These original mooring bollards secured docked ships bringing raw sugar cane and other supplies to the Domino Sugar Refinery throughout its long history.
Situated in a deep-water section of the East River, this small stretch of waterfront, near what is now Kent and South 4th streets, welcomed some of the very first Dutch settlers to the area, with Scandanavian, French, and other European settlers located nearby. By the late 1600’s, this site was owned by Jean Meserole, a Frenchman and patriarch of the Meserole family that would figure prominently in the history of Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Because of its ease of access by larger shipping vessels, Frederick C Havemeyer Jr. selected this area in 1856 to establish the F. C. Havemeyer & Company refinery, which would eventually become known as the Domino Sugar Refinery. At its peak in 1919, the Domino Sugar Refinery employed approximately 4,500 workers from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities.
Immigrants from Germany, Poland, Ireland and other European countries — and in its later years — Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other people of Caribbean descent as well as African Americans all endured difficult working conditions at the Refinery in search of opportunity and prosperity. While the Refinery figured prominently in the explosive growth of Williamsburg’s industry and economy, it is the diversity of community surrounding this site that has become its lasting legacy.
Screw Conveyors, Bucket Conveyors, and Hoist Bridge
The Screw Conveyors, Bucket Conveyors, and Hoist Bridge all played a role in moving crystallized sugar in various forms through different parts of the Refinery, transforming it from raw to refined.
Refining sugar was a messy and complex process. It often required workers at the Refinery to labor in extreme heat and dangerous conditions. The process involved unloading raw sugar, dissolving it into a liquid solution, filtering and then crystallizing the solution, drying the crystals, and then sorting and packaging the finished product into cubes, packets and other specialty forms. These steps were performed by many workers — from longshoremen to machinists to sugar packers — operating in different buildings throughout The Domino Sugar Refinery site.
The Landmark Refinery
The large brick building with its distinctive smoke stack adjacent to the center of Domino Park actually consists of three interconnected buildings that make up the Refinery Building:
The Filter House: The tallest building within the Refinery, the Filter House was built to accommodate very large filtering vessels that removed impurities from the raw sugar “liquor” in preparation for the Pan House. Over half of this building was dedicated to roasting kilns that re-conditioned the bone-char material used in filtration.
The Pan House: This building contained large vacuum pans and centrifuges that were used to crystallize the purified sugar.
The Finishing House: From the Pan House, the sugar arrived here for drying before being sorted, packaged, and placed in the warehouse.
Over its 150 years, the Refinery operated under many different names and owners — Havemeyers & Elder, Sugar Refineries Company, American Sugar Refining Company, Amstar Sugar Corporation, Tate & Lyle, Domino Sugar Corporation, and Florida Crystals Corporation. But more recent recollections often reflect the “Domino Sugar” name that was emblazoned in yellow neon over the East River for decades.
A City Landmark, today the Refinery Building represents the physical and spiritual heart of the entire Domino redevelopment and the center of Domino Park. Its intricate and expansive brick façade will forever be preserved and the iconic yellow neon sign will be reinstated as the building’s interior gets reshaped into creative office space for today’s neighborhood workforce.
The Syrup Tanks
The Syrup Tanks – dating back to the 1950s – are four of the fourteen, large-scale tanks that were used to collect high volumes of liquid sweetener generated in sugar processing. These tanks were originally located on the south west corner of the Refinery building.
Starting with the Havemeyers’ decision in 1876 to adopt state-of-the-art European sugar processing equipment for their new refinery, this site embodied the ongoing commitment towards modernization that drove its growth and success.
From some of the first uses of vacuum boiling and centrifugal separation in the US, to the packaging of sugar as a recognizably branded product, to the development of “specialty sugar” products for different uses (including the liquid sugar byproduct stored in these tanks), Domino continually embraced advanced technologies and thinking to stay ahead.
As competition from other sugar refineries and from alternative forms of sweetener, particularly corn syrup, mounted over the decades, chemists, machinists and even artists all contributed to innovative technologies, products and packaging, that solidified Domino as the most recognized name in sugar.
Gantry Cranes and Raw Sugar Warehouse Columns
The two, 80-foot tall Gantry Cranes here at the north of the park were used to unload bulk sugarcane from freight ships for storage at the Raw Sugar Warehouse, 21 columns of which stand in their original place along the Elevated Walkway.
Raw sugarcane was sourced and imported from all over the world – from Central and South America, Asia and the Caribbean Islands, particularly Cuba – to feed the universal appetite for sugar as it went from a luxury good to an everyday staple during the 1800’s.
While the sugar trade’s global connections helped drive profits, the industry took advantage of appalling labor practices, particularly the Caribbean slave trade, to fuel that growth.
The installation of these two Gantry Cranes in 1966, which reduced the need for manual labor, marked a move by the Refinery to bolster efficiency in a marketplace crowded by increasing competition from corn and beet-based sweeteners, artificial sweeteners and foreign refineries. Over the next four decades, continued efforts to reduce costs and modernize would significantly slash the number of workers at the plant.
By 1999, the remaining staff of over 280 Refinery workers began one of the longest labor strikes in US history to protest wages and working conditions. Calling themselves a “league of nations,” protestors from over a dozen countries stood in solidarity here day in and out for nearly two years, before accepting dramatic concessions in order to return to work.
In 2004, The Domino Sugar Refinery, under tremendous economic pressure, shut its doors and fenced off the site, leaving this signification location inaccessible to the public for another decade.
In the spring of 2014, this site welcomed a temporary art installation by world renowned artist Kara Walker within the abandoned brick building known as the Raw Sugar Warehouse. The exhibit, formally entitled: “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant,” included a massive, sphinx-like woman constructed of sugar, and 13 amber-colored statuettes of children carrying baskets and bananas.
Credit: ABE FRAJNDLICH/The New York Times/Redux
Set within the Raw Sugar Warehouse’s looming steel columns that have since been preserved in the Domino Park elevated walkway, Walker’s piece received profound acclaim from art critics, community members as well as cultural, social and civic leaders. The exhibit evoked reflection upon a broad array of social and economic issues including power, race, sexuality, slavery, wealth inequality and the sugar refining industry.