Red Hook Works

The three-story brick manufacturing complex that fronts 43-61 Ferris street, NE corner of 168-184 Wolcott street, aka 55 Ferris Street, in Red Hook is a reserved and unpretentious mill and foundry, at first glance no different from many of the other heavy industrial buildings that once characterized the local maritime and littoral neighborhood.

Its subtle, shallow buttresses, lightly corbelled cornice and bluestone damp course indicate a thoughtful but still understated design. The lot, located between Wolcott and Sullivan Streets, also contains a solid, subtly tapered brick chimney and a second structure, long and thin with a revealing basilica form. The north side of the lot contains a newly planted garden.

Built in 1899, these buildings have seen many uses over the years. Initially constructed as the manufactory of the Wittemann Brothers, manufacturers of Bottle Ware, Bottling Sundries, Labels, Machinery & Apparatus.

Wittemann Brothers was established in 1874 by Adolph W. Wittemann, with salesrooms and general offices located at 188 William Street, New York, and manufacturing plants in New York and Jersey City, NJ. As reported in the New York Times in 1898, their wood-framed factory in Jersey City burned to the ground in an hour and a half, two days before Christmas. Compelled to relocate, they chose the Atlantic Basin section of Brooklyn, and initiated the construction of an entirely new facility.

By January of 1899, the Real Estate Record and Builders’ Guide shows Wittemann purchasing eighteen vacant lots on Ferris Street, running from Sullivan to Wolcott, and states that they ‘expect to bring with them 150 of their employees, who will take up their residence in Brooklyn’. Two months later, The Engineering Record shows a permit had been issued for a new complex of buildings at Ferris Street, to be built by the Morris Building Co. and designed by none other than Brooklyn architect William Bunker Tubby.

It may at first seem odd for a high-profile architect to take a commission for a factory. After all, at the end of the nineteenth century, Tubby was considered one of New York City’s most prominent residential architects. Born in Iowa to a Quaker family that later moved to Brooklyn, Tubby’s career was long and prolific. It centered mainly around institutional and residential commissions in Brooklyn, but he designed nearly every type of building, from factories and stables to churches and mausoleums. He lived most of his life in the borough, and his own residence, of his design, still stands at No. 124 Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights

Tubby is probably best known for his long stint as the favored architect to the borough’s richest family, the Pratts. His commissions for them endowed Brooklyn with a wealth of revival style mansions. His run of houses along Clinton Avenue is particularly impressive, most built for one Pratt or another. The most iconic is No. 241, the Charles M. Pratt House. It’s dusky red brick, green tile roof, winking eyebrow window, and yawning monumental carriage archway epitomize the Romanesque Revival like few other homes in New York City.

As it turns out, the Morris Building Co., who constructed the new Wittemann complex, was the development arm of the Pratt family, which partially explains Tubby’s connection. How the Morris Building Co. and Wittemann Bros. became acquainted is unknown, but a lithograph from the early 1900s reveals how the full complex was originally conceived. The Red Hook Works, as it came to be known, was planned as three principal buildings: two ell-shaped twin structures book-matched to embrace a third basilica-shaped Machinery Hall. Large clerestory windows in the Hall’s upper story provided ample light for the performance of detailed fabrication work. A parallel bridge crane extended through the Hall and onto Ferris Street, facilitating the movement of raw materials in and finished product out.

Advertising broadsides in publications such as American Bottler and Brewer’s Journal from the first decade of the century show Wittemann Brothers, otherwise known as the American Apparatus Works, engaged in a wide variety of manufacturing, design, and supply to the bottling industry, and to brewers in particular. Red Hook Works’ departments included:

  • Machinery and Engineering: fabrication of pumps, bottle washing machines, pasteurizers, carbonators and all manner of heavy equipment
  • General Supplies: bottles, corks, decanters, flasks
  • Lithography and Printing: fabricating labels, catalogues, calendars and stationery
  • Capsules: bottle and jar caps, stamped tin foil
  • Importations: imported bottles, corks, straw covers
  • Siphons: Crystal glass soda bottles with nozzles

Red Hook Works supported sales offices in New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, and shipped this array of manufactured and imported goods across the country from Brooklyn.

The ensuing decades see various changes at Ferris Street. The formation of a new lithography company called Wittemann-Petigor, as well the arrival of Le Comte & Co., a manufacturer of galvanized and terne-plated metal containers. The Le Comte & Co name is still visible on the Wolcott Street elevation, the painted white letters still discernible against the red brick.

A 1921 ad in the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce Bulletin taken by Wittemann Brothers claims ‘If it is a Machine Shop Job Let Wittemann Do It!,’ indicating the firm was still in operation at Ferris Street. In 1926, the property is listed for sale in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A sale is made in August, announced in the New York Times.

Segal Lock and Hardware Company was known as the Burglar-Proof Lock Company. The company was founded in 1912 by Samuel Segal, a former New York City police detective, whose ample experience with burglaries led him to a novel re-design of the deadbolt door lock. The story goes that Segal had presented his design to major manufacturers, but was rebuffed time and again. Undeterred, he carried locks of his own manufacture around on his beat and sold them to shopkeepers. Shopkeepers loved the lock, and the soon-to-be ex-cop was able to acquire capital to form his business from a stranger he met on the street during his nightly rounds. Segal’s touchstone product, a door lock with a vertical rather than horizontal bolting action, is still in production today and would be quickly recognized by anyone who has ever lived in a New York City apartment.

Segal Lock & Hardware had been carrying out manufacturing in Manhattan and Connecticut, but in 1926 they decided to consolidate their foundry and machining operations at Ferris Street. The company was ambitious, acquiring the Norwalk Lock Company and the Universal Razor Blade Corporation in quick succession after their move to Red Hook.

By 1931, demand for their razors had become so high that Segal devoted the Ferris Street location solely to razor blade production, pumping out 500,000 blades and 25,000 holders per day on continuous 24-hour operations. Segal’s drive and growth seemed unstoppable — in 1930 and 31 they paid off their debt, issued $700,000 worth of bonds, hired the VP of Sales away from Gillette, and then filed an anti-monopoly suit against that industry titan for 1.5 million dollars in an attempt to widen the market for their razor designs.

Segal weathered the Depression and World War II intact, but in the early 1950s, the company was bought by the New England Lock Company, who moved operations out of Red Hook. (Segal’s burglar-proof locks are still manufactured today, and still bear their inventor’s name.)

In 1997 the Ferris Street complex was purchased by another hardware manufacturer, E.R. Butler & Co. After a lengthy period of restoration and capital investment, the Red Hook Works has been brought to life once again, joining in the creative foment that characterizes this diverse section of Brooklyn, the works itself serving as an homage to the manufacturers who once occupied this historic neighborhood.

–Dan Lane

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