Saturday, October 11, 2014

Domino Sugar Refinery - Williamsburg

Domino Sugar Refinery in Williamsburg Brooklyn from the East River
Domino Sugar Refinery from East River
Opining in 1857, the 11 acre Domino Sugar Refinery was one of several Brooklyn Sugar Refineries built in the 19th century. By the turn of the century over half the sugar in the world would be produced in Brooklyn. Domino Sugar, previously known as the Havemeyers & Elder Filter, Pan & Finishing House, then, the American Sugar Refining co. was a conglomerate of 17 sugar refining companies that once combined made up the largest sugar refining company in the world.[1][2] By 1897 output of the American Sugar Refining co. was 1,200,000 tons of refined sugar a day.[3] The sugar refinery has hosted labor protests, community preservation rallies, parties and most recently an art exhibition. Today, most of the sugar refinery is being demolished to make way for a new mixed use development. 

Domino Suger Refinery from the East River toward the Williamsburg Bridge
Domino Sugar Refinery from East River
On July 28th, 1910 unrest over low wages and "various abuses" erupted into a riot of 1,000 refinery picketers on strike along with 2,000 sympathizers leading to clashes with police and Sugar Refinery security. "One man was killed, six were seriously hurt, and at least a hundred received minor injuries from the clubs of police." The death was that of Walla Noblosky who was allegedly shot by the company's cashier.[4] The riots would later be attributed to emboldening workers at the Greenpoint Terminal Market (American Manufacturing Co.) in nearby Greenpoint to go on strike.

View from Williamsburg Bridge of Domino Sugar Refinery undergoing demolition
Domino Sugar Refinery Undergoing Demolition
Domino Sugar Refinery Undergoing Demolition
Eventually market pressures including artificial sweeteners, government subsidized high fructose corn syrup and cheaper labor costs else-wear  lead to a decline in demand from the Brooklyn plant and on January 30th, 2004 all factory operations at the Williamsburg site ceased.[2][5] Around the same time much of the Brooklyn waterfront was rezoned for high rise residential development making the old refinery site an attractive property to real-estate developers. The site has changed hands a few times since 2004 with differing visions for the would be development. Each new version of development brought renewed conflict between developers and preservationists over the fate of the site's structures and land use. With historic buildings along the Brooklyn waterfront rapidly disappearing,  preservationists wanted to protect the industrial heritage of north Brooklyn and save the refinery structures from demolition. 

Save Domino Sign
Save Domino! The fight between developers and the community led to concessions on both sides. The current Developer increased the number of affordable housing units to be built in the development and are making efforts to preserve salvageable relics from the refinery, including the Domino Sugar sign, to include in the new site and building designs. The developers are also building accessible waterfront parkland and a school as part of an agreement with the city.

View of Domino Sugar Refinery's Landmarked Building from above on Williamsburg Bridge
Domino Sugar Refinery's Landmarked Building from Above
View of Domino Sugar Refinery from adjacent lot
Domino Sugar Refinery's Landmarked Building from Below
In addition to what the developers are voluntarily preserving, the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted Landmark Status to one of the Domino Sugar Buildings in 2007 to protect it in perpetuity. The landmarked red brick structure was built 1881-1884 to replace a building that had been destroyed by fire. Designed by Theodore A. Havemeyer with Thomas Winslow & J.E. James in the American Round Arch style, a variant of the German Rundbogenstil and Romanesque Revival style, "the Filter, Pan and Finishing House were designed to give the appearance of a single monumental structure". At 150 feet tall plus a large chimney, the structure towers over the neighborhood. The building lacks setbacks and most of the ornamental brick work is concentrated on the upper stories of the building which allowed construction to proceed more quickly.[1] Topping the more ornate upper portion of the building, the renovated structure will have an added four stories of glass clad offices. Once finished, the Filter, Pan and Finishing House will be used as office space marketed to creative tech industries.

Kara Walker's grand scale Sugar Sphinx featured inside the Domino Sugar Refinery
Kara Walker's Sugar Sphinx
In June of 2014 the Domino Sugar Refinery was bid farewell with "A Subtlety" an art exhibit featuring Kara Walker. Her monumental Sugar Sphinx and human scale sugar babies are meant to remind the viewer of the horrors of the salve trades' involvement in sugar production and our connection to it. I had never read about the slave trade related to sugar; however, the artwork was very accessible and it wasn't difficult to understand the implications of the installation. Remembering the history of sugar seemed like a fitting end to the historic Domino Sugar Refinery - R.I.P. Domino (1857-2014).

Created with flickr slideshow.

The slideshow above includes additional photos including some interior shots. However, a more thorough photo exploration was undertaken by Paul Raphaelson. Paul was allowed into the site to photograph the iconic refinery prior to demolition and he is selling prints to finance production of his book "Sweet Ruin: The Brooklyn Domino Sugar Refinery".

  1. New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Havemeyers & Elder Filter, Pan and Finishing House. New York, 2007
  2. Ellis, Will "Inside the Domino Sugar Refinery" Abandoned NYC. 21 May, 2012
  3. Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 15 February, 1897
  4. "One Dead, Many Hurt In a Bloody Roit of Sugar Strikers" Brooklyn Daily Eagle. 28 July, 1910
  5. McShane, Larry "Sugar Plant Closes after 148 Years" Associated Press. 29 January, 2004

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