Soon, on Oct. 1, the Transit Museum will unearth a time capsule at 370 Jay St., the former MTA New York City Transit Headquarters, that was installed before the building was opened in 1950. The documents found there, relating to construction of the building, will be exhibited by the museum early next year.
The last time the building made big news was two years ago, when the city agreed to sponsor NYU’s new high-tech school, the Center for Science and Progress, in the nearly-empty building. At the time, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the school would accommodate approximately 530 graduate and doctoral students, as well as some full-time faculty and post-doctoral researchers.
The school launched its inaugural classes in 2013 in temporary headquarters at MetroTech. As for when NYU will actually move the school into 370 Jay, well, we shall see.
Many Brooklynites remember the long struggle to force the MTA to do something with the building, which had become a deteriorating eyesore by the 2000s. But in all probability, few can remember the days when the building was considered state-of-the-art.
The building was constructed as the headquarters building for the city’s Board of Transportation (BOT), which evolved into MTA New York City Transit. It was designed by William E. Haugaard and Andrew Thomas, known for his design of the landmark Dunbar Apartments in Harlem, to make maximum use of light and air, years before “green buildings” became popular. The subway entrance built into the ground floor was also considered innovative.
That entrance also boasted a mural, in map form, honoring BOT employees who had been killed during World War II by showing the locations where they had died in battle: Okinawa, New Guinea, the Rhineland, etc. It was only a few years after the end of hostilities in Europe and the Far East, and everybody knew someone who had served — or died — in the conflict.
Underground was perhaps the building’s most unusual feature, which wasn’t generally known to the public. Special tracks branching off from Downtown Brooklyn’s subway lines, used late at night, were built for the transit system’s “money trains,” which collected money from each station’s change booth (soon to become token booths when the fare went up to 15 cents).
The money bags were then taken up to special counting rooms within the building. This system lasted until 2006, when the money trains were replaced by money trucks and the counting was moved to a new facility in Queens.
In 1996, famous architect Robert A.M. Stern included 370 Jay St. on a list of buildings that the city should consider landmarking. But two years later, the MTA committed to a fancy new headquarters at 2 Broadway in Manhattan. By 2006, the MTA had vacated most of the Brooklyn building.
The deterioration of 370 Jay St. likely began even before the MTA started moving people out, but by the mid-2000s the building was in free-fall. Ugly scaffolds surrounded the building. Paint was peeling from the ceiling of the subway entrance, and lights and escalators were often out, making the entrance unattractive to riders.
Then, a war of words began. Then-Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and other officials held rallies outside the building, demanding that the MTA fix it up, sell it or both. They felt that its condition discouraged development in the nearby downtown area and that the subway entrance was a poor portal for out-of-towners visiting the nearby Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge.
When the transit agency agreed to repair the subway entrance, it was a victory, but it wasn’t enough for the politicians and business organizations. The MTA insisted that the building was still being used. On several occasions, this writer stood near the one side entrance that was still open, waiting until someone either entered or exited. Usually, there were two or three people, and they were few and far between.
As we reflect on the history and future of 370 Jay St., let us remember that there was a time when the building was part of the wave of the future, far from the down-and-dirty symbol of neglect it later became.
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Raanan Geberer, a freelance writer, recently retired as Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. He had been Managing Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Bulletin until 1996, when the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was revived and merged with the Bulletin.