All architectural renderings courtesy of Practice for Architecture and Urbanism

The architectural firm Practice for Architecture and Urbanism has finally succeeded in winning approval for the redesign of the Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue. An earlier redesign proposal was rejected because commissioners expressed the belief that the re-development was turning the building into a shell by removing its roof and interior and exposing it to the elements. Commissioner Michael Goldblum said, “You’re taking a building and unbuilding it, making it a ruin.” He also asked, “Is it appropriate?”

Designing a new use for the building was extremely challenging due to the building’s landmark status—it was officially landmarked a decade ago—which mandated that the industrial façade be preserved. The building, constructed in 1882, was for many years the largest sugar refinery on the planet. It was built with small windows and heavy brick walls meant to prevent fire, always a serious danger in sugar refining. (You can read more about working life in the sugar refinery in our previous post). Incorporating the thick brick walls and tiny windows into a viable modern design has proven to be a massive design challenge.
The new approved design by architect and PAU founder Vishaan Chakrabarti will feature a ten-to-twelve foot gap between the nineteenth-century masonary and the new building. Chakrabarti stated in a presentation before the commission that the new glass interior design will bring light and air into the new structure’s interior. Commission Chairwoman Meenakshi Srinivasan, who voted in favor of the redesign, called PAU’s plan “a very fascinating and really creative approach” that would “breathe new life” into the “functionally obsolete” structure.

At least one commissioner had problems with the proposal’s opening the roof of the building. Commissioner Michael Devonshire voted against PAU’s refinery redesign plan, claiming it “destroys a viable building and turns it into a ruin.” Devonshire is concerned about the potential for frost to damage the nineteenth-century brick when the roof is removed.

The decision allows the developer Two Trees Management to begin transforming the historic refinery. CEO Jed Walentas called the refinery the “epicenter” of his firm’s redevelopment of an 11-acre parcel on the Williamsburg waterfront.

As a historian who has just published a book about the refinery called The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, I have mixed feelings. I want to see the historic refinery preserved, but also realize that progress is important and development of the site is crucial to Williamsburg’s future. I hope that the new design really does preserve this important relic from Williamsburg’s industrial past.

The Domino Sugar building today. Photo: Megan Penmann

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