Neighborhood at Risk: Williamsburg

Due to its location on the East River, Williamsburg was one of the most prosperous industrial areas in New York City. There are numerous possible individual landmarks, and three proposed historic districts (Grand Street, the Domino Sugar Factory and Fillmore Place) that speak to the neighborhood’s commercial, manufacturing and residential histories.

Northside Savings Bank, 33-35 Grand StreetWilliamsburg, in northwestern Brooklyn, was marsh farms in the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1800, Richard M. Woodhull, a ferry operator, set out to build a commuter community and named it after Jonathan Williams, the surveyor of the area. The attempt failed, and in 1806 Woodhull declared bankruptcy. Twelve years later David Dunham opened a steam ferry and lent money to a new development. The village of Williamsburgh was incorporated in 1827, and by mid-century it was the third-largest city in the region. The “h” was dropped in 1855 when the village was consolidated into Brooklyn.

The main thoroughfare of the neighborhood in the 19th century was Grand Street. At the foot of the street were the docks for the ferry service that began running between Manhattan and Williamsburg in 1797. By the mid-1860s, ferryboats carried 200,000 passengers each day. As business grew, commercial structures in a variety of styles and materials were built along Grand Street. Theobald Englehardt designed the Romanesque-style Northside Savings Bank Building with rusticated stone and a cast-iron cornice in 1889. The Cast Iron Building from 1872 is a rare, intact example of cast-iron architecture in Williamsburg. With the opening of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, much of the commercial activity moved to Broadway.

Williamsburg’s location on the East River was perfect for industry as raw materials could be easily brought in and finished goods shipped out. Manufacturing grew rapidly throughout the 19th century. By the early years of the 20th century, Williamsburg’s industries had helped make Brooklyn the fourth largest manufacturing center in the nation.Domino Sugar factory

One of the most impressive and significant manufacturing establishments in the area is the Domino Sugar Factory. The Havemeyer and Elder sugar refinery started here in 1856 and, at the time, was the largest sugar refinery in the world. With approximately thirty buildings, some dating to 1882, the factory employed over 5,000 people at its peak. The factory closed in 2004. Its 148 continuous years of sugar refining makes the area the longest operating industrial site in Brooklyn.

The earliest buildings in the complex were built in 1882 after a massive fire destroyed the original factory. They are in the Rundbogenstil, or round arch style, that originated in Germany in the 1840’s and came to America with German émigrés in the last half of the 19th century. Earlier in origin than Romanesque Revival, it is more utilitarian in design. The round arch while more expensive allowed for taller openings for loading purposes while retaining its structural integrity. Other buildings’ construction in the complex date from the 1920’s into the 1960’s.

North side of Fillmore PlaceFillmore Place, the third proposed district, is made up of three-story, brick row houses dating to the turn of the century. The block is off the regular street grid and is a significantly narrower street, which adds to its distinct sense of being a cohesive enclave.

The historic buildings of Williamsburg are a standing monument to the neighborhood’s former industrial glory and provide housing and business space for many area residents. Yet many of these buildings are in danger of being demolished in the face of a housing boom. While growth is important for the health of the city overall, the number and size of proposed developments may very well ruin the streetscapes and pedestrian scale which attracted growing numbers of new residents and businesses.

In 2006 the Preservation League of New York State named Williamsburg and neighboring Greenpoint to its Seven to Save list. Only designation as a New York City historic district can save Williamsburg.

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