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Vanishing East River Industrial Heritage

new york industrial building death notice

The recent catastrophic fire at the Greenpoint Terminal Market emphasizes the fact that our industrial heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate. In November 2005, the Municipal Art Society mounted an exhibit titled Preservation on the Edge: Our Threatened East River Heritage, which highlighted six of the waterfront’s most historic industrial buildings and presented ways in which they could be protected and reused. In the six months following that exhibit, half of the buildings were destroyed.

Besides the Greenpoint Terminal Market fire, in which the most historic buildings were lost in a fire that has been labeled “suspicious,” the identifiable smokestacks of the Long Island City Power House were ripped off, and the Con Edison Power Station was completely destroyed. Finally, in another blow to efforts to preserve our industrial heritage, in December 2005, the New York City Council “de-designated” the Austin Nichols Warehouse.

The loss of these buildings makes it even more important to protect the remaining buildings. We must act quickly to protect our remaining industrial heritage from vanishing as the waterfront is redeveloped. The most effective way to protect these buildings is by designating them as landmarks.

Once protected, they can continue to serve vital functions within the city. New York City already has outstanding examples of industrial buildings that have been reused for residential commercial and artisan purposes. Outside New York, power plants in Milwaukee, Baltimore and Chester, Pa., have been reused for commercial and retail functions, while in London, the Bankside Power Station was converted into the Tate Modern, an art gallery visited by over 4 million people each year.

What you can do to save them

domino sugar factory

The Domino Sugar Plant, once the largest sugar refinery in the world, has been a fixture on the Williamsburg waterfront for almost 150 years. In 1884, the refinery produced 1,250,000 pounds of sugar daily, approximately one-quarter of the total amount of sugar produced in the United States at that time. The site was originally acquired by the Havemeyer family in 1856, with the waterfront location’s being chosen to facilitate the shipping of massive quantities of raw and refined sugar. After a fire in 1882, the refinery was completely rebuilt with brick and stone buildings that stood at least 10 stories high. Despite some alterations over time, the rounded-arch style buildings, a distinctive smokestack and an iconic lighted sign still remain.

Threat: Developers have plans for a major residential development on this site.

Truth: The significant historic buildings can be preserved and adapted to residential use. There is ample room on the site to build new residential buildings.

sohmer historic building new york city

The Sohmer & Company Piano Factory building is one of the few remaining testaments to the city’s once thriving piano-manufacturing business. According to 19th-century newspaper articles, 75 pianos were produced within the building every week, and 300 people worked there. Constructed around 1886 and designed by the architectural firm Berger and Baylies, the building is a fine example of the American rounded-arch style, with a prominent German Romanesque Revival influence. While the building is made of brick with arched windows that appear to remain from the original construction, it is perhaps most recognizable for its mansard-roof clock tower. The building was designed as an architectural advertisement for the Sohmer company itself, one that would impress river-borne traffic with “the magnitude of the Sohmer Factory,” as a newspaper article reported in 1887.

The Sohmer Piano Factory moved out of the building in 1982, and the building was taken over by the Adirondack Chair Company for use as a factory.

Threat: In 1984, 1990 and, most recently, March 2005, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held hearings regarding the designation of the building. Because of strident opposition from the owner and the local City Council member, the building has not yet been designated.

On Tuesday, February 27, 2007, the Landmarks Preservation Commission unanimously approved the designation of the Sohmer & Company Piano Factory building as a New York City landmark. To read more about this important victory for the preservation of East River Industrial Heritage, click here.

austin nichols building

The Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse is one of the earliest reinforced concrete warehouses in the United States designed by a nationally prominent architect. The building was constructed in 1913-15 when Austin, Nichols & Company, one of the leading grocery wholesalers in the country, moved from Lower Manhattan to Williamsburg, in part to take advantage of water transportation to ship its goods. The designer, renowned architect Cass Gilbert, employed Egyptian Revival motifs for the structure, with a coved cornice, battered walls and narrow window openings. The building remained the Austin, Nichols & Company’s headquarters until the 1950s and now contains both residences and office space.

Threat: Although designated a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in September 2005, the New York City Council overturned that designation in December 2005. Now unprotected, the owner plans to remove all the distinctive architectural elements and build a large and unsympathetic addition.

Current Status: The owner has successfully evicted all of the building’s tenants. Although work on the building has yet to start, it is expected to begin soon.

A Glimmer of Hope?: E-mail the Landmarks Preservation Commission and tell it to designate the building as a landmark. It is legally possible for the Landmarks Preservation Commission to redesignate the building. But with the strident opposition of the local council member, David Yassky, it is likely to meet the same conclusion at the City Council.

A Eulogy

waterside no 2 power station

Also known as the Waterside No. 2 Power Station, the building was a visual anchor for the East River waterfront and First Avenue for nearly a century. Constructed by the New York Edison Company in 1906, the building was located next to the water so that coal could be delivered by barge to power the station. Despite its utilitarian purpose, the building was designed by in-house architect Thomas Murray in a Renaissance Revival style consisting of an ornamented stone base with large arches, red brick and a metal mansard roof. It was demolished in January 2006.

greenpoint terminal market after fire debris

The American Manufacturing Company complex, now commonly known as the Greenpoint Terminal Market, was a panorama of interlocking buildings with an extraordinarily intricate history of construction. The American Manufacturing Company was established in Brooklyn around 1890 as a manufacturer of rope and bagging. In these buildings, workers turned hemp, jute and other fibers – some of which came from the Philippines and India – into miles of rope and twine, as well as bags. At that time, rope was used in virtually all aspects of shipping and was of critical importance to the economy. The business expanded over a 30-year period from a portion of a single block to an extensive series of buildings covering six blocks, linked by skybridges. By World War II, however, the company had left the facility and the buildings were converted for use as storage. Before burning down, the complex was one of the most fascinating pieces of architecture along the waterfront, a frequent location for film and photography shoots. The city rezoned the site in 2005 to allow for high-rise residential development.

Until its smokestacks were removed last spring, this brick Renaissance Revival power plant was one of the most recognizable buildings in Long Island City and along the East River. Constructed in 1905 by the Pennsylvania Railroad, this structure was built to electrify the Long Island Rail Road lines. Coal was delivered to the plant by railroad and barge, and then burned to produce steam, which drove the turbines. After it ceased being used as a power plant, the edifice served at various times as a chemical facility, manufacturing space and indoor tennis center. The structure is currently slated to be converted into residential condominiums.