When last we left the Bush family, Irving T. Bush, the son of small time oil man, and big time yachting enthusiast, Rufus T. Bush, was successful beyond his wildest dreams with the creation and operation of Sunset Park’s Bush Terminal. Begun in 1895, it combined sea and rail transport with storage and manufacturing space, providing the Terminal’s clients with the means to produce, store, and ship their goods, in large and small quantities. It would become Brooklyn’s largest commercial facility and the source of Brooklyn’s economic future for many years. For more background, please see Part One for Rufus’ story, and Part Two for the beginning of Irving’s story.
By 1917, when the United States found itself getting embroiled in World War I, the Bush Terminal was so important to the Navy that they commandeered the piers and warehouses of the Terminal. By 1918, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, took over four of the twelve manufacturing buildings as well. Sixty-four businesses had to move out, and over 4,500 people had to be displaced from their jobs. The military also joined their rail lines to those in the terminal. Bush complied with the order and went one further, designing the Brooklyn Army Terminal right next door for them, so the U.S. military could have their own facility. When the war ended, the military quietly gave him his terminal back.
And what a facility it was. Sunset Park and indeed, much of the industrial might of Brooklyn, in the years between the wars, was defined by Bush Terminal. BT employed thousands of people to run it, and there were even more people who worked for all of the companies within its confines. The Terminal was like a self-enclosed city. It had its own police force, fire department, rail system, steam and power plants, and deep water piers. It even had its own self-policing court system amongst the workers. The Bush Terminal was the largest multi-tenant complex in the United States, at its peak, employing 25,000 people.
The reinforced concrete factory buildings we see today were designed by British-born architect William Higginson, a well-known designer of early 20th century industrial buildings. Higginson left his mark on industrial Brooklyn in a big way, not only designing this huge complex, but also many of the Gair factory buildings in DUMBO, including the One Main Street, the iconic clock tower building. Robert Gair was very interested in reinforced concrete as a fireproof building material, and persuaded Higginson to use it in the design of his box factories. Higginson teamed up with the Turner Construction Company, an expert in this new medium, and together, they created many of Gair’s largest factory buildings.
Gair was quite pleased, and he highly recommended both reinforced concrete and the Higginson/Turner team, leading to their commission for Bush Terminal, as well as factories in Long Island City and other locations in the New York City area. The Bush Terminal buildings went up between 1906 and 1926. When Bush decided to build a similar facility for the Army, he once again went for reinforced concrete buildings, this time employing Cass Gilbert, the architect of the Woolworth Building, to design the facility. Gilbert also used Turner Construction for the execution of his designs. Turner Construction remains one of the world’s largest construction companies, with over $8 billion dollars in business in 2010.
But what of Irving Bush? One can’t build an empire in this city and remain unknown and anonymous. Rich industrialists often leave a lot of buildings behind them, and Irving Bush was certainly succeeded in that regard. In addition to his vast factory complex, Bush expanded into Manhattan and beyond. As mentioned last time, Bush and his family had long ago decamped to Manhattan, living in a huge Flemish-influenced Colonial Revival mansion on the corner of Madison Avenue and 64th Street.
The house was designed by John J. Petit, master of both Colonial Revival architecture and the use of eclectic global influences in his architecture. He was the architect of Dreamland Amusement Park in Coney Island, certainly one of the most eclectic collections of buildings in New York City, and an amazing achievement in of itself. Petit was also the chief architect for Dean Alvord, the developer who created Prospect Park South, the exclusive suburban development in Flatbush where Petit designed some of his best houses. The Bush mansion would have fit right in, had it been here.
In 1905, Petit’s firm, Kirby, Petit & Green was commissioned to build a Manhattan headquarter for Bush, to be known as the Bush Terminal Building. It stood at 100 Broad Street, at the intersection of Pearl and Bridge. It was a modest five story building designed to reference both the Dutch heritage of New York and the Bush family itself, descendants of the Bosch family of Holland, and its location; the site of the first church in Manhattan, built in 1633. The building had both Gothic and Dutch influences, and was thought to be quite attractive, once again showing Petit’s skill in mixing periods and cultures. It’s long gone, replaced by modern office buildings.
