The Waterfront That Sugar Built
The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently named Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront as one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America– The postwar decline of New York Harbor‘s waterborne commerce and its associated industries led to a wholesale reimagining of the waterfronts that once were the very lifeblood of the city’s economy. Consequently, the physical heritage of the industrial past Â– tangible reminders of what made New York great in the first place, as well as buildings of often remarkable architectural quality Â– appears fated to disappear, hence the concern of the National Trust.Much attention focuses now on the Domino sugar-refining complex just north of the Williamsburg Bridge. Advocates of preservation believe that the complex, or parts of it, deserves landmark designation and that the owners might adaptively reuse the buildings in interesting and socially beneficial ways. Others contend that while some small part of the complex might be worthy of designation, we ought not let obsolete structures stand in the way of new uses better suited to New York’s needs of today.
In colonial times, the port meant everything to New York’s economy. New York shipped raw goods such as Southern cotton and Caribbean sugarcane in variations of the “triangular trade” involving Europe, North America, and the west coast of Africa (where the “goods,” sadly, were human beings). All the raw materials passing through New York eventually suggested that the city enter into the refining or “finishing” of materials prior to export or internal consumption. Thus our trade in cotton begat the city’s legendary garment industry, and our trade in cane sugar begat our equally legendary role as sugar refiner to the world.
William Bayard opened the city’s first sugar refinery in 1730. Many of the old-money families of New York Â– Bayards, Van Cortlandts, Rhinelanders, Roosevelts Â– made fortunes in the sugar business. Yet one family above all others came to stand for sugar: the Havemeyers. The name resonates for us today in diverse ways. The annual dancing of the Giglio in Williamsburg takes place on Havemeyer Street. Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art know that Havemeyer bequests helped elevate that institution to worldclass status. And fans of the city’s political history know that William F. Havemeyer counts among our more interesting 19th-century mayors. But for the sugar, though, we’d have none of these Havemeyer resonances.The Havemeyer family began refining sugar in Manhattan in 1805. Many of the firms that made up Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront originated in Manhattan, and moved across the river when they needed more and cheaper space. Frederick Havemeyer and his brother William, the once and future mayor of New York City, moved the family business to Williamsburg in 1857. The firm became Havemeyer & Elder in 1863, when Frederick‘s son-in-law, Joseph Elder, joined. The firm eventually passed to Frederick’s son, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, who became, in effect, the John D. Rockefeller of sugar, forming the Sugar Trust and becoming the most powerful person in the global sugar trade. The plant on the Williamsburg shore served as Henry’s flagship. Before the federal government broke up the Sugar Trust in 1922, New York City had refined as much as 70% of the raw sugar in America.Domino’s closing in 2004 meant that 2005 was the first year in 275 years that no sugar refinery operated within the present boundaries of New York City.
With the trust, the Havemeyer & Elder name disappeared. The company became American Sugar Refining in 1891, and registered Domino as a trade name in 1902. In 1970, American Sugar became Amstar, then Domino Sugar Corp. in 1988, and in 2001 American Sugar once again.
The complex comprises many buildings, the oldest going back to the early 1880s. The Processing House, as it’s known, on Kent Avenue between South 2nd and 3rd streets, dates to 1883. The ferocious industry of that era found perfect expression in the bold, simple, powerful forms of the Romanesque Revival, and the Processing House ranks high among the surviving New York industrial buildings of that time. It’s likely that no matter what else happens in the way of preservation, the Processing House will be saved. Last month, a developer proposed a plan that would save the Processing House while surrounding it with high-rise residential buildings designed by the famous Rafael ViÃ±oly. Others have suggested that a Tate Modern-like museum might take form among parts of the complex.
Now, though, the great, brooding plant sits in ghostly quietude, stimulating historical meditations and fantasies of the future waterfront.