Thursday, July 15, 2010

American Dock Terminal

Hanging out with Alex R. and his wife, Angie, the other day, he reminded me of one of the several places we explored when we were kids and Staten Island was a wilder and woolier place. He thought the coolest place we'd sneaked into and wandered around in were the great big warehouses that were converted into the Bay Landings condos starting around 1981.

We were able to easily enter them by walking through the porous fencing near the supposedly, incredibly creepy (creepier than the average) strip club (now a yoga joint) at the bottom of Victory Boulevard and then through the unblocked doorways of the buildings.

From our initial vantage point the warehouses were hemmed in on the left by the SIRT tracks and the great retaining wall that rises up to Bay Street. To their right were the greasy waters of the harbor and the collapsed piers the warehouses once served. The buildings themselves were huge, primordial constructions dominating the neighborhood. They were like some Lovecraftian towers that had survived the arrival and retraction of the glaciers mostly unscathed.

The blank buildings were seven floors of plain brick and concrete inhabited by flocks of pigeons and often little evidence of ever having been used. We never encountered anyone else in all the times we investigated the various buildings. There was never even the stray fisherman or rats, something we'd routinely see when going into (and under) the abandoned piers in Stapleton.

From photos the buildings were once white but by our time they were dirty and
stained unpainted cement covering brick. Whole floors were simply empty and windowless and exposed to the elements but then smooth cement is pretty hardy so the wear seemed negligible.

From the exposed stairwells you could see out across the rooftops of Tompkinsville and St. George. From the top of the building we looked out to Manhattan and Brooklyn. For a bunch of twelve year olds it was exhilarating (do 12 year olds even explore abandoned buildings anymore?).

In some places the things of man were very evident and the appearance was of sudden abandonment. On a few floors huge quantities of loose coffee beans simply spilled out of rotted sacks. Ground floor offices were littered with old telephone books, blank company forms and all sorts of soil and mineral samples in jars. We never understood the last bit but with a little research today I discovered some of the docks' and warehouses' history.

I found an account of the Port of Staten Island, its docks and development on Google Books in something called "Shipping - The Magazine of Marine Transportation, Construction and Supplies" from 1922. Its chock full of illustrations, detailed descriptions of the businesses concerned with the port operations and names of individuals involved and addresses where the businesses were located.

The buildings we were in were those of the American Dock Terminal. The president of the firm was A.B. Pouch who was related to William H. Pouch of Clifton's Pouch Terminal. Eventually the two complexes were practically combined. From the "Shipping" article it appears the oldest building was from about 1900 and the newest from 1922. By 1978 when we first explored them they were totally abandoned.

Mayor John. Hylan and Docks Commissioner Murray Hulbert had visions of Staten Island's North Shore becoming a major cargo port. Numerous thousand foot long covered piers were built increasing the existing facilities several fold. There were several large cargo complexes built or expanded to service the piers (American Dock Terminal, Union Transport Company and Pouch Terminal). It was an ambitious future.

Several great warehouses, of which only three survive, were built by the American Dock Terminal to house primarily grain and coffee (hence the beans on the floor decades later). There were small trains to service the complex and connected to the main shore track running between all the piers.

Today nothing of that plan remains as envisioned. At some point the Pouch family, which owned the ADT sold it off and it entered a long period of speculation and failed development attempts. The surviving buildings have been converted to co-ops. The piers are now mostly gone. Pier No.5 had housed a bar and restaurant through the early nineties until it collapsed. Recently, Pier No.6, long the NYC Parks Department's Cromwell Center, began collapsing into the bay. Something about shoddy workmanship during its numerous refurbishments I think I heard.

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Bay Landing from Bay Street - The remnants of the American Dock Terminal - American industry converted to over priced urban housing.

I don't know how the American Dock Terminal came to its seemingly rushed end but I suspect it had to do with Staten Island's opposition to giant apartment construction.

In 1961 the developer William Zeckendorf bought the American Dock Terminal site from its owner, Gulf States Land and Industries, Inc., for $3 million (which means the newest buildings were in use for less than forty years). He planned to raze much of the site and build four or five 35 story buildings. The goal was 4,000 units geared toward the wealthy and for a rental price of $60 per room.

They would have clearly dominated the Island's skyline and opened the door for similar constructions across the borough. All he need was to get the property rezoned for residential use.

That didn't happened and in 1965 he went bankrupt. He and his son held onto the property, though, and waited for future developments. In 1975 a similar project was put forward to be financed by Westinghouse with the Zeckendorfs taking the actual lead on the project. A NY Times article from that year claims the politicians, community board and unions all supported the development. I strongly suspect the residents did not. This dream too faded away.

At some point the ownership of the property passed to a metals firm from Michigan (reading about the convoluted way they came to own the American Dock Terminal is mind boggling). The new owners developed a much more realistic and less ambitious residential development program and stuck with it. The original plan never came to pass but in 1981 the first of the Bay Landing buildings were converted.

I helped my grandfather, a floor scraper and carpenter, work in one of the earliest apartments in the Bay Landing building at the foot of Victory Boulevard opposite Lyon's Pool. It was a blank, white painted cement and plaster space to which my grandfather was adding hardwood floors and slightly raised section under the windows. Even to my fifteen year old eyes the conversion of the building from decaying industrial site to modern dwelling seemed cheap, poorly done. The plaster was already chipped and the cement exposed and cold. I haven't been in any of the buildings since.

