factory loft in the Bush Terminals was a 600 x 75-foot brick structure built in 1904 off 37th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Lofts were built in succession nortward up 2nd Avenue through 1918, all occupying the entire 700 x 75-foot blocks, except for #2 and #3 which were shorter due to existing buildings. All are reinforced concrete with designs that maximize window space and provide access to rail sidings in the courtyards between the buildings.
U.S. Navy Fleet Supply Base
At the north end of the Bush Terminal, between 29th/31st Streets and west of 3rd Avenue is the location of the old U.S. Navy Fleet Supply Base.
In 1916, the US Congress passed the Naval Act of 1916, which authorized $500 million dollars for a three-year program to expand the navy and its facilities. Lacking additional necessary space at the Brooklyn Naval Yard for a supply depot, the Navy looked south to the Bush Terminal, which had the advantage of existing rail and water shipping infrastructure.
In 1918, work began on the Fleet Supply Base. The Navy leased three new piers from the City next to two existing Navy storehouses and a Navy airplane storage building. The Navy then purchased the lot between 2nd and 3rd Avenues from the Bush Terminal and built two large eight-story storehouse buildings (aka Federal Buildings #1 and #2), a power house, seven miles of rail lines between the buildings and piers (and connecting to the Bush Terminal Railroad), two float bridges and a parking lot. The complex was was designed by the Bureau of Yards and Docks of the Navy Department with Howard Chapman serving as chief architect, Captain R. C. Hollyday overseeing construction and Henry C. Meyer, Jr. serving as consulting mechanical engineer. The buildings were hastily completed in seven and a half months and this haste, in addition to scarcity of materials in wartime, lead to buildings that were structurally sound but largely devoid of architectural distinctiveness. The buildings were used for the receipt, storage and disburasl of a wide variety of materials and equipment on a large scale
In the demobilization following WW I, the Navy had limited use for the base and gradually divested itself of the facility. In the early 1930s, the two large warehouses were used by the Naval Clothing Depot for the manufacture and distribution of uniforms, notably reaching their peak output during WW II. As the Navy shifted focus to nuclear submarines following WW II, the Fleet Supply Base (along with the Navy Yard further north) lost much of its remaining importance. During the Korean War it became a supply depot for the Coast Guard. In 1960, the property was taken over by the GSA for variety of government offices and facilities. Two-thirds building #1 was eventually demolished with the remainder being converted to a Federal Detention Center in 1991. As of this writing, plans seem to be stalled on the conversion of Storehouse #2 into a mixed-use retail and office space as Sunset Marketplace (reference)
Historic photos of the US Navy Supply Base buildings along with detailed historic info can be viewed online in the Library of Congress' Historic American Buildings Survey
10/15/2008 05:49 PM
Federal Detention Center (left - old Storehouse #2), Storehouse #2 (right) off 2nd Ave
The Gowanus Expressway
The Gowanus Expressway is a southern extension of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway which runs over Third Avenue in Sunset Park and connects the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel approach, Prospect Expressway, the Belt Parkway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
The highway began life in 1939 under the czarship of Robert Moses as the Gowanus Parkway. The parkway was built through Sunset Park on the pillars of the Third Avenue BMT Elevated Line (aka 5th Ave El, opened 1893), a design choice that also facilitated approval of the project since it would simply replace an existing structure. The creation of the parkway had the effect of physically splitting the tightly-knit communities in the neighborhood and contributing to the blight that would soon afflict the area. Construction of the highway and ancillary ramps required condemnation of many homes and businesses on the avenue (over considerable community opposition), which further compounded the civic injury. The parkway was completed in August 27, 1942 with the opening of the Hamilton Avenue Drawbridge over the Gowanus Canal, thus permitting direct travel over Sunset Park from the Belt Parkway on the south end into Red Hook on the north.
As highway traffic and expansion blossomed in the years following WWII, the need for upgrade of the Gowanus Parkway became obvious. In 1950, the NYC Board of Estimate approved a six-lane viaduct over the Gowanus Canal that would connect the Gowanus Parkway with the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Prospect Expressway. In 1955 the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (aka Robert Moses) and the Federal Bureau of Public Roads recommended widening of the Gowanus Parkway into a six lane expressway. The widening began soon after approval and entailed further demolition and condemnation along Third Avenue. To the south, the expressway was extended to the approach to the new Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which involved extensive demolition and displacement in the Bay Ridge neighborhood south of Sunset Park. The expressway was completed in time for the opening of the new Verrazano-Narrows bridge to Staten Island in 1964.
Despite the extensive amount of money spent on the conversion from a parkway to an expressway and the route's official designation as part of the Interstate Highway System, the new Gowanus Expressway was really a pre-modern structure with short on-ramps, no shoulders and an abundance of tight curves. The subsequent decades of harsh traffic and weather conditions made it a prime candidate for replacement, although the considerable difficulty and expense of such a project have (as of this writing) stalled any progress. The vast array of proposed replacement options include a complete reconstruction of the elevated structure, a variety of different tunnel configurations, devolution to an at-grade boulevard or ideas as radical as a complete transposition of the route to a massive multi-span cable-stayed bridge high above the industrial waterfront on First Avenue.
Given the explosion of real estate prices in New York City in the 21st Century (and with the presence of fairly good subway service), the large warehouses in Sunset Park would seem to be prime candidates for residential loft conversions. However, ironically, the blight of the Gowanus Expressway probably depresses real estate values in the area and offers some protection to these buildings in a way that probably has Robert Moses spinning in his grave.
For more detailed information on the history of the Gowanus Expressway as well as proposals for its replacement, see NYCRoads.com.
7/10/2008 02:06 PM
Gowanus rised in the distance past row houses on 60th Street just east of the Brooklyn Army Terminal
The neighborhood is named for a its eponymous park between 41st/44th and 5th/7th Avenues. The first parcel of land for Sunset Park was acquired by the City in 1891 with additional land added until 1905. It was presumably named from its location on a hill facing New York Bay, which gives lovely sunset views of the harbor, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and New Jersey. The initial layout included rustic retaining walls, an artificial pond, a six-hole golf course and a carousel, along with extensive landscaping. The park was extensively redesigned in 1935 with the central feature of the being a an Art Deco pool and recreation center designed by Aymar Embury II and constructed by the depression-era Works Progress Administration.