Dumbo Historic District

DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) is situated on the Brooklyn side of the East River between two designated historic districts, Fulton Ferry and Vinegar Hill. While these flanking districts represent, respectively, commercial and residential histories, this neighborhood tells the story of manufacturing.

DUMBO’s buildings express over a century of history, from c.1830 to 1935, when Brooklyn rose to become a major industrial center and home to many of the nation’s most important industrial firms. The factories of Arbuckle Brothers (coffee and sugar), J.W. Masury & Sons (paint), Robert Gair (paper boxes), E.W. Bliss (machinery), and Brillo (steel wool) are all still standing along with those of many lesser-known manufacturers. These structures also document important trends in industrial design during this time. Early 19th-century brick façade buildings with massive wooden posts and beams still stand next to those with terra-cotta floor arches and steel frames and even later reinforced concrete structures. The Gair Company building is one of the first, if not the first reinforced concrete factory building in the United States. The architects of these factories vary as much as the materials produced here, from little-known figures to major players such as William Tubby, the Parfitt Brothers, and William Higginson, a pioneer in the concrete factory construction.
Looking toward Manhattan from under the Manhattan Bridge

DUMBO was one of the earliest European settlements on Long Island, and the National Register DUMBO Industrial District includes a piece of the original Dutch settlement of Brooklyn. The area remained residential into the 1830’s, as a few of these early residences still standing can attest. As early as the 1820’s industry began to make itself home here, with the Union Foundry moving in first. Its location on the East River was perfect for industry as raw materials could be easily brought in and finished goods shipped out. Manufacturing grew throughout the century. DUMBO’s factories helped make Brooklyn the fourth largest manufacturing center in the nation by the early years of the 20th century.

The most notable feature in the district and the one from which the area gets its name is, of course, the Manhattan Bridge. Built in 1909, the bridge soars above the area and its massive granite pier and several granite support arches stand within the district’s boundaries.

Railroad tracks remain in the original granite Belgian block street paving leading to and from the site of the former Jay Street Terminal Freight Yard on the East River. This Belgian block paving can be found in some areas stretching from one building line across the street to another without sidewalks, possibly the only place in New York City with this type of street design. Other parts of the district retain their original Belgian block sidewalks.

This intriguing collection of late 19th- and early 20th-century industrial buildings of architectural and historical importance was recognized by inclusion on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in September of 2000. While this designation officially recognizes the history and importance of the area, it does not protect the neighborhood from the triple threat of insensitive “improvements,” demolition, and out of scale construction. In addition, the overheated real estate market of the past few years has diminished the incentive for using the Federal Tax Credit program for the restoration and rehabilitation of historic structures. Building new towers with luxurious views of the river and the skyline is more profitable than converting the relatively low-rise commercial buildings into residences, even with appropriate rooftop additions.

Only historic district designation by the New York City’s Landmark Preservation Commission will preserve the unique character and sense of place of this 19th-century industrial enclave.


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