This is a lot more content and history than I usually post but it's one of the first times I was able to pull up so much specific information online. I still don't know about the closure of though I suspect it had to do with a declining financial outlook. It's interesting to study about the rise, fall, and resurrection of a location and how plans changed so radically over two decades.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Oh My

Tooling about the interweb this morning I discovered ANOTHER amazing NYC provided resource. It's the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives and has photos of what existed on the land prior to the construction of housing projects. It's also got mayoral archives for the LaGuardia, Wagner, Beame,and Koch administrations (where's Impelliteri?) but I'm more interested in the housing stuff at the moment.

Go to the NYC Housing Authority tab on the left and click it. Then put in the neighborhood you wish to look at and away you go. There's not a whole lot for Staten Island but what's there is worthwhile. It's also depressing to read that the neighborhood at the foot of Jersey Street filling the present footprint of the Richmond Terrace Houses was "a neighborhood considered for demolition long before the housing project was built"

Cleveland Street, New Broghton - part of the aforementioned places eyed for destruction. And it was.

Public housing
is one of the greatest failures of the 20th century liberal statist dream for the future. The laudable goal of alleviating the horrendous conditions in many urban slums was murdered by construction monstrous human hives. Working, existing neighborhoods were eliminated and replaced with oversized unnatural constructions. That many are being torn down only attests to their failure a mere two or three generations after their completion.

S.S. White

The only memory I have personally of the S.S. White Factory out on Seguine Avenue is of watching it burn while I was at a Boy Scout Olympics nearby. From our vantage point across Princes Bay we watched the brilliant red and orange column of fire rise up against the night sky. Thirty years after the event the beauty of that destructive night remains vivid.

S.S. White was a dental products company started by Dr. Samuel Stockton White of Philadelphia in the 19th century. He opened distribution sites along the East Coast and finally a large factory complex at the foot of Seguine Avenue in Princes Bay.

In 1968 the firm was bought by the Pennwalt Corporation. In 1972 they closed the factory, split its dental and industrial operations and moved them both to New Jersey.

The closed factory operated later as the Princes Bay Trade Mart. The conversion to giant flea market came about when the factory's purchaser was told he couldn't build 10 30-story apartment buildings. I know there was a performance venue on the site at some point.

Then in the late seventies it burned. Several times I think. Finally it was demolished and to this day the land remains empty despite attempts to build a huge and undesired condo complex in the late nineties.

I never would written about this if not for yesterday. The luminous Mrs. V, her mother, and I, were driving about New Jersey when suddenly we saw the S.S. White Technologies Inc. building along Rte 151. I remembered reading at some point that the firm had been moved into New Jersey and here I was faced with the actual new plant.

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It was odd to come across this lost bit of Staten Island's legacy 16 miles away from where it started.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Woo Hoo!!!!!!!!!

I just noticed NYCityMap added a new aerial view of the city from 1951. Thank you, DOITT!!!!

Port Richmond Avenue

Port Richmond Avenue looking north toward the Bergen Ferry

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Same view today - The buildings are ramshackle, some abandoned or used for homeless housing.

I've put up pictures of this intersection before but the new one I just came across above drew me right back in. The photo displays a vibrant Port Richmond intersection with restaurants, a theater in the background (the old Farrell Lumber building, which used to be Leo's Empire), an SRO, numerous cars and a bank. There's some sort of "academy" advertised in a window at the pictures' left. It's streets that are alive and thriving.

I didn't recognize the Murad brand of cigarettes advertised on the building in the left foreground (apparently it was the world's best brand) so I googled it and found scads of beautiful advertising.

Today it's all gone. Some of the buildings remain by the life has drained out.
Instead of trolleys and shops the streets are near empty and the shops gone and the bank closed up. There's not even a Coca Cola ad in the present view.

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I know Main Streets suffered with the advent of shopping plazas and malls and I don't think there's any way their deaths could have been prevented. However, Port Richmond seems to have been more than just a shopping district. There's a real town with houses, apartments, schools and churches all around the storefronts. That it's only staggered on as the place where we allow our day laborers to live (and then don't bother to maintain it) makes me feel a little ashamed.

View looking north on (Port) Richmond Avenue. You can see the still standing Port Richmond Reformed Church in the distance on the left side of the avenue.

Missing Tombstone Brought Home

Great article in today's NY Times about the discovery of an old tombstone and its journey to the United Hebrew section of the Ocean View Cemetery out on Amboy Road.

You can still see the remains of the great Jewish tide that swept over the Lower East Side of Manhattan a century ago. Today those immigrants have moved on only to be replaced by other immigrants (or hipsters), but, if you look up at many of the little Spanish language churches in the area you can still see Hebrew and torahs carved into the tops of them.

Definitely a mitzvah by Mr. Lankenau.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Clove Lake Boat House and Restaurant

So the dog days are definitely upon us. When I walk outside I feel like I've been hammered with a sack of swamp water. It's the time of the year I find most unpleasant. So, I've tracked down a pleasant pair of pictures to ease my discomfort.
I don't know the history of the building but the Parks Department's page about Clove Lakes implies its comes from the thirties. The black and white picture would seem to come from at least the thirties. The color one is obviously later and probably from the fifties or early sixties (at least to my untutored eye that's what the vivid color makes me think as well as the clothing).

I spent much of this past Memorial Day at Clove Lakes Park. I went there with my family to watch a demonstration by the USMC in helicopter assault tactics. It was pretty impressive, particularly when the downdraft from the Osprey took out much of several trees endangering the onlookers.

What impressed me more, though, that day, was the wildlife I encountered when we walked around the main lake. I only got a few, lousy, pictures, but here they are: