Little-known Brooklyn Modern faces radical remodeling
June 22, 2012
A notable example of Modernism is becoming widely recognized only now that it is to be altered beyond recognition. Completed in 1951, the Transportation Building at 370 Jay Street was one of the city’s earliest office buildings of thoroughly Modern design. A substantial volume, 13 stories high and a city block long, it calls little attention to itself. Its upper stories have an uninterrupted pattern of glazed areas flush with stone cladding—clearly a curtain wall, rather than windows inserted into a masonry wall.
Built for the New York City Board of Transportation, the building later became the headquarters of the successor organization, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which it remained until 2006. Early in its life, the building was applauded by Lewis Mumford, in his “Skyline” column in The New Yorker, where he wrote: “This seems to be the very model of an efficient office building. Not a cathedral of commerce, not a temple of advertising, not a palace of municipal power: just a group of offices arranged for the efficient dispatch of administration.”
As more prominent Modern office structures sprouted across the East River, this serenely functional structure attracted little more attention. It has gotten brief notice in every edition of the AIA Guide to New York City. And Robert A.M. Stern included it in his 1996 list of 35 Modern buildings worthy of landmark status, but has not been landmarked. Its lack of broader attention may also have occurred, in part, because its architects, William E. Haugaard and Andrew J. Thomas, were reaching the ends of their careers and were fading into obscurity (Haugaard died before the building was completed; Thomas was known mainly for admirable pre-WWII housing.)
The building incorporated an entry to the Jay Street subway station, with a side track for the nightly delivery of turnstile receipts to headquarters. An 18-foot-wide granite relief map of the world in the building’s open-air subway arcade recognizes the city’s transit workers who served and died in World War II.
The building is to transformed—totally reclad, with outdoor spaces carved out of its upper floors—to serve as the Center for Urban Science and Progress, a joint undertaking of New York University and its Polytechnic Institute offshoot, with city support. Architects for the remodeling are Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates. The Transit Authority is to relocate the war memorial, with a new site not yet chosen. —John Morris Dixon