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Unused Brooklyn Warehouse Transformed into City Hub

Aerial view rendering of the seven-building Empire Stores warehouse complex, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, New York
The seven-building Empire Stores warehouse complex, on the waterfront in Brooklyn, has been empty for more than 50 years. It will be refashioned into a center for creative startup businesses, restaurants, and cafes. STUDIO V Architecture

A seven-building complex along the East River is being converted into a center for shopping, business, and the arts—with clear views of nearby bridges as well as Manhattan.

October 22, 2013—The Brooklyn waterfront was a different place in the middle of the 19th century. Crowded, dangerous, and filled with ships trading all manner of goods, it was lined with countless warehouses. Cut off from surrounding neighborhoods, the waterfront, known as Fortress Brooklyn, was a place of work, not leisure. Now, more than 100 years later, few warehouses remain, and the waterfront separating Manhattan and Brooklyn increasingly symbolizes New York’s transformation from manufacturing behemoth to postindustrial playground.

Now, one of the few survivors, the Empire Stores warehouses, vacant for more than 50 years, is on the cusp of an ambitious rehabilitation designed by Studio V Architecture, of New York City. “These remarkable structures were never meant for human habitation,” says Jay Valgora, AIA, LEED-AP, a principal of Studio V. “They were meant to keep coffee beans cold and dark.” Studio V is transforming the warehouse complex into a vibrant mix of startup companies, creative businesses, restaurants, and cafes. Furniture retailer West Elm, which was founded in the Dumbo (“down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass”) neighborhood, will locate its headquarters there.

The Empire Stores complex is actually seven buildings, all set right next to each other and joined by party walls. The first four were built in 1869 and stand four stories tall; in 1885, three more five-story buildings were added.

The seven warehouses were once part of a sequence of similar structures that extended from the Brooklyn Bridge to Red Hook and stored goods ranging from molasses to rum to coffee. Now the chief aim is to find a way to encourage people back onto the site. To reconnect the Dumbo neighborhood to the waterfront, Valgora took a page from the giant bridges that slice through the neighborhood. Blocks in Dumbo are very long, and the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge cut through the city grid on the diagonal. “We took this and created a new cut ourselves, diagonally, through the building, that would also create this unexpected view that would take you to the waterfront,” says Valgora. 

Interior rendering of the warehouse which fully exposes the structural timber joints and girders

Designers plan to slice into the center of the dark warehouses to
create gathering spaces filled with air and light, fully exposing the
structural timber joists and girders. STUDIO V Architecture

This new opening, dubbed “the slice,” will feature three spaces. The first is a two-story passageway off Water Street. The second is a large ground-floor marketplace featuring restaurants, cafes, and local artisanal producers. The third is a dramatic courtyard that will be contained within the building’s walls but entirely open to the sky. The courtyard is meant to be the main public heart of the project, surrounded by the creative arts offices and a waterfront museum. In addition, a one- to two-story glass addition will be constructed atop the warehouses. Studio V is also planning a public rooftop park surrounded by restaurants and cafes, as well as an event space with its own terrace, offering incredible views to Brooklyn Bridge Park, the East River, and the Manhattan skyline.

“We think the old should be old and the new should be new,” says Valgora. “So this building really should [preserve] the history of Brooklyn by rehabilitating and restoring these magnificent 19th-century, massive, masonry-arch structures. But for the new addition we wanted to be completely new and reflective of 21st-century Brooklyn and New York City. So we’re doing a very delicate glass-and-steel structure that sits on top of the entire original masonry structure.”

On the exterior, large steel and cast-iron shutters will be rehabilitated or replaced with replicas and then pinned open, creating space for new windows to be inserted throughout the structure. Inside, giant old-growth timber joists and girders—some as long as 40 ft long—will be exposed, as will the massive interior schist party walls. Valgora says they will sparkle when cleaned up.

As he puts it, the “most essential element of the design is the clear articulation of a beautiful palette of materials that combines the old with the new.” The masonry walls on the exterior will be restored and stabilized, but their patina and sense of age will be retained. At the same time, the “very delicate” steel-and-glass addition is meant to provide a “contemporary palette that contrasts with all the warm and beautiful original materials,” bringing the building into the 21st century.

Exterior rendering of the Empire Stores warehouse which displays a new glass and steel addition to the roof

The Empire Stores warehouse renovation will add a new glass and
steel addition to the roof, balancing the historic patina of the
warehouses with a more contemporary look. STUDIO V

“It’s really striking,” says Pat Arnett, P.E., an associate of Robert Silman Associates, of New York City, the project’s structural engineers. “It’s going to make for some really amazing spaces inside. Nobody gets to see it now, but once we’ve done this it will very much be on display.”

Though the buildings are in relatively good shape—surprising given that they have not been occupied for more than 50 years—they are located in a harsh environment. The foundations are exposed to wind and salt from the sea, and a lot of the exterior brickwork—which is several feet thick—has cracked.

Due to lack of ventilation and dearth of maintenance over the last half century, what was meant to be a cold and dry storage space has become a cold and damp space. Areas around the base of many of the warehouses’ 341 columns have seen moisture and will have to be repaired. The wood columns extend through the floor down to the foundation, which will make the work trickier. “Even where we don’t see demonstrative signs of damage above the floor, you’ve got to guess that below the floor it probably has issues,” Arnett says.

Hurricane Sandy also created havoc on the first floors. “It filled with several feet of water and really crashed around in there,” says Arnett.  

Cracks will be repaired on the exterior, and many of the timber columns and joists will be repaired inside. Some joists have split, and some columns are exhibiting rot, especially at their base. As part of the interior rehab, Silman engineers will put in a new mat slab foundation. “We’re going to use that to pick up the bottoms of the columns,” Arnett says. Once the mat is poured, workers will shore up and then remove the bottom six inches of the columns and replace them with a concrete base. These will form little plinths that will support the remaining “good” wood of the columns.

Exterior rendering of the public rooftop at the Empire Stores will feature dramatic views to the nearby Brooklyn Bridge as well as the Manhattan skyline

The public rooftop at Empire Stores will feature dramatic views to
the nearby Brooklyn Bridge as well as the Manhattan skyline.
STUDIO V Architecture

“A lot of the columns are out of plum,” Arnett adds. “Over time they set and they get squishy at the bottom, they start getting a little diagonal,” says Arnett. The columns will be straightened enough to be structurally sound, but they won’t be rendered perfect, he says, to preserve the sense of history in the space.

Lastly, there’s the matter of those schist walls. Designers will cut 8 to 10 ft wide openings through the interior schist walls to allow passage through the seven-building complex. Arnett notes that one of the big questions is what it’s going to be like cutting through those walls. “Nobody’s really tried it before,” he says. “We’re going to go in and make a sample opening and learn what’s the best way to do it.”

In some areas, he says, the mortar is not in great shape, so it might make more sense to have a worker disassemble the wall with a small hammer. “Maybe that’s an easier way to do it, to chip away and leave more of a rough edge,” Arnett says. “Or maybe it makes more sense, since the schist is so hard, to get a saw and try to saw cut the openings in.”

Either way, the Empire Stores rehab aims both to honor the city’s past and point the way toward a more sustainable future. Studio V is still in design development, but preliminary stabilization and repair work could begin as soon next month. The entire construction should run through the middle of 2015.

“Now we’re embracing our waterfront,” says Valgora. “We’re taking these leftover edges, cracks, interstices, and we’re turning them into centers of the city.” The East River, he says, is no longer the city’s dumping ground. “The East River is now the center of the city.”



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