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.

View Larger Map
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.

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