One of the oldest surviving local factory buildings is the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center located in the sprawling former factory building at 1155–1205 Manhattan Avenue. The factory dates from the days when Greenpoint was a center for shipbuilding. The factory was constructed as the Chelsea Fiber Mill in 1868 to make ropes for the neighboring shipyards. Shipbuilding died, but the rope making business thrived and grew. The jute mill produced marine rope from sisal, manila, jute, and hemp. By 1903 the factory had expanded to eight buildings, which were powered by a massive steam generator, which still survives today. The massive boilers that powered the generator are more than two stories tall and huge enough to fill a baseball diamond. The welded boilerplates on these boilers date from 1880. Old drawings also show a series of tracks, running across the rooftops of lower buildings, which workers used to move coal cars from waterfront loading areas to a huge chute on the mill’s roof. The coal was shoveled into furnaces that created heat and massive quantities of steam.
One of the early investors in the fiber mill was Charles Pratt who began the first modern American oil refinery in Greenpoint and later became part of the Standard Oil conglomerate. He saw that the growing American merchant marine needed nautical ropes and North Brooklyn became a massive area of nautical rope production. The American Manufacturing Company on Oak and West also produced huge amounts of ropes for ships.
According to the Brooklyn Eagle, These local rope mills employed 4,000 people, making rope production one of Brooklyn’s largest industries. Many of the employees lived locally in Greenpoint tenements and walked to work, and many of these workers were female who were more dexterous in making rope than their male counterparts.
The first half of the century was the golden time for rope making. The American military placed huge orders in the mill during the First and Second World Wars, but after 1945 demand fell and the company left. The plant became home to textile producers and fabric dyeing mills, but by the early 1970s these firms could not pay the bills and in 1974 The City of New York seized the building in a tax foreclosure. The cash strapped city had little money to keep up the old plant. Rust, corrosion, and decay quickly set in. The buildings’ elevators, sprinklers, roofing, electricity, and water distribution systems broke down.
Despite the dilapidation of the mill, a group of commercial tenants set up production shops and artists studios. This small group of artists and woodworkers were allowed month-to-month leases, provided that they did all the maintenance themselves. New York City only gave these occupants month-to-month leases because the decaying mill’s future was uncertain. The city, aware of the huge cost for repairs to the buildings, invited private developers to to set up a residential conversion project, but no one thought they could turn a profit and no one invested in the mill. The city considered demolishing the complex because of the large cost of maintenance.
In 1992 a tenants group and David Sweeny, the director of economic development for the North Brooklyn Development Corporation, incorporated the Greenpoint Manufacturing and Design Center. The GMDC applied to buy the mill from the city as a home for local artists and craftsmen. After a series of protracted fights with city agencies, GMDC bought the site for $1 with the city also promising to set aside an additional $1 million for renovations. Acting as a nonprofit local development corporation, GMDC acquired the property and raised the large amount of capital needed to renovate the site. At first, success eluded GMDC, but the redevelopment eventually succeeded, and the site became home for 76 small manufacturers and artisans who today employ more than three hundred fifty local workers. GMDC is today a huge success and it is acquiring other sites to revitalize other parts of the city as it did here in Greenpoint. David Sweeny won the battle to save the mill, but lost his own eyesight in the same year he formed GMDC. He learned braille and quickly went back to work at North Brooklyn Development Corporation.