As a lifelong resident of Manhattan, photographer and former urban planner David Allee has often spied the hulking outline of the iconic Domino Sugar Factory in the Brooklyn skyline. When he heard several years ago the complex was to be demolished and developed, he used his contacts from his urban planning career to get access to the site before it was gone.
Opened in 1882, the Domino Sugar Refinery became the largest sugar refinery in the world at the time. At one point, the building produced more than half of the sugar consumed in all of the United States. After running for nearly 150 years, the refinery closed in 2004 and laid abandoned until Two Trees Management bought it in 2012.
Allee has spent the last two years photographing the inside and outside of the factory, making sure to document “every nook and cranny” of the building, which he contends has “a very complicated history.”
Allee shared a number of the photos with us here, and you can check out the rest on his Facebook page.
The Domino Sugar Factory occupies an 11-acre complex of buildings that includes places for refining, processing, storage, and packaging.
© David S. Allee
When the factory was built in 1882, it replaced a sugar-house that had been destroyed by a fire. The building was originally the home of Havemeyers & Elders Sugar Company. Havemeyers later merged with 17 other sugar refineries to form American Sugar Refining, whose sugar was branded as Domino Sugar in 1902.
At its peak, the factory employed more than 5,000 workers and could produce more than 3 million pounds of sugar per day.
Working conditions at the factory were notoriously bad. In 2000, the refinery experienced the one of the longest labour strikes in New York City history, when 250 workers protested wages and working conditions for 20 months.
This is the interior of the cavernous raw sugar storage warehouse, added to the complex in 1927.
Everything in the factory is “literally sugar-coated,” Allee told The New Yorker.
The buildings smell of “crème brûlée mixed with mould and rot,” Allee says.
The majority of the buildings, according to Allee, are too far gone to be repurposed. While the exterior structures are still solid, the interiors are completely falling apart.
The refinery building is the only part of the complex that will remain intact after demolition. It is to be gutted and turned into office space for tech companies. Shown below are the massive steel tanks used for refining sugar.
There are approximately 108 steel refining tanks, each weighing hundreds of tons. Because the tanks are so massive, they were assembled on the site before the refinery building was even built. According to Allee, each tank will have to be dismantled and carried out piece-by-piece, a huge undertaking.
Domino site was purchased in 2010 by Community Preservation Corporation, which, ironically, had plans to demolish the factory and build numerous high-rise luxury apartment buildings.
The plan drew the ire of many in the community. CPC defaulted on the project in 2012, at which point, Two Trees Management bought it for $US180 million.
Two Trees’ plan is similar to CPC’s, except it provides for more open spaces, community areas, and preservation of the refinery building, as well as a new public school. Allee worked with Two Trees on other projects when he was an urban planner, and he approves of the plan.
“You have to be realistic because most of the site can’t be repurposed,” Allee says of Two Trees’ plan. “You have to balance what you can do to preserve the site with the need for the development to make money.”
Two Trees’ $US1.5 billion plan was held up temporarily by New York Mayor Bill De Blasio, who called for more affordable housing units. Two Trees agreed to increase the number of units from 660 to 700, clearing the way for approval in March. Here’s a mockup of what it will look like.
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