When New York University announced in 2012 that it would be taking over the former MTA administration building at 370 Jay St. to house its new “Center for Urban Science and Projects” as well as its entrepreneurial incubators, observers of the Downtown Brooklyn scene were very happy.
Since the mid-1990s, the MTA had been moving employees out of 370 Jay St. into newer buildings, and as a consequence, the former headquarters building deteriorated. It seemed perpetually encased by scaffolding, and eventually, only one side entrance remained open.
One of the main sore points was the subway entrance on the ground floor, which was marked by peeling paint, trash and cigarette butts. Eventually this entrance was fixed up, but Brooklyn politicians, led by then-Borough President Marty Markowitz, continued to hold demonstrations, demanding that the MTA sell the building. The late Eagle columnist Dennis Holt opined that the building, as it appeared at the time, was a detriment to new Downtown development —a view shared by many.
And yet, before this era, 370 Jay St. was the busy, working hub of the subway system, housing everything from data processing to money-counting. What’s more, when the building opened, it was hailed as a positive example of modern design. It is this phase of the structure that is highlighted in the new exhibit at the Transit Museum, “The Secret Life of 370 Jay Street.”
The exhibit begins by showing that its construction, in 1950, was one of the earliest phases of the renovation of the Downtown Brooklyn civic center, which also gave rise to the Supreme Court building, Cadman Plaza Park and more.
When the city established its Independent Subway System (IND) in 1934, it created the Board of Transportation, the forerunner MTA New York City Transit. And when it acquired the privately owned Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT) and Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) systems in 1940, it also inherited thousands of employees and needed a place to put them. The original design for the building was in the 1930s Art Deco mode, but after World War II the current design was adopted.
The 370 Jay St. headquarters was a green building before the concept existed, the exhibit points out. Large windows meant that there would be light in every room. Although there was little ornamentation, the centerpiece of the lobby was a map of the world with stars showing the locations of battles where transit employees had been killed during World War II, together with their names.
This map was later moved outside the building, and now can be seen in the lobby of a nearby MTA office building at 130 Livingston St.
The exhibit also highlights what went on inside with high-quality photos that show employees up -close. One of the building’s most fascinating functions was the money-counting operation. Below the structure, “money trains” that collected money from station booths were unloaded, and secret elevators took the proceeds up to counting rooms.
Initially, the coins were counted by machine, but bills were counted by hand. In 2006, after changes in technology made this method obsolete, the operation closed down, as did the money trains themselves. The employees wore special coveralls with no pockets, for obvious reasons.
Also inside the building was a giant 120-foot board with a representation of the system’s subway trackage, with little light bulbs that lit up to indicate track conditions. Within this command center, employees at desks monitored the subways.
After new technology made upgrades necessary, according to the exhibit, the command center was moved to a new location on the Upper West Side. The exhibit doesn’t make it clear when this happened, but photos show the operation was still up and running in the mid-1990s.
Photos also show other types of work that went on in the building, such as data processing and “photo reduction,” which would be done digitally today.
The exhibit says that the building was basically empty as of 2006. I’m not sure whether this is true, however. When Brooklyn officials called the building empty, MTA spokespersons would insist it was still being used. On several occasions, I stood outside the side entrance and witnessed a handful of people coming and going. One of them told me he was there for a training exercise.
Today, 370 Jay St. is being renovated, as evidenced by black netting on the building and a “Skanska” sign (Skanska is one of the city’s biggest building contractors). And while everyone is looking forward to the new NYU center opening, there’s more good news — the college plans to keep the building’s outside appearance.
“The Secret Life of 370 Jay Street” is showing through May 2016. The Transit Museum is located underground in a former subway station on Schermerhorn Street between Court Street and Boerum Place, with entrances at both ends. For more information, visit http://web.mta.info/mta/museum/. Everyone interested in the history of mass transit as well as the history of Downtown Brooklyn should see it.
—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.