The Wythe Hotel at North 11th Street and Wythe Avenue is a symbol of cool in trendy Williamsburg. The building is a combination of old and new, with a three story sleek glass tower rising out of the remnants of a 1901 industrial building. The hotel’s L-shaped rooftop bar The Ides has stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, attracting people from around the world to the 72-room boutique hotel. People use words like chic, trendy and ultra-modern in describing the building, but it has a fascinating and tragic past that stretches back to the 1890’s—and that past is still evident in today’s hotel building.
In the 1880’s, North Brooklyn was the largest area in the world for the production of refined sugar and local sugar was sent all over the country in wooden barrels. German immigrant Paul Weidmann opened a cooperage, or a wooden barrel factory, along the East River between North 6th and North 7th. Local sugar producers called the Sugar Trust had set up a cartel to monopolize the production of sugar, and they bought Weidmann’s original factory for a huge price so that they could keep a stranglehold on the production of barrels. Weidmann invested the money he made from the sale of his factory, buying local real estate and getting into the beer brewing business. He and his sons opened the Weidmann Brewery, located on North 1st near Berry, but he realized that he could make money constructing barrels for the rivals to the Trust who were intent on breaking their monopoly on refined sugar.
In 1893, Weidmann and his sons re-entered the cooperage business, building a new plant at North 11th and Wythe, which could produce between 6,000 and 7,000 barrels a day. Cooperages produced wooden staves that were then shaped into barrels, and part of the process of producing the barrels was drying the wooden staves in huge ovens—which naturally presented a huge risk of fire.
On June 12, 1900 disaster struck as a fire broke out on the third floor of the cooperage. With huge amounts of dry wood in the factory, it’s not surprising that the fire spread quickly. An employee called in the first alarm and three other alarms quickly followed. Engines Nos. 13 and 21 responded to the first alarm. The employees inside the factory, frightened by the rapid spread of the blaze, forgot that there were fire escapes, so they went to the windows and luckily some were able to jump safely into a net firemen had spread out.
James Haslett, of 49 Kent Avenue became a hero when he climbed up the fire escape to the first story, where several of the employees were hanging out of the upper windows, apparently panic stricken and screaming for help. He rescued two men, and when he reached the ground an old man—with clothes ablaze—jumped out of the first story and landed on Haslett, cutting his head and face. The firemen of Engine No. 12 rescued several men whose clothes were on fire from the second and third floors. The heat of the blaze, however, soon became so intense that the firemen had to abandon their posts even though they knew that there were men still missing. About seven o’clock one of the walls of the factory collapsed, sealing the fate of the missing men. Six workers were killed in the tragic fire that completely destroyed the building.
The Weidmanns decided to rebuild and hired the leading German-American architect in Brooklyn to design a new cooperage, Theobald Englehardt, whose many landmark buildings still grace North Brooklyn. The new cooperage was a gem of industrial design with thick brick walls, thirteen-foot-high timber-framed ceilings, pine beams, cast-iron columns and huge arched windows.
The cooperage eventually shut down, and the structure was used as a textile factory and warehouse. In 2012 the hotel opened, one of only about twenty hotels nationwide that had once been factories. The architect, Morris Adjmi, was determined to save the building’s amazing industrial elements. He reused as much of this amazing timber, glass, and masonry as he could. Layers of paint and grime had to be painstakingly peeled away to reveal the building’s industrial history. The architect exposed many of the old wood beams, cast iron columns, and ceilings. He created large, open rooms accentuating the original architecture of the barrel factory. The hotel created custom furniture, much of which was built by local craftsmen using wood salvaged from the cooperage. In the lobby, an old conveyer belt reminds guests of its days as a barrel plant. The Wythe Hotel, with its glass walls and stunning views of Manhattan is a symbol of the glitzy new Williamsburg, but much of its appeal is its architectural preservation of the structure’s industrial past.