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The Domino Sugar Refinery



(C) Max Touhey


The Domino Sugar Refinery, an iconic structure situated in Brooklyn, United States, is undergoing a remarkable transformation under the creative direction of PAU - Practice for Architecture and Urbanism. This 460,000 square-foot edifice, a significant component of the Brooklyn cityscape, has been captured in its grandeur by photographer Max Touhey. The project, completed in 2023, stands as a testament to adaptive reuse, blending office spaces, retail areas, and community facilities.


Curated by Paula Pintos, this architectural marvel features lighting designed by L'Observatoire International and landscaping by James Corner Field Operations. The structure's engineering complexities are addressed by Ettinger Engineering Associates and Silman, with interior architectural designs by Dencity Works Architecture.

This historical landmark, originally built by Henry Havemeyer, played a pivotal role in Brooklyn's economic landscape. It's a triumphant blend of three integral processes - filtering, panning, and finishing sugar - within its majestic structure. The building’s unique exterior, marked by misaligned windows across four facades, culminates in a powerful smokestack, adding to its monumental presence.


PAU's vision for the refinery, initiated in 2017, was to integrate it into a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood, much like Brooklyn Navy Yard and Industry City. This revitalization involves crafting a blend of creative office spaces, diverse housing options, and engaging retail and community spaces. The design strategy involved inserting a new building within the original structure, maintaining a delicate balance between the old and the new. This approach allowed for optimal floor heights and uninterrupted views of Manhattan, enhancing the building's historic charm with modern functionality.


The ground floor windows have been reimagined as doors, opening into a welcoming public foyer leading to Domino Park. This architectural feat not only preserves the refinery's industrial legacy but also redefines it as a unique, post-industrial landmark in Williamsburg, offering a distinctive experience for both its inhabitants and the broader community.


The Brooklyn waterfront, transformed in the 19th century, saw the rise of significant industrial sites like the Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Industry City. The early development of Williamsburgh, now part of modern-day Williamsburg, was closely tied to its bustling riverbank commercial activities, particularly after its incorporation into the city of Brooklyn in 1855.


The Havemeyer family, led by German cousins Frederick C. and William Havemeyer, was instrumental in this industrialization. They founded their inaugural sugar refinery in Manhattan's Hudson Square in 1807. Initially modest, this facility rapidly grew to dominate an entire city block by the 1840s. Frederick C. Havemeyer Jr. joined the business in 1823, propelling it into a major sugar-refining enterprise.


As their operations outstripped the capacity of their Manhattan site, the Havemeyers ventured into Williamsburg. John C. Havemeyer, a nephew of Frederick Jr., established Havemeyer & Bertrand at the nexus of what is now Kent Avenue and South 3rd Street in 1856. The firm underwent several name changes and expansions, eventually becoming known as Havemeyers & Elder. This refinery, also referred to as the Yellow Sugar House, became a central figure in the Havemeyer family's empire.


Williamsburg swiftly grew into the world's preeminent sugar-refining hub. By 1870, it was producing most of the sugar consumed in the United States, and by 1881, the Havemeyer facility was processing a significant majority of the nation's refined sugar. Its strategic location along the deep East River facilitated direct importation of raw sugar.


However, tragedy struck in 1882 when a massive fire ravaged the original refinery, causing substantial financial loss and job eliminations. This incident also led to a spike in sugar prices across the country. In response, Theodore Havemeyer acquired a new site in Red Hook to continue operations while planning a more fire-resistant structure for the Williamsburg location.


The new facility, completed by 1883, was a marvel of industrial architecture and engineering. It propelled the Havemeyer family to the forefront of the sugar industry. The rebuilt refinery, employing a thousand men, was producing thousands of barrels of sugar daily by 1884. This success led to the formation of the Sugar Refineries Company, later reorganized as the American Sugar Refining Company after antitrust legislation.


The refinery's operations were complex and expansive. Sugar from around the world was processed using advanced techniques and equipment, making it a hallmark of industrial prowess. The working conditions, however, were strenuous, with long hours and modest pay, primarily employing immigrants from various regions.


This comprehensive history reflects not just the evolution of a single refinery but the broader narrative of industrial growth, immigration, and economic change in New York City and the United States. The Domino Sugar Refinery, as it stands today, is a poignant reminder of this rich and complex past, symbolizing both the achievements and challenges of the industrial era.

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