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The Storied Past of Empire Stores

by Brooklyn Bridge Park on Feb 19, 2016

People once called Brooklyn “The Walled City,” not for actual walls but for the seemingly impenetrable line of warehouses stretching along its shoreline that received goods arriving from all over the world. Though they’re mostly gone today, several of these warehouses, known collectively as Empire Stores, remain as some of the last relics of Brooklyn’s waterfront shipping era. This year, Empire Stores will return to the prominence it knew in its heyday.

Located in the northern section of Brooklyn Bridge Park in the neighborhood of DUMBO, the seven contiguous warehouses of Empire Stores were built between 1868 and 1885. Thick exterior walls of red brick and schist interior walls kept the inside dark and cool – a perfect environment for storing perishables. The Stores held goods like sugar, molasses, wool, rubber, and most notably, coffee.

 

Historical photo of the Empire Stores seen from the water.

Empire Stores circa 1880, © Joseph Hall

At the time the Stores were built, Brooklyn was America’s coffee capital. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vast majority of the country’s coffee supply arrived through New York Harbor. The Arbuckle Brothers, early pioneers of the coffee industry, operated a sprawling complex of coffee production facilities adjacent to Empire Stores. When they added the Stores to their campus, it joined their other warehouses in storing their best-selling Ariosa and Yuban coffee brands.

Aerial view of the Empire Stores and the Brooklyn Bridge on a cloudy day.

Empire Stores in 2012, ©Julienne Schaer

Empire Stores continued in this role even as shipping along the Brooklyn waterfront slowed and other warehouses began to empty. In the 1940s and ‘50s, many warehouses were torn down to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. In the 1960s, Empire Stores was abandoned. When the area became an historic district in the late ‘70s, it was one of the last remnants of the waterfront’s rich shipping period.

The following decades saw further deterioration and a few failed development attempts, until 2012, when BBP released an RFP for the development of the historic site. Midtown Equities along with Rockwood Capital and HK Organization were selected for their plans to revitalize the derelict buildings. Realizing DUMBO’s rebirth as a tech hub and a center of economic activity, they proposed to fill Empire Stores with office and retail space alongside a number of public amenities. Now, we’re on the verge of this latest transformation.

When the new Empire Stores opens this year, we’ll be able to enjoy its public roof, its shops and restaurants, and the first satellite location of the Brooklyn Historical Society. A new corridor through its interior will provide unprecedented access to the waterfront. This exciting new chapter will see Empire Stores return to its former status as a centerpiece of Brooklyn’s shoreline. While it used to exemplify the borough’s shipping and industrial strength, it now stands for Brooklyn’s resurgence as a world-renowned destination.

Rendering of the inside of new Empire Stores.

A rendering of Empire Stores’ interior, opening this year, ©Midtown Equities

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