The Secret of Building B: Scouting Brooklyn’s Incredible Atrium Train Station

Standing outside the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s “Building B,” you might assume it to be just another of the many warehouses scattered throughout the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.

But Building B has a secret…

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Built in 1918 as a military depot and supply base, the Brooklyn Army Terminal complex is in pristine condition, with a ton of unique locations. But for some reason, in all my scouting trips there, I’d never been inside Building B.

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Then, a few months ago, I was working on a job with a scout who showed me pictures of the interior…and I quickly made an appointment to take a tour.

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Because Building B isn’t just another warehouse…

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It’s one of the most amazing buildings in all of Brooklyn:

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This is Brooklyn’s skylight atrium train station. Measuring 980 ft x 360 ft, with 52 acres of floor space, it was the largest individual building in the world when it was completed in 1919. You can see the two tracks on either side – and yes, that’s a train on the right.

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More incredibly, very little has changed since its heyday. Below, a picture from November 1947, as seen in Life:

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Photography by Michael Rougier

The glass is now gone from the skylight, but the framing remains, creating a fascinating open-air courtyard:

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The Brooklyn Army Terminal was designed by Cass Gilbert in 1918. Unlike his work on such properties as the Woolworth Building and the US Supreme Court, the BAT has a utilitarian design, for which it has been highly praised. The five million square-foot complex was finished in just 17 months.

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The Brooklyn Army Terminal was active from 1918 through 1981, and at its peak during World War II, employed more than 56,000 workers.

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Over 3 million troops passed through its gates over the years, including one Elvis Aron Presley. Arriving at the BAT on September 22, 1958, Presley signed autographs for fans and held a press conference, in which he assured the NY Times that, should rock’n’roll die out during his absence, he planned to take up acting. He then boarded a boat for Germany.

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Photograph by Alfred Wertheimer

Though the rail aspect of the facility is no longer in use, the tracks remain. I love the moss, a nice living complement to an otherwise industrial building:

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On the adjacent tracks are a pair of old train cars, a great addition which really take you back to another era.

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According to one website, these are LIRR P72’s, said to have coincidentally once been used in an Elvis movie.

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One of the most fascinating design elements of Building B are the many loading docks extending from its eight stories, arranged in diagonal intervals:

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During its lifespan, over 37 million tons of military supplies passed through the Brooklyn Army Terminal, much of which was unloaded here:

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This photograph, taken in 1948 for Life Magazine, captures the unloading the process during World War II. A crane suspended at the ceiling, which could travel the length of the building, would raise and lower freight to the various loading docks:

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The crane remains in place today…

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…though its days of hauling cargo are finally over.

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A peek at one of the unloading docks:

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The ground floor is lined with traditional loading docks…

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…and I noticed some wall lettering, apparently dividing them up by region:

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Below, Portugal and the Azores:

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Africa, and “odd countries” that did not fit classification:

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In 1981, the city purchased the Brooklyn Army Terminal and has since transformed it into a flourishing office and light manufacturing center. It has also been featured in dozens of movies, TV shows, and print ads. The site is very film friendly, and is without question one of the most unique spaces in New York City.

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I don’t think pictures can really convey the sheer size of Building B; this thing is a cathedral, and it’s nice to see it still bustling with activity nearly 100 years after it was built.

-SCOUT

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27 comments

  1. Super amazing. Just when you think NY can’t get any more beautiful.

  2. I worked BAT in 67 Passport Division All army personnel being deployed
    passports were picked up there. Living quarters were also there for high ranking and
    And all other military personnel. There was a
    Beautiful NCO club etc great memories for me first
    Job after graduating high school!

  3. Wow. Beautiful. Do you have any examples of its use in film/tv?

  4. In the early 90s I worked in this building in a jewelry factory. I LOVED the weirdness of the atrium and have been telling people about it ever since.

  5. Unless there are duplicates of the BAT elsewhere, this was used for one of the early fight scenes in “Real Steel”.

    http://collider.com/wp-content/uploads/Real-Steel-movie-image.jpg

  6. Thos LIRR cars were in use up to 1987 on the railroad. Beautiful work.

  7. Fascinating! Thanks for revealing such an interesting part of NYC’s history.
    As much as I would hate for this to happen, but, do they have any future plans for renovating the building for any commercial/industrial use? Or any redevelopment plans for the area that you know of?

