Accidental Architectural History: The Artist’s Studio in the Brooklyn Army Terminal
We weren’t there to study architecture—well not explicitly. This past February I accompanied two colleagues and seventeen undergraduate students to New York City as part of my university’s commitment to experiential learning. Our university is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina. Its rural location affords a great deal of natural beauty, but it is miles away from any kind of urban experience. Off-campus trips have become essential to providing students with a diverse education. This visit to New York was designed to expose art students, majoring in art management, art history, art education, and studio art, to the New York art scene—we were scheduled to meet with professional artists, visit museums and galleries, and attend the College Art Association’s annual conference.
On a brisk Thursday morning our group left the Flatiron District, taking the subway to Brooklyn. Our itinerary was fairly set. In the morning we would visit the studio of photographer Jeff Whetstone at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, followed by a trip to the Brooklyn Public Library, and concluding with a visit to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. While the built environment was clearly integrated into all of our day’s events, we were not there to study buildings. However, our morning visit turned out to be an accidental architectural lesson.
Cass Gilbert’s Brooklyn Army Terminal (1918-19), formerly known as the United States Army Supply Base, is a daunting space to approach. It certainly was a surprise to our students who were curious about what a New York artist’s studio might look like. The imposing reinforced concrete building known as Building B, originally designed to contain the army’s main receiving floor for both motor trucks and trains, has a monumental façade (Figure 1 and Figure 2). However, its appearance seemed at first counterintuitive with regards to an imagined disorder intrinsic to the stereotypical idea of a messy artist’s studio. We entered Building B and met the incredibly generous Whetstone in the foyer. His enthusiasm for the space soon became infectious. Whetstone led us into the atrium, once glass-covered. The view was incredible. Almost immediately the students pulled out their smartphones. Most of them took photographs of the series of staggered cantilevered balconies that had once served as the primary unloading space for a travelling electric crane that deposited goods on different levels (Figure 3).
Whetstone spoke a little about the building’s original military use as we walked past a decorative old train left in the atrium as reminder to visitors how Gilbert’s design integrated buildings and railroad tracks. He brought our attention to the various remnants of the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s prominence as a global shipping base during World War II: fading mid-century paint used to identify “Directs [to] Africa Odd Countries” (Figure 4). As we re-entered the building from the atrium and took an elevator up to Whetstone’s studio, he stopped to open a window so the students could look down onto the balconies and take more pictures. The view looked so different from that vantage; the emptiness of the balconies as relics of the Brooklyn Army Terminal’s past was even more apparent. While it is possible to pay for a two-hour guided walking tour of the space where a similar history is relayed, our visit was more personal because it was led by a resident. Whetstone spends a great deal of his time in his studio, and yet his appreciation for the opportunity to work in a space with such a rich architectural history gave us all pause.
As we finally entered Whetstone’s studio he explained how the Brooklyn Army Terminal, which just celebrated its hundredth birthday, became available for lease to artists, fashion distributors, medical researchers, furniture designers, and a wide array of other businesses. In May of 2018 the city, which owns the terminal, completed a massive $115 million renovation of the space with the goal of transforming it into a manufacturing and creative hub, complete with an on-site daycare and universal prekindergarten. The artists’ studios went fast; the city offered fifteen-year lease, which Whetstone explained was a rare opportunity for artists working in New York City to establish ties to a specific studio space (Figure 5). Once inside Whetstone’s studio the students had the opportunity to look at the artist’s work and ask questions about what it was like being a part of the art scene in the city. Nevertheless, we drifted back into the built environment; our earlier conversations about the building and its transition from military use to manufacturing and creative practice prompted the students to consider other types of transformation. They asked questions about how Whetstone had constructed a darkroom in his leased space and wanted to know more about the logistics of retrofitting. In our conversations the importance of architecture’s adaptability came to the fore.
This accidental architectural history lesson led the art students to realize the significance of the artist’s relationship to architecture, as well as observe how a key facet of the urban experience is the reconfiguration of built spaces to serve exciting and unexpected purposes. And for me as their professor, the experience taught me that sometimes students learn best through the accidental. Even without explicitly starting our day from the perspective of architectural history, the students discovered an interest in this subject through exposure. Later, when I asked a few of them what their favorite part of the day was they cited getting to visit the building. The experience was a vital lesson for me in that I need not always be explicit in how I approach teaching the built environment. Rather, the experiences that I provide for students can be a starting point, and that architectural history can sometimes be more meaningful for students when they discover it for themselves.
 Ronda Kaysen, “The Brooklyn Army Terminal: New York’s Next Manufacturing Hub?” The New York Times, November 23, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/nyregion/the-brooklyn-army-terminal-new-yorks-next-manufacturing-hub.html (accessed March 15, 2019).