Building of the Day: 4201 First Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Former National Metal Company, now Sahadi Fine Foods, and other tenants
Address: 4201 First Avenue
Cross Streets: Corner 42nd Street
Neighborhood: Sunset Park
Year Built: 1890
Architectural Style: Romanesque Revival factory
Architect: Unknown. 2001 renovation by Frank E. Peteroy
Landmarked: No, which is too bad

The story: Way back in the mid-1990s, I got a car, and that was the first time I ever saw this building. We were going to the new Costco, in Sunset Park, and decided to drive around and look at the neighborhood. This building was a mess, as the photos below show, long abandoned and slowly falling down, but what remained was both eerily beautiful and tragic; an industrial Brooklyn version of a crumbling castle in the woods, forgotten by time. Fortunately, like a good fairytale, this building was awakened and brought back to life. What was this building, who built it, and why did it look like a castle? I’ve found out a few answers, but there are even more questions left to answer.

The “castle” was the factory of the National Metal Company. Unfortunately, that’s all I could find out on line. There are no references to the company in either The Brooklyn Eagle or The New York Times. I also couldn’t find an architect. The building is surrounded by Bush Terminal, but predates that massive endeavor, which was begun in 1895. The land it sits on may have been owned by Bush, that’s a question for further research. The metal company most certainly would have benefitted from the piers and railroad service the terminal offered its clients.

The National Metal Company building is huge; over 123,000 square feet. Its most noticeable feature still is a central tower which rises high above the four story building: a large crenellated campanile, reminiscent of an Italian medieval keep. The tower you see today has been cut down; originally, there was another structure on top of the existing tower, which can also be seen in the photos below. It was lost in the 2001 renovation.

The bulk of the building is a more classic late Victorian Romanesque Revival “stores” building, with large arched windows, very similar to factory buildings built at the same time in Dumbo. The architect here did two things a little differently: his factory “box” is a series of bays and inverted surfaces that rhythmically and almost mechanically jut in and out, like a machine, giving the vast building more structural support and more visual appeal. The architect also added those castle-like crenellations and crests at the roofline, as well as the running arches under the cornice, reinforcing the idea that this was indeed a fortress of industry. An aerial photograph of Bush Terminal taken before 1920 shows the factory almost in the center of the picture, its tower as identifiable as the tower of St. Michael’s church only a few avenues away.

If the National Metal Company was like most metal companies, they would have rolled and stamped all kinds of metals, everything from tin ceiling blanks to zinc, copper and iron. All kinds of products and widgets could have been stamped there. They may have rolled iron and steel bars for further manufacturing. All of this would have taken room, which they certainly had. I would definitely like to find out more about this interesting building.

But, by the late 20th century, the building was totally abandoned, and looked like the aftermath of a war. Trees grew out of the windows, and vandals had painted graffiti all over it. The magnificent tower was falling down, and the place looked doomed. Had the building been in a more populated or utilized part of Brooklyn, it would be remembered only by photographs. But it was in Bush Terminal, which had its own share of abandoned and underused properties that few seemed to care about. Until the 1990s.

First came the big box stores, bringing traffic and life back into Sunset Park. Then came a renewed interest in Bush Terminal, with many of the buildings coming back to life as part of Bush Terminal/Industry City. This building had been for sale forever, and finally, in 2001, the massive rehab project by Frank E. Peteroy gave Sahadi Fine Foods and other tenants a new building, a phoenix from the ashes. What a job!

Personally, they slicked it up a wee bit too much, and I miss the top of the tower, but considering how badly deteriorated the structures were, I’m very glad they were able to salvage as much as they did, and I think they did a wonderful job. Today, the pungent aroma of exotic spices fills the air, not the musty smell of abandonment and decay. It’s still a great building, now once again a useful and interesting part of Brooklyn’s architectural history. GMAP

Bush Terminal before 1920. Photo: Library of Congress

Before renovation. Photo: Frank Peteroy

Before renovation. Photo: Frank Peteroy

Interior before renovation. Photo: Frank Peteroy

Interior before renovation. Photo: Frank Peteroy

Interior before renovation. Photo: Frank Peteroy

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