But the next Bush building still stands – the Bush Tower, built in Midtown to showcase the businesses located in the Sunset Park Terminal. It was built between 1916 and 1918, at 130-132 West 42nd Street, between 6th Avenue and Broadway, one of Midtown’s first skyscrapers. The building was designed by the Brooklyn firm of Helmle and Corbett. The firm’s partners, especially Frank Helmle, are familiar to Brooklyn architecture aficionados. Frank Helme, who began his career at McKim, Mead & White, was the architect of some of Brooklyn’s finest buildings, including the Bossert Hotel and the Boathouse in Prospect Park. Harvey Corbett, who is not as well known in Brooklyn, actually designed the Bush Tower. Like Frank Helmle, he was also a graduate of the L’ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, after which he got his start with master architect Cass Gilbert, who would later design the Brooklyn Army Terminal for Bush. Corbett was on his own long before that, but small world.
The Bush Tower is important for several reasons. First of all, it was a unique concept; a showroom and social gathering spot for Bush’s Sunset Park tenants. No one had done that before. It was a precursor of the now prolific showroom building, a place where buyers can see the wares of a particular industry in one place, with individual showrooms in one building; one stop shopping for wholesalers.
The Bush Tower’s bottom three floors were called the “International Buyer’s Club”, and were kitted out like an exclusive Old World social club, with fine oak paneling and woodwork, fireplaces, Oriental carpeting and antique furniture. There were conference rooms, a dining room, a library with librarians and staff for research, and auditoriums where the companies represented could show promotional films, or stage “fashion parades.” The upper 27 floors held individual showrooms and offices. It was a revolutionary concept at the time, one that helped create the Garment Center showrooms, the D & D Building, and similar showrooms across the world.
The building itself is an early skyscraper masterpiece, with subtle Gothic details referencing Cass Gilbert’s Woolworth Building, which was going up at about the same time. Bush Tower is a tall, lean building, only 50’x90’, rising 433 feet, at the time, Midtown’s tallest building. Bush’s foresight in building here would kick start the high rises of Midtown Manhattan, especially the Times Square area, and the design of the building, tall and thin, without a lot of fenestration, would inspire architects to both greatness and mediocrity.
The showroom idea would be ahead of its time, however, and the lower floor would become a bank by the 1920’s, a restaurant even later. The building was foreclosed on by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1938, and they converted the upper showrooms into regular offices. Ironically, in the small world department, one of Met Life’s two iconic buildings in the Flatiron District, the North Building, was also designed by Harvey Corbett. As Time Square deteriorated, so too did this building, and it was almost torn down. However, it was revived by new ownership, and was landmarked in 1988, for both its architectural and historical merits.
Helmle and Corbett were commissioned by Irving Bush to build a similar showroom building in London, in order to bring international trade to the Bush Terminal. The Bush House was also designed by Harvey Corbett, and was begun in 1919. It has several wings that were constructed throughout the 1920s and 30s, with the building finally completed in 1935. It was hailed as the “most expensive building in the world” in 1929, and was dedicated to the “friendship of the English speaking peoples.” The design was totally different from the soaring American skyscraper, and is in many ways, a Classic Roman temple. The showroom idea didn’t ever take off here, and was put to other use. Up until very recently, the building was the longtime home of the worldwide operation of the BBC.
(Above photo: Bush Terminal from Sunset Park, 2007, by GK Tramrunner 229, for Wikipedia)
Next time: The personal tales of Irving Bush and his family; they had quite a story, and a look at the Bush Terminal and its sister Army Terminal, and their World War II years, and beyond. This was such an important part of Brooklyn’s history, one that we know so little of, beyond seeing these behemoth buildings from the heights of the BQE, or from traveling down 3rd Avenue on the way to Costco.