Building of the Day: 161 Varick Avenue

1907 map: New York Public Library

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: New York City Department of Sanitation, District 1 and 4 Garages and Borough Offices
Address: 161 Varick Avenue
Cross Streets: Scholes and Stagg streets
Neighborhood: Bushwick
Year Built: 2002-2008
Architectural Style: Neo-futurist, perhaps?
Architect: Dattner Architects
Other work by architect: Soundstages for Navy Yard’s Steiner Studios, many civic architecture projects in New York, Dallas, Boston and elsewhere. Upcoming projects at BAM, Rockaways, New Jersey PATH stations, and more.
Landmarked: No

The story: Civic architecture can be a great thing. Projects paid for by a municipality are often chances for fine architectural works that stretch the boundaries, inspire, and enhance that city or location where it stands. During the Victorian age in Brooklyn, some of the finest buildings to be found in our city were built for the people: firehouses and police stations, court buildings, post offices, schools, public hospitals and the headquarters of city agencies.

The City Beautiful Movement, which grew out of the 1893 Chicago World’s Exhibition, promoted this philosophy further, encouraging cities to build gleaming and impressive public and private buildings that would inspire the masses to civic pride, thrift and hard work, so they could lift themselves up and out of the steamy slums, and into the light of prosperity. There were a few practical problems with that idea, but we did get some impressive architecture. Manhattan’s Municipal Building and the Central Post Office are a prime example of this philosophy at work.

On the flip side of this, banal and just awful buildings also mark a city and the psyche of its people. I think of the Brutalist movement, and the siege mentality generated from the many police stations built in Brooklyn and the rest of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. Many a city, including ours, has a collection of meh concrete bunkers holding social services, fire and police stations, and schools. Architecture does matter.

So it comes as a great relief and even joy to see this building, built for the New York City Sanitation Department. Yes, the people who pick up our nasty garbage and plow the streets got one of the better new buildings in the city, and deservedly so. It’s too bad most people will never see it, because it’s really cool.

Officially, this is the District 1 and 4 Garages and Borough Offices for the New York City Sanitation Dept. It sits on a huge lot in an otherwise commercial part of Bushwick, surrounded by factory and warehouse buildings. It’s off the beaten track, east of the tributary canal that is part of Newtown Creek. I checked to see what was there before, going back to a map showing absolutely nothing in 1907. This has always been a gritty, industrial area.

The facility was designed by Dattner Architects, a Manhattan-based firm, which completed the facility in 2008. Their website describes the buildings better than I could, so I quote:

“This two-building complex houses Brooklyn Districts 1 and 4’s sanitation vehicle garage maintenance facilities as well as a salt storage shed, employee facilities and parking. The garage accommodates 134 large trucks, 18 small trucks and 28 small fleet vehicles. New facilities for The Brooklyn Borough Administrative Office bridges Scholes Street creating an archway between the two garages that reinforces the civic presence of this important municipal function. Circulation through the site and building is designed to facilitate the movement of large numbers of trucks through the garages, while maintaining access to repair bays.”

The two buildings do their job, and have a wonderful sense of fun and good design to them, something that was totally unexpected. The city could have just as easily had Dattner, or anyone else, build a couple of generic rectangles to hold the trucks and the borough offices. After all, it’s only the garbage men, and this is the boondocks of Brooklyn. But more visionary heads prevailed here, giving New York’s Strongest a facility to be proud of. Others thought so as well; the project won a New York City Art Commission Award for Design Excellence. See, it can be done! GMAP

(Photograph: Dettner Architects)

1907 map: New York Public Library

1907 map: New York Public Library

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Google Maps

Photo: Dettner Architects

Photo: Dettner Architects

Interior Photo: Dettner Architects

Interior photo: Dettner Architects

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