Quiet Foundations: What NYU’s Brooklyn Campus Was Built On

The histories of culture and change behind everyday environments aren’t always immediately obvious, not even to those who live and work in those places on a daily basis.

Under the Arch

Quiet Foundations: What NYU’s Brooklyn Campus Was Built On

Illustration of different parts of the MetroTech area including the MetroTech Commons, Tandon and the Wunsch building.

(Illustration by Aaliya Luthra)

Augustin Langlet, Staff Photographer | April 30, 2023

Most of NYU’s schools are concentrated around Washington Square Park, in the heart of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan — surrounded by historic brownstones and luscious greenery. The Tandon School of Engineering, however, is across the East River, in an area known as the MetroTech Center in Downtown Brooklyn — characterized by the facades of former corporate buildings and underdeveloped outdoor spaces. Brooklyn has always been a place where different social groups have mixed and mashed, creating a rich history of culture and change. But among MetroTech’s early ’90s corporate buildings, that can be difficult to see.

The area first became a college campus in 1957 when the Polytechnic Institute — originally built on Livingston Street, where it remained for a century — moved into 333 Jay St., previously an American Safety Razor Company factory. At the time, NYU had two campuses — Washington Square in Greenwich Village and University Heights in the Bronx. The University Heights campus housed the College of Arts & Science and the College of Engineering. 

In 1971, NYU was experiencing mass amounts of debt and the increase in crime in the city of New York deterred out-of-state students from enrolling at the university. To remedy the university’s financial struggles, James Hester, who was at the time the university’s president, put the University Heights campus up for sale. In 1973, NYU moved its Bronx programs back to Manhattan, and the Bronx Community College took over the University Heights campus.

In 1973, the Polytechnic Institute acquired NYU’s College of Engineering after NYU sold its University Heights Bronx campus. Finally, in a gradual process from 2007 to 2014, the school merged with NYU again and in 2008 renamed the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and in 2015 to NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering

A large, white pillar divides chairs with attached desks in a Rogers Hall classroom.
A sign reading "carrying capacity of this floor two hundred pounds per square foot" painted over in white on the wall of Rogers Hall's interior, bordering the ceiling. A red fire alarm is hung next to the sign.

Remnants of Rogers Hall’s days as a factory include large pillars and a sign detailing a high carrying capacity for the floor of the building.

The Metrotech Center was originally constructed in the ’80s and early ’90s, and the remaining elements of its original architecture reflects that. Many of the buildings now used a s academic centers were once factories or office buildings. 

The front page from a 1982 Polytechnic Reporter (Polytechnic’s student newspaper) paper includes mugging attempts on students and the school hiring frat brothers to protect students.
President George Bugliarello explains his vision of the MetroTech project in a 1985 interview with the Polytechnic Reporter.

The front page of a 1982 edition of the Polytechnic Reporter, the school’s student newspaper, reports mugging attempts on students and the school hiring frat brothers to protect students (left). George Bugliarello, then-president of the Polytechnic Institute, explains his vision of the MetroTech project in a 1985 interview with the Polytechnic Reporter (right).

A small model of the MetroTech Center in Dibner Library’s Poly Archives
An original handcrafted model of MetroTech shows the final design of the project. (Courtesy of the Poly Archives at NYU’s Dibner Library.)

Despite initial aspirations for MetroTech to become a tech hub akin to Silicon Valley, the contemporary architecture attracted businesses from the financial and industrial sectors, including  JP Morgan Chase, Brooklyn Union Gas and the New York City Fire Department.

While this diverged from the original vision, it fostered growth in the area. Recent additions to the facility include MakerBot Industries, a 3D printing company, and Slate Magazine, which has brought the area closer to its original technological vision, creating a promising future for development.

The 80s/90s architecture of 1 Metrotech. One Metrotech is photographed with the angle being adjacent to the building at ground level. There is a dark facade and many windows to compliment the angular design of the building.
One Metrotech Center, where MakerBot Industries currently has offices.
A small park appears nestled between various MetroTech buildings. The buildings share similar architectural styles of warm-toned facades and a surplus of small windows. The photo is an aerial shot.
A small park appears nestled between various MetroTech buildings. The buildings share similar architectural styles of warm-toned facades and a surplus of small windows. The photo is taken as one walks along the path of the park between the buildings.

Campus and office buildings face inwards into the small park. Entrances into the park are often narrow and lead in from empty streets.

