This post is by Nina Nazionale, Director of Library Operations
The architectural profile of the Brooklyn waterfront, especially in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, has changed radically in the last ten years. Amidst the new, high-rise towers, stands a massive, stately low-rise. Originally known as the Austin, Nichols & Co., Inc. warehouse and now a luxury apartment building, it is a visual reminder of the waterfront’s commercial and industrial past.
The building was distinctive from the day it opened, if for no other reason than its architect Cass Gilbert (1859-1934), known for his innovative designs of the U.S. Customs Building (1907) and the Woolworth Building (1913). It was, and still is, unusual for a renowned architect to design a warehouse. The developers of the site knew that Gilbert’s name would lend cachet to the project, and Gilbert himself remarked, in 1913, that “a building of dignity commensurate with the standing of such a company was a valuable advertising and business asset.”
Gilbert believed a building’s design should flow from its intended use. Working in the Egyptian Revival style, which emphasized scale and proportion, he integrated what were disparate needs—the processing, packing, and shipping of food; the hosting of retail buyers; and a comfortable, well-lit environment for employees—into an elegant and effective design. The warehouse was built with reinforced concrete, a relatively new technique that reduced costs and also the threat of fire, a serious consideration in the years following the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.
The size and grandeur of the building suited Austin, Nichols & Co., Inc., then the largest wholesale grocery business in the world. The wholesaler was able to consolidate the operations of all nine of its Manhattan locations into one building in Brooklyn. With access to the waterfront and located next to a freight terminal, the new site allowed Austin, Nichols to ship the bulk of its inventory by rail at a time when trucking costs had become exorbitant. Freight cars were loaded on the warehouse’s first floor, transported to the adjacent Brooklyn Eastern District Terminal, then floated on barges to Manhattan and New Jersey, where rail lines that stretched across the country originated.
Austin, Nichols & Co., Inc. prided itself not just in its highly efficient packaging and distribution operations but also in its on-site production of fresh food, spices, and coffee. Peanut butter, a food introduced just twenty years earlier and not yet popular, was made and jarred at the warehouse. Whole cloves and cinnamon were ground into powder; vanilla beans immersed in pure grain alcohol to make vanilla extract; and, a large part of the fifth floor was devoted to coffee roasting. The company’s attention to high-quality food extended to rooms called restaurants—rather than cafeterias—where employees ate meals subsidized by the company. And, at least in the time right after the warehouse’s opening in 1915, a French chef oversaw the preparation of all meals.
In the decades after Austin, Nichols & Co., Inc. vacated the building, it was occupied by a series of commercial and residential tenants. When a long and contentious attempt to landmark the building failed in 2007, the development of the building for residential use began. The Austin Nichols warehouse re-opened as the apartment building 184 Kent Avenue in 2010.
In celebration of both the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the Austin, Nichols & Co., Inc. warehouse and the library’s vast Cass Gilbert holdings, I have curated a small installation, Cass Gilbert & the Brooklyn Waterfront, that will be on view along the Leah and Michael Weisberg Monumental Treasure Wall on the first floor of the New-York Historical Society, through Sunday, May 3, 2015.