Wallabout, Brooklyn — In New York, the history of a neighborhood can sometimes be reflected in a single building. Take the blockwide brick structure that stands on Park Avenue between Waverly and Washington Avenues in Clinton Hill. Today it is a seven-story luxury residential rental-featuring loft that is home to 123 households; but in the 1900’s, it was a thriving chocolate factory. And in the years in between, an abandoned building.
At the turn of the century, the Rockwood & Company chocolate factory resided in this small Brooklyn neighborhood, known as the Wallabout District. Founded in Manhattan in 1886 by W. E. Rockwood and W. T. Jones, the company, once aligned with Hershey, ranked as the second largest chocolate producer across the country. The factory closed for good in 1967 and had been abandoned for a few decades. A part of the building was dilapidated when a real estate developer took it over in 1996 and transformed it into a luxury apartment building called, aptly, The Chocolate Factory.
The building has come a long way since the Van Glahn Brothers constructed the building in 1890 and established a wholesale grocery here. Since, it has become a witness to the vicissitude of industrialism in the neighborhood. The manufacturing flavor of this district is now residential—and The Chocolate Factory illustrates that shift. Today, the area that surrounds the former factory is populated by a growing number of young people: According to census data, the number of residents aged 20 to 35 has increased 21 percent over the past decade.
“It is just amazing to see how it was transformed from an empty shell to beautiful loft apartments,” said Mira Goldin, who opened SPA, a lounge that serves drinks, on the first floor of the building six years ago. “A lot of nice young people live here, with families, dogs and children. It’s totally revitalizing the whole neighborhood.”
Back in late 19th century, after the openings of the Brooklyn Bridge and the elevated railroad on Myrtle Avenue, industrialism burgeoned in theneighborhoods of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. And Brooklyn’s population was only a third of what it is nowadays. From 1880 to 1920, Wallabout stood as the fourth largest manufacturing center in the entire country, according to a report published by an architectural historian and Columbia professor Andrew Dolkart. In 1860, approximately 1,000 industrial firms with close to 13,000 workers thrived here. Nearly 50 years later, the number of industrial establishments reached 5,200 and employed 10 times more workers.
“Much of the industry clustered in the neighborhoods along the East River waterfront, including Williamsburg, Greenpoint, DUMBO, and Wallabout,” Dolkart wrote.
Imports of cocoa bean and spice entered into the city here, so food production, including many bakeries and confectioners, sprouted in this area. Wagons and trucks jammed the streets and here stood the Wallabout Market, the world’s second largest produce market at the time.
Whispers of what this neighborhood once was still resonate here, sometimes in faded lettering along the sides of this now thriving residential community: American Self Storage, a large building across the street from The Chocolate Factory, was once the Consumers’ Biscuit and Manufacturing Company. And the Benjamin Banneker Academy, a community high school, located only one block away in the junction of Clinton and Park Avenues, used to be the home of the Drake Brothers Bakery (known as today’s Drake’s Cake). Its famous products like Yodels and Ring Dings can now be found in convenience stores across the country. Inside the school, some floors still remain in Drake’s style.
Rockwood Chocolate Factory leased the Van Glahn complex on Washington Avenue in 1904, and extended its scale northward to Flushing Avenue and westward to Waverly Avenue as its business grew greatly over the next decade. The complex was listed on the National Register as the Rockwood Chocolate Factory Historic District.
“There was a fire in the old section that a portion [of the building] was completely gone, and we were unable to restore it,” said Jake Zorka, the manager of the loft’s development and administration office that reconstructed the building in early 2000’s. “What is original now is only the shell. Everything else was redone.”
Around the time of its renovation, a bunch of other apartment buildings also sprung up in the neighborhood, attracting many people who were bothered by the rising costs in Williamsburg and Greenpoint into Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
Various small businesses also opened up. So far, a grocery supermarket, Goldin’s SPA lounge, a Cuban restaurant and a cocktail lounge have all taken root in this newly fertilized former chocolate land.
More than half century has elapsed, but from the outside at least, the chocolate factory still looks pretty much like it did 100 years ago. The West building in the complex retained its red brick walls with white limestone and yellow brick trim. And the East building, designed in the Romanesque Revival style, still has the Van Glahn name inscribed on the corner. Inside, though, the former factory facade now has a different heart: a residential one. Apartments still hint at the building’s origin.
“Our apartment has industrial ceilings, but they’re covered for fire safety,” said Mengia Hong, who lives in a 1,300-square-foot open loft with hardwood floors with her husband and two kids. The family moved here from their tiny but expensive Tribecca apartment a year ago.
Hints of cocoa no longer waft from street to street; the neighborhood is no longer industrial. Even so, when you pass by the southwest corner of Waverly and Park Avenues, the large bronze “R”s set on the third story of the red-and-yellow brick wall will always remind people of the building’s original identity—and of the district’s former industrial character.