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Empire State of Mind: Inside the iconic Empire Stores warehouses

Welcome to DUMBO's historic Empire Stores, cherished by lovers of Brooklyn's post-Civil War architecture. Photos by Rob Abruzzese

Eye On Real Estate

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

It's Back to the Future – behind the construction fence at Empire Stores.

Step inside with Eye on Real Estate for a look at DUMBO's famed former coffee warehouses – which are a surviving slice of Brooklyn's past, when the shoreline was teeming with industrial businesses.

Midtown Equities is turning the seven landmarked, long-vacant buildings on the edge of Brooklyn Bridge Park into an urban campus for tech tenants. At this moment in the construction process, though, everything we gaze upon is treasured historic fabric.

Red-brick exterior walls, two feet thick, are weather-beaten and beautiful, studded with stars that brace the buildings' facade. Ghostly traces of giant painted letters cover the Main Street facade.

“Look at the patina on the building,” says developer Jack Cayre, who is giving us a hard-hat tour of the ultimate eye candy for admirers of Brooklyn's post-Civil War industrial architecture.

“It shouldn't and it won't look new, the historical parts, anyway. That's what makes it what it is,” says Cayre, who heads Midtown Equities with his brother Michael and their father Joseph.

There will be a new part to the Water Street redevelopment project – a glass rooftop addition that drew disapproval from neighborhood advocacy groups and the city Landmarks Preservation Commission, as we previously reported.

Step inside the construction fence. We were invited, so it is okay.

We're seeing stars, though it is light out.

Since then, the rooftop design has been modified – and approved by the State Historic Preservation Office, a SHPO spokesman tells us.

We'll dish up the details in a separate story. But first check out the photos our colleague Rob Abruzzese took – here and in our Industrial Eye Candy feature.

Inside the mighty shoreline buildings, which have been largely unused for a half-century, the spaces are vast – and full of intriguing gear that workers once used, which will be preserved.

Inside six of the warehouses, excavation has been completed so a new foundation can be poured.

Everywhere we turn, there are steep wooden chutes for sliding bags of coffee beans from one floor to another. Over there by an arched window – which had shutters, but no glass, back in the day – stands a huge hoist mechanism made of wood and cast iron.

 A hoist mechanism

In an upstairs space where home furnishings retailer West Elm will build its corporate headquarters, there's a gigantic metal funnel for pouring coffee beans into bags.

A funnel for putting coffee beans into bags, back in the day

Leftover beans that are anywhere from 50 to 150 years old are randomly scattered in various spots.

Also, original building materials are awesome-looking. Interior walls of gray schist that was dug from bedrock are striped with gleaming white quartz.

“These are going to clean up magnificently,” says Cayre, whose firm was granted a 96-year lease for the iconic warehouses by Brooklyn Bridge Park with project partners Rockwood Capital and the HK Organization.

Wood columns stand like proud sentinels in long rows. The rock-hard beams, which are first-growth pine, have a higher fire-resistance rating than steel, Cayre explains as he steps through the mud in a ground-floor space.

We are treading on a patch of bare Brooklyn earth that as far as we know hasn't been exposed to the air since the 1880s, when the newer part of Empire Stores was built. (The rest was constructed between 1869 and 1870.) The dirt is exposed because excavation is finished in six of the buildings, a prelude to pouring a new foundation.

The warehouses seem to stretch on, and on – and no wonder. Empire Stores is the length of a 40-story skyscraper laid on its side.

Steep ladders lead onto the roof. The views are stunning. There's Lady Liberty. And Brooklyn Bridge, thisclose to us, and the World Trade Center and Manhattan's skyline.

“I'm emotionally involved with this building,” Cayre says. “This building is a piece of history.

“Here it is in the middle of the most exciting park in the city, if not the country, in a market like DUMBO with a 1% vacancy rate,” he explains.

“This is authentic. It's perfect for creative types.”

Chutes were used for moving bags of beans from floor to floor.

Another look at the chutes

 Very, very old coffee beans left behind by departed workers.

We were not kidding about the coffee beans. They are all over the place up here.

Shutters like this one are being repaired and replicated for the outside of the property.

Room With a View

Eat, Drink and Be Merry – in Empire Stores' rooftop beer garden

May 21, 2014 - 2:00pm


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