Sands Street Survivor!

This relic of Brooklyn Rapid Transit elevated trains has been hiding in plain sight for decades on Sands Street in Downtown Brooklyn.

Forgotten NY posted a great history of Sands Street this week – which helped me solve a long-standing mystery.

42 Sands Street (2021)

I often walk by this MTA site, across from Cadman Plaza Park, that takes up an odd-shaped parcel left over from the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge ramps on Adams Street.

Google Streetview (2019)

At first glace, the fenced-in parking lot doesn’t inspire much architectural wonder.

But, appearances can be deceiving. Look closely at the building in the rear. The arched windows are the giveaway – this is no ordinary garage.

Today’s MTA truck garage is actually a repurposed electrical substation from the Brooklyn Rapid Transit’s elevated trains.

Museum of the City of New York, c. 1909 (F2013.144.37 / MN114867). Captioned “Power Houses & Substations Bridge St. Sub Sta. #4 E.Side Sands Street 100′ E. of Washington Street” but it’s actually the south side of Sands Street and AFAIK has nothing to do with Bridge Street.

The building was announced in 1902 and put up in 1903, shortly after the BRT was formed to consolidate the Brooklyn Heights Railroad and Brooklyn’s other el lines.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, September 19, 1902, p. 1

The 1904 Sanborn map labels it “BRT Substation No. 4.” In the c.1909 photo, you can just make out the name above the cornice — “SUB STATION NO. 4 / BROOKLYN RAPID TRANSIT.”

The builder, according to DOB filings, was the mysteriously named “Transit Development Co.,” which shared an address with the BRT on Montague Street.

Real estate record and builders’ guide: v. 71, no. 1824: February 28, 1903 p. X

The New York Times wrote a piece in 1904 about the Transit Development Co. — apparently the BRT’s elevated-line holdings seemed just as Byzantine to contemporaries as they do 120 years later. (After World War I, the BRT went bankrupt and was restructured as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation, or BMT, one of the forerunners of today’s consolidated New York City Subway.)

The New York Times, September 11, 1904, Section FINANCIAL AND REAL ESTATE, Page 13

You can see some good pics of the substation building and its notable arched windows in the c.1940 tax photos from the Municipal Archives. (The Municipal Archives didn’t figure out the substation address when it put up its digital archive, but according to the Sanborn map, it would’ve had the range 38-42 Sands Street, and the newspapers referred to it as No. 42 Sands.)

Today you can also get a good view of the back of the substation building, which now abuts Red Cross Place but originally would’ve been in the middle of the block.  The building had arched windows in the rear, too, bricked up today. Shortly after the substation was built, the BRT also put up a 3-story brick stable behind it, but that’s long gone.

(EDIT: today NYC Subway uses the facility as both the HQ/garage for its Hydraulics unit that services elevators across the system, as well a housing a control center for certain infrastructure monitoring. The MTA refers to the facility as 40 Sands Street or sometimes 42 Red Cross Place.)

(Until just now I had always thought that Red Cross Place might be a small, renamed vestige of High Street west of Adams Street. But in fact that’s not right — Red Cross Place is a new street that’s located in what would’ve been the middle of old block 85, before the bridge approach punched a hole through. The demapped stretch of High Street would’ve been right where today is the northern edge of the current OEM HQ building. This is actually quite obvious from a modern satellite map or even just glancing across the bridge roadway from Red Cross Place to the actual surviving piece of High Street — they’re not aligned. I just had never bothered to look closely.)

The BRT substation is the only building on all of Sands Street besides the YMCA building to have survived the wrecking ball of Robert Moses and his BQE, Cadman Plaza and Farragut Houses redevelopments from the 1930s to 1950s.

(Another interesting fact evident only from the satellite view – Sands Street actually has a tunnel under the Brooklyn Bridge ramps that today connects the two-city owned parcels on either side. You can see the roadway plates for the overpass in the photo.)

Maybe even better than this old, hidden-in-plain-sight substation building is the street outside. Look at the the corner of Sands Street and Cadman Plaza East (former Washington Street), where a curious Sands Street sign still stands even though the road immediately disappears beyond the MTA’s fence.

Just off the corner is a manhole cover in Cadman Plaza East that reads “BHRR” – for Brooklyn Heights Railroad.  Somewhere down that hole, even before the BRT came into existence in the late 1890s, used to be wiring that connected the BHRR’s Myrtle Avenue el trains to the Sands Street station on the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

I wonder what’s down that manhole today.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Sands Street Survivor!

  1. Justin van Deursen

    Wow! I have been wondering about this building for years. Always assumed it was a carriage house. This is so awesome. Thank you.

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