  8. Interesting to see that in Real Steel, although I expect they just re-built it in a computer using the real location as a model.

  9. This building would be so great as a mixed use development. Commerical on the bottom and residences on the upper floors. I’m sure someone has plans to tear it down and build a glass and steel monument to avarice.

  10. This would make an awesome condo conversion!

  11. are there public tours?

  12. design apparently almost directly lifted from Henry Ford’s/Albert Kahn’s Model T Plant in Highland Park, MI, c.1915

  13. Cass Gilbert also designed a nearly identical reinforced concrete building in Manhattan on 10th Ave. btw 25 & 26. It is being converted into a private school. His Austin Nichols Warehouse on the North Williamsburg waterfront has been converted to residential. A brilliant and versatile architect.

  14. This tip very helpful for me. My rank over 21mis

  15. I went with my grandmother to her dialysis appointment (located in this building) & I slipped away for a few minutes to take a few shots of the atrium…it’s amazing :)

  16. Scout, cannot believe what you keep finding and coming up with. This was simply amazing – could almost hear the voices and sounds of the past. So interesting what a few commentors said too, particularly Denise and Anne. thanks Nick, just fabulous!

  17. My brother used to work at BAT in the early 90s, but I never gave Building B a thought on those few occasions when I’d go to give him a lift home. Wish I’d known about this place. I’d have gotten to the location earlier than necessary to take a look around.

    I wonder if those train cars were used in the “Frankfort Special” sequence in G.I. Blues, which would be kind of neat since it’s about Elvis in the Army.

  18. This is a great monument of US history and its power (regardless unquestionable architectural value of the building).
    The freedom had been dispatch from this place to Europe that was in complete shit in that time. Why are you callig for the building conversion? Why Americans do not have a stronger feeling to preserve their exceptional history?
    Do not forget your past! It was gained with a lot of blood. And this is a part of it.
    Keep it as it is for next generations, just to see it and remember, not to make the war!

  19. Looks as good as some of those Blade Runner storyboards. Nice and authentic.

  20. I would guess that those two rail cars were in daily use on the LIRR until 1998, when the current bi-levels were placed in service, not 1987.

  21. What an outstanding article! I regret that at the time I wrote my book, “Brooklyn’s Waterfront Railways”, in 1988, that I did not have any access to this unique place of American history. In researching the book, I had indeed heard of the story of the interior station in Building “B”. Unfortunately, I was not satisfied with what little information I could find at the time, and a total lack of photos despite exhaustive research. Consequently, as the saying goes, it “wound up on the cutting room floor”. I am hoping that this unique location gets its due in future publications, and I will be sure to include it if I ever do a follow-up to my own book. Once again, thank you for a wonderful look at a very special place in New York City!

  22. Janice Delaney Stearns

    Thank you Scout – driving by the complex on the BQE for so many years – never knew what went on there but always wanted to see it renovated or at least used. Thanks for the LIFE mag pics also = good to see it when it was humming with activity. Marvelous! Is this the same as Bush Terminal?

  23. I work here currently….it’s quite varied in terms of businesses here. There’s a Day Care Center, Finance companies, Citibank and a lot of Manufacturing amongst other things. NYPD also has a presence here in the B building. They train police dogs out here as well as generally using the surrounding space as a staging area whenever the UN is in town. Bloomberg was trying to push incentives for Biotech firms for building A some time back too. It’s a pain in the ass to trek to every day if you come via public transportation though. The walk down (or back up) 58th St from 4th ave is awful in the winter or any inclement weather.

    Still an interesting (and slightly lawless place as City-run buildings go – no real sense of any oversight and the EDC is constantly short on $$) place to work. Real Steel definitely was NOT filmed here. At one time I believe they tried to push this place for use as a studio but it never quite took hold and Queens built up their existing spaces instead. The only movie I know off-hand that was filmed here was part of Broadway Danny Rose. You can’t mistake the building though they only filmed on the outside between A and B if I recall.

  24. I believe an episode of Kojak was filmed here. It was a 2 hour made-for-TV movie (The Belarus File). The plot was Kojak chasing down a WWII war criminal.

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