domino

January 9th: The Anniversary of the Great Fire that Destroyed the Domino Refinery in 1882

January 9th marks the one hundred thirty-sixth anniversary of one of the most destructive fires in North Brooklyn. On a frigid January night, the Havemeyer and Elder Refinery, which would forty years later be renamed as Domino, went up in one of the most spectacular fires the area had ever witnessed.

The refinery, the largest building in Williamsburg at the time, was nine stories high, covering an entire block on Wythe Avenue between South Third and South Fourth streets and stretching some two hundred feet in from the street to the East river shore. Having been in the sugar business for more than eighty years, the Havemeyer family knew the danger that fires often broke out in sugar refineries. The presence of steam, thousands of moving parts that could cause sparks in the refinery and the highly flammable sugar all made fire a grave risk. For a quarter century they had refined huge amounts of sugar without incident, but their luck would run out that January day.
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Amazing Photos of the Domino Sugar Refinery on Display Until January 14th

Inside the Domino Sugar Factory, from the "Sweet Ruin" exhibit, photo by Paul Raphaelson
Inside the Domino Sugar Factory, from the “Sweet Ruin” exhibit, photo by Paul Raphaelson

There’s been a lot of activity and news lately about the iconic Domino Sugar Factory on the Williamsburg waterfront. Our own historical writer Geoff Cobb recently published a new book about Domino titled The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, and he’s been sharing some of those stories here on our site. Additionally, the redesign proposal for the Domino site was recently approved, and the architects shared the final plans for the waterfront park. And just a few weeks ago we were able to tour the first new building in the Domino Sugar complex at 325 Kent Street, with the major selling point seeming to be the stunning views of Manhattan and the Williamsburg Bridge.

From now until January 14th, photos taken inside the Domino Sugar complex are on view at former Williamsburg gallery Front Room (48 Hester Street) in Manhattan. According to the gallery, “In 2013, Paul Raphaelson received permission from the developers of the Domino site to explore every square foot of the refinery just weeks before its gutting and demolition. Raphaelson is the last photographer given access to the factory.” The gallery is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1-6pm. Smithsonian has a detailed article about the photos, and the site’s history.

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Landmark Commission Approves Design for Domino Sugar Refinery

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. Continue reading

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Horrific History Lesson: Working Conditions at The Domino Sugar Refinery

Although the former Domino Sugar refinery on Kent Avenue does not lie in Greenpoint, the building and the firm that ran it, Havemeyer and Elder, cast a long shadow over local history. Having spent the summer researching the plant for my upcoming book The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King, it is hard to express how much suffering is associated with the refinery.

The plant, which was opened in 1858, employed thousands of Greenpointers over its almost a century-and-a-half of existence. Much of the reason that we have a Polish population today is because the refinery had a policy of hiring Slavic men, principally Polish, who could not recount to outsiders the misery that working in the plant entailed. They worked in horrendous conditions that we can scarcely imagine today. Continue reading

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The Forgotten History of Sugar in North Brooklyn

The old Domino Sugar refinery, with North Brooklyn Farms in the foreground.

To understand the history of Greenpoint and Williamsburg you have to grasp the massive role that refining played in this heavily industrial corner of North Brooklyn. Our area became the world’s largest refiner of oil and sugar and the owners of these refineries became unbelievably wealthy. A lot of writers have told the story of local oil refining, but until now there has been a dearth of information about the massive local sugar industry here, so I wrote The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King to trace the powerful effect sugar refining had on North Brooklyn.
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