Developing the Metrotech area was no easy feat. The state had to turn what was once a neighborhood of private properties into public property — essentially displacing approximately 200 residents and 100 business owners from the area. Only four of the dozens of former private residences have been preserved, on Duffield Street.

Four old brick and wooden houses surrounded by MetroTech buildings and modern apartments.
Four preserved and uninhabited houses sit quietly on Duffield Street.

Looking deeper into history, the general development of the neighborhood has also threatened an important part of Black history. In addition to housing a large, free Black population in the 19th century, the borough became a hub for the abolitionist movement before the Civil War. 227 Duffield St. is the last standing historical building on the street where prominent abolitionists Harriet and Thomas Truesdell lived. The house has tunnels in the basement and is believed to have been an important stop on the Underground Railroad, a network of routes and safe houses used to help enslaved African Americans make it to free states. The building was nearly demolished in 2007 to make way for new development, but local activists prevented its destruction. The building was ultimately given landmark status in February of 2021. 

227 Duffield Street, an old three- story brick building, as seen from across the street.
227 Duffield St. is seen beside towering modern apartment buildings.

227 Duffield St., believed to be an important stop of the Underground Railroad, stands alone amongst new commercial and residential buildings. Duffield Street was also alternatively named Abolitionist Place in 2007.

The rich history of these buildings goes largely unnoticed by the many students who walk past them on a day-to-day basis. The churches in the MetroTech area served a key role in the abolitionist movement. Among them, the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 277 Stuyvesant Ave., has been recorded as the oldest African American congregation in Brooklyn, which was once also an important stop of the Underground Railroad. It later became the Student Center for Polytechnic, and now houses offices for admissions, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development. 

The rich history of the building goes largely unnoticed, “at least [by] the passing people and student body” going to classes next door, according to Rev. Herbert Daughtry, the National Presiding Minister of The House of the Lord Churches. 

Daughtry was a key point of communication between the community and Forest City Ratner, the original developers of the MetroTech Center. He used to bring people on tours up to the church on Bridge Street from his church on Atlantic Avenue. He also advocated for and wrote the plaque about the church’s history that now sits beside the building’s staircase.

In my conversation with him, he said, “it seems to be a neglect of one of the most important historical sites in America.” And his work isn’t complete. He sees this as an educational opportunity for NYU to learn about the intersection of Black history and the histories of these neighborhoods. He hopes the school can use it to engage and involve the local community in Brooklyn — in fact, he is proposing that the park be renamed “Freedom Park.”

The Wunsch building stands beside the buildings at 9 and 15 MetroTech Center. A small white plaque is hung beside the stairs to the building. The plague is written by Reverend Herbert. The build is warm-toned red, with brown pillars and stairs at the facade. There is a large rectangular window on the right side of the facade.
What remains of the Wunsch building’s history is a preserved exterior and an unassuming white plaque about the church at the front.

The MetroTech neighborhood continues to grapple with how to deal with its past and its aspirations. Compared to other urban development projects, like Atlantic Yards (which has the same developer as MetroTech) or Hudson Yards, which have had lackluster results for their neighborhoods, MetroTech has still played a role in modernizing and improving the condition of Downtown Brooklyn, making it one of the most developed neighborhoods in Brooklyn today.

During the development of the campus, some effort was taken to preserve certain buildings as they originally stood. With Reverend Daughtry, for example, Forest City Ratner participated in preserving the church, installing the plaque, and organizing a watchnight service ceremony. Now trying to become more vibrant and open, the area itself has been rebranded as Brooklyn Commons. Brookfield Properties, the current owners of the Brooklyn Commons park, just invested $50 million to improve the park. The company plans to add new outdoor seating and landscaping.

An FDNY employee is making a call while sitting on one of the new park benches. The three benches are long and feature metal frames with unfinished wood surfaces. A person sits on the right side of one bench.
Construction work is being done in MetroTech’s park. There is a blue wheelbarrow (center), an orange construction item (right), and a construction worker in a reflective jacket (left) appearing to be working.

Part of the improvements to the park has been installing abundant seating and tables. Students and office workers have already begun using the new areas as spring arrives.

Newer developments such as NYU’s Brooklyn campus often build over and erase the history of the people and places before them. Next time you walk to class and pass through the MetroTech area, remember the people that stood in your place before and take a closer look at the pieces of history that still remain amid the modern architecture and corporate hustle and bustle.