The Domino Effect: Erasing History

 In Blog

1909 vintage photo of a military parade in downtown Dallas as it passes by the 1600 block of Main Street

Dallas architect, Steve Chambers, recently visited the historic Domino Sugar Factory in New York City. He studied and photographed it in order to contrast the public dialogue surrounding its reuse with the recent demolition of the 1611 Main Street in Dallas, Texas. Preservationists in Brooklyn, the site of the vintage sugar factory, stirred spirited debate and rallied support to save at least a portion of the five-blocks of antique structures along the East River in Williamsburg. Construction and preservation are just beginning in New York, the results not yet realized. But, the contrast with Dallas’ recent razing of an 1885 Romanesque Revival structure couldn’t be more stark. In Dallas, a real estate developer was able to demolish a 129-year old terracotta façade treasure into history without allowing anyone with a clue of its value to Dallas’ architectural heritage to enter the conversation. It took a single day to erase its lively history and make way for the retail expansion of The Joule Hotel.

History of the Brooklyn Factory

Built in 1856, the Domino Sugar Factory is a New York City architectural icon that dominates the East River waterfront of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was the first of many sugar refineries that contributed to the emergence of the Port of New York as the industrial center in the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century over half the sugar in the world was produced in Brooklyn.

By the end of the Civil War, the factory was the largest sugar refinery in the world. After a fire in 1882, it was completely rebuilt to include the two grand brick buildings and distinctive smokestack that still stand today. The immense “Domino Sugar” sign was added to the East River side of the building in the 1950s, transforming the 90,000-square-foot complex into a landmark of the city.

Decline of the Sugar Industry

Eventually the market pressures from artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup and cheaper labor costs led to a decline in demand from the Brooklyn plant and on January 30th, 2004 all factory operations at the Williamsburg site ceased. At the same time much of the Brooklyn waterfront was rezoned for high rise residential development making the old refinery site an attractive property to real-estate developers.

Williamsburg Brooklyn Domino-Sugar Factory before its closure in 2004

Current demolition of one of the interior buildings at the Domino Sugar Factory

The Community Opens a Dialogue With the Developer

The proposed design for the reuse of the sugar factory by developers, Two Trees, stirred conflict with preservationists over the fate of the site’s existing structures and land use. With historic buildings along the Brooklyn waterfront rapidly disappearing, preservationists wanted to protect the industrial heritage of north Brooklyn and save the refinery structures from demolition. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio led the standoff against the developer, insisting the developer increase the amount of affordable housing units at the site. In return, his administration would grant approval for taller towers at the site.The Save Domino! campaign intensified and the $1.5 billion redevelopment of the sugar factory reached the breaking point mere days before a vote to seal its fate.

Win-Win Outcome

The developer increased the number of affordable housing units to be built in the development and made an effort to preserve salvageable relics from the refinery, including the Domino Sugar sign, in the new site and building designs. They also decided to build accessible waterfront parkland and a school as part of an agreement with the city.In addition to what the developers are voluntarily preserving, the Landmarks Preservation Commission granted Landmark Status to one of the Domino Sugar Buildings to protect it in perpetuity. Topping the more ornate upper portion of the building, the renovated structure will have an added four stories of glass clad offices. Once finished, the Filter, Pan and Finishing House will be used as office space marketed to creative tech industries.

Sweet Goodbye, Hello to Re-Use

In late spring of 2014, the building was given a two-week “goodbye” party. Kara Walker, an artist and faculty member at Columbia University, was commissioned to create her first large-scale public project within the walls of the sugar factory. Walker responded to the building’s history and sited her massive, sugarcoated female sphinx, alongside the sprawling industrial relics inside Brooklyn’s legendary Domino factory. The sphinx’s “skin,” was coated in thirty tons of sugar and titled, A Subtlety, the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an homage to the unpaid and overworked artisans who refined our sweet tastes from the cane fields to the kitchens of the New World on the occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.

Dallas, A City in Contrast

According to the National Register of Historic Places, 1611 Main Street was one of downtown Dallas’ oldest buildings, but had no local historic designation and thus no protection from a wrecking ball. Now, this piece of Dallas history is history.

Historic preservationist and architect Marcel Quimby, a former member of Dallas’ Landmark Commission, refers to this latest demolition as a “desecration.” The building was “representative of what was in Dallas 130 years ago, and like everyone else I am stunned that it was done without any public discourse and with a lack of appreciation for Dallas’ heritage,” said Quimby. The recent demolition signals to us at Chambers Architects that Dallas is still behind the times in community dialogue and public policy that governs new development in the fabric of its historic urban landscape. Link to Dallas architecture critic article: “We regret to inform you that your city has been destroyed.” by Mark Lamster

A colorful wall and walk along Kent Avenue in Williamsburg were placed for the rehabilitation of the vintage buildings and construction of new high-rise condos, a percentage of which will be sold as affordable housing to middle income families in order to retain the original cultural heritage of the neighborhood

Inside the Domino Factory at Night

Video Homage to the Factory

Proposed Plan for the Domino Sugar Factory

In the gallery, below, photos of the five-block area in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that includes the historic Domino Sugar Factory and other surrounding snapshots of the mixed-use neighborhood. Photo credit: unless otherwise noted, Stephanie Chambers, Stephen B. Chambers Architects, Inc.