Tile Expert Shares Little-Known Story of Historic East New York Dairy Murals

Empire State Dairy at 2840 Atlantic Avenue. Photo by Edrei Rodriguez

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It is unlikely anyone is better versed in the pastoral murals of East New York’s long-closed Empire State Dairy than architectural historian and writer Michael Padