By Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
Sugar was once one of Brooklyn’s biggest industries, and the Revere Sugar plant dominated the Red Hook waterfront for almost 100 years.
New York City was once the sugar capital of the world. The ports and piers of New York, specifically those in Brooklyn, made this kingdom of sugar possible. Sugar was big business, and Brooklyn’s sugar barons were some of the city’s wealthiest men.
Raw cane was shipped from tropical countries around the world, offloaded into warehouses and processed here. The refineries extracted the sugar in various forms, and the goods were further packaged and distributed across the nation.
Sugar cane can only be grown in tropical and subtropical climates, making this already labor-intensive product even harder to produce. It’s hot, hard work. Sugar plantations in the Caribbean formed one of the points in the golden triangle of money and slavery that propelled the economies of two continents, while later production in the islands of the Pacific made millionaires of the colonial powers there, too.
Sugar production begins when the cane fields are cut down and transported to nearby processing facilities where the stalks are further cut, mashed under rollers and broken, releasing the sap. This juice is collected and boiled in huge vats to filter out dirt, leaves and other large impurities, then dried and baled. This raw sugar is then shipped to the northern refineries.
Brooklyn’s Role in Big Sugar
Many Brooklynites are aware of Williamsburg’s iconic Domino Sugar Factory. The company was started in 1856 by the Havemeyer family as the American Sugar Refining Company. A third generation Havemeyer renamed it Domino Sugar in 1900. Sugar production was so important in the U.S. that the American Sugar Co. was one of the original 12 companies making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. They refined more than half the sugar in the United States.
They weren’t alone. At least 12 smaller sugar refineries stood along the East River and Newtown Creek. Secondary companies that made products like barrels and other products used in sugar production also thrived. In what is now Dumbo, coffee magnate John Arbuckle got tired of buying Havemeyer sugar for his coffee roasting operation and opened his own sugar refinery at 10 Jay Street. It soon became a major rival and stayed in operation until 1945.
The Red Hook piers were as perfect a place for sugar refineries as Williamsburg or Dumbo. A ship carrying the raw sugar could berth at the refinery’s back door. There was plenty of warehouse space on the piers, as well as inland. The finished product could also be shipped out easily, with rail, road and water transportation easily accessible.
There were a few sugar refineries in Red Hook. The Atlantic Sugar Refinery and the Santa Rosa Refinery stood on the India Wharf, as did the Electric Sugar Refinery, a marvelous con game played out in the 1880s by a group of flim-flam artists. (The story can be found on Brownstoner beginning here.)
Those operations didn’t last long, crowded out by other industries. The largest refinery, the one that made quite a visual impact on the shoreline of Red Hook, was best known by the last name it had: the Revere Sugar Refinery.
The American Molasses Company
The Revere Sugar Refinery started out in 1915 as the American Molasses Company. It incorporated existing buildings that stood on what was known as the Richards Street bulkhead, a large rectangular plot of land created from landfill jutting out into the Erie Basin. It was created sometime between 1870 and 1880 by William Beard, who along with his partner Jeremiah Robertson, built the Erie Basin itself. They went on to build dozens of warehouses, called “stores” around the basin, some of which still stand, including the building housing today’s Red Hook Fairway.
The landfill included a long open wooden pier that jutted out into the water. By 1885, that pier was enlarged and covered with a wooden shed that ran its entire the length. Stores were built on the landfill, and by 1886, a large five-story warehouse joined the site, facing out towards the water. The stores were sturdy brick warehouses with heavy wooden beam construction, built to support great weights.
The multi-story buildings had large arched windows with heavy metal shutters that could open to let light in but keep the weather and water out. Inside, goods were moved from floor to floor via ramps, pulleys and lifts. The basic style of the buildings was a familiar sight in the area, but a five-story warehouse was a rarity.
The American Molasses Company was headed by the Taussig family. Patriarch Isaac Taussig was a partner in the Manhattan rock candy and syrup firm of Taussig & Hammerschlag. His brother was the head of a sugar related company in Chicago. Isaac was also a two-term mayor of Jersey City. Both brothers went bankrupt at the same time in 1886, which made them ran afoul of the Havemeyer family in Williamsburg, who took them to court over the bankruptcy.
They lost their candy company, but the family stayed in sugar, and later founded the American Molasses Company. Isaac took the position of treasurer of the company. His eldest son Charles went into the business after college, and after working in several positions, joined the board of directors in 1918, and was made chairman in 1927. He was a true sugar baron and would go on to head the Boston Molasses Co, the American Molasses Company of Louisiana and other sugar concerns.
The company took over the Richards Street bulkhead buildings, and began buying up additional buildings as needed, mostly for storage. They used the five-story warehouse for offices and making barrels, among other things. Over the next 50 years, they built more buildings and conveyors for various parts of the refining process, including the much-photographed round steel tank with the conical roof.
Across the street from the main plant, the company purchased 76 Van Dyke Street, a large one-story building built as the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Company in 1854. Between 1928 and the early 1980s, it was used to manufacture and store molasses.
Refining Sugar Is a Hot Mess
Raw sugar came into the plant by ship, mostly from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, as well as Hawaii and the Philippines. The sugar went from the ships to bins on the sides of the plant, then up conveyors to the top of the storage bin where the bags were ripped open and the contents dumped into storage in that big round building.
From there, the sugar went through several refining processes that removed the brown molasses coating, which was separated and processed in another building into molasses, cattle feed and alcohol. The remaining sugar was dissolved in water and treated with chemicals to remove impurities. It was then filtered through carbon to further remove impurities, which bleached the sugar white. Animal bone ash was used for this process.
Further heating processes boiled off the liquid, leaving crystal sugar. That was run through a centrifuge and dried in rotating heated cylindrical drums, which separated the sugar into the granules we recognize as processed sugar. The final step was packaging the sugar for market. Basically, the process started with raw crystals at the highest points in the plant, and by the time it reached the ground floor, it was table sugar.
By the early 1930s, the American Molasses Company had purchased two other companies as wholly owned subsidiaries: the Nulomoline Corp. and Sucrest Sugar. They now operated as the Sucrest Corporation. The large rambling refinery that longtime Red Hook people remember was built in 1934; and the round storage tank dates from this time.
The Brooklyn Eagle noted at the time the new refinery was state of the art and would be able to produce 3 million 100-pound bags of sugar a year. The factory had its own power plant and warehouse facilities with more than 300,000 square feet of storage.
Taussig told reporters the factory would be different from Brooklyn’s other sugar refineries, in that they would not only be making table sugar, but they would be producing several kinds of specialty sugars, nulomoline among them. Nulomoline is a type of liquid sugar called invert sugar that is used primarily in commercial baking. It is what keeps soft cookies soft and fudge creamy and is used in the production of ice cream and sorbet.
Sucrest built their new plant in the middle of the Great Depression, a sign of hope for Brooklyn’s workforce. Charles Taussig was well-known in Washington, D.C., as a corporate leader and international businessman. In 1933, he was chosen as a member of FDR’s brain trust, Roosevelt’s informal group of advisors who aided him in shaping New Deal policies.
Taussig was appointed chairman of the national advisory committee of the National Youth Administration, among other things. He took his job perhaps too seriously, writing often about his worries that the idle youth of his day would turn to Communism and ruin. He was the author of several books and publications. Some writings were about youth and hobbies, others on the history and production of sugar and molasses.
At the end of 1936, Taussig’s Sucrest Sugar hired one of the three original brain trusters, Rexford Tugwell. The Columbia University professor had resigned from FDR’s service after being deemed too progressive and radical, and was appointed executive vice president of Sucrest. He would go on to become the first director of the NYC Planning Commission in 1938, where he ran up against Robert Moses. The new agency had few teeth, and he generally lost. Between 1941 and 1946, he served as the last appointed governor of Puerto Rico. He then went back to academia.
From Sucrest Sugar to Revere Sugar
Sucrest Sugar continued to flourish after World War II. By then, the company and its rival, Domino Sugar, were all that was left of Brooklyn sugar, and both were still huge. Charles Taussig died in 1948. Rexford Tugwell was also long gone. By 1949, the company was being run by Oscar Saar. Brooklyn was changing rapidly after the war. The Erie and Atlantic Basins were losing their grip on New York shipping, as larger ships were beginning to choose New Jersey as their port of call. But the company was still thriving in Red Hook.
In the 1970s, Sucrest purchased the Revere Sugar Company of Boston. Revere, whose logo was Paul Revere on horseback, had a refinery in Boston and one in Chicago. Brooklyn’s Sucrest plant was rebranded as the Revere Sugar refinery. In 1977, Sucrest sold its Revere plants to Antonio Floriendo, a major banana grower in the Philippines and a close crony of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos. Part of the sale included a previous 1976 contract in which Revere would purchase 650,000 tons of sugar from government-controlled sugar operations in the Philippines.
Floriendo positioned himself to make millions as a broker in the sugar purchases, then bought the company making those purchases, and paid himself several more millions in broker’s fees when the sales went through. Meanwhile, American sugar habits were changing, as manufacturers began using domestic fructose corn syrup instead of sugar in soft drinks and just about everything else. Market loss and Floriendo’s looting of his own company for his personal enrichment began to take its toll.
In 1984, the Boston plant closed. Then the Chicago refinery closed and was demolished. A year later, the Red Hook plant joined them as Revere Sugar went into bankruptcy. As government and private lawyers litigated over where the money went, the plant sat there empty, its jobs gone. The Domino Sugar plant in Williamsburg would hang on until 2004, when it too closed. Sugar, once one of Brooklyn’s biggest industries, was now dead.
The plant, a cobbled-together assemblage of old and new buildings, sat abandoned on the Red Hook pier. The older brick buildings held up to the elements better than the new ones, but over the years, the steel conveyors, platforms and tanks rusted and deteriorated.
The site became unsafe but intriguing to urban explorers and photographers. A pack of wild dogs roamed the site. The property was in no danger of going anywhere, as much of Red Hook’s real estate and shoreline was not on anyone’s radar.
In 1991, architect Thomas R. Flagg documented the buildings on the site, evaluating some or all of it for inclusion on the National Register or for New York City landmarking. He listed almost 30 buildings that were part of the overall plant, including offsite storage buildings.
He determined that several buildings were very important and should be preserved. They included 76 Van Dyke, the Brooklyn Fire Brick building, as well as the large five-story brick warehouse building, and the wood-framed covered pier.
The latter was in pretty good shape, and among the last of its kind in the city. The warehouse was deemed important as a part of the area’s “stores” history, and because of its size and height. It was also in decent shape and could be repurposed.
Red Hook developer Greg O’Connell had already purchased the 19th century Beard stores, and was developing it as housing and a supermarket. Fairway opened in 2006. In 2005, Ikea purchased the Todd Shipyards, a historic Civil War-era dry dock and shipping facility located next door to the Revere site. Their 346,000-square-foot store opened in 2008. Red Hook real estate, especially on the harbor, was becoming hot.
In 2005, the Revere Sugar site was purchased for $40 million by Thor Equities’ Joe Sitt. Preservationists tried to save the Revere Sugar warehouse and covered pier, and others tried to convince Sitt to incorporate the iconic tank and dome into any new project, but much of the site, including the tank, was demolished in 2006.
The five-story warehouse at 101 Beard Street, which overlooked the harbor, was spared. But hopes that it would be saved and repurposed were dashed when the building was torn down in 2009. The entire site has been cleared and vacant now for almost 10 years.
Thor Equities has proposed several projects for the property. The latest, an ambitious office-retail complex at 270 Richards Street designed by famed British architectural firm Foster + Partners (whose founder is Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster), was announced in 2016. Construction on the cutting-edge heavy-timber frame structure has yet to begin.
Some Revere-affiliated buildings are still standing. Most of them are rather nondescript one-story storage warehouses on Van Dyke Street. One building of note is 76 Van Dyke, the Fire Brick building. Greg O’Connell purchased and renovated it in 1995, and it is now the studio of sculptor Carol Bove. Because of its historical and architectural significance, the building was designated a New York City Landmark in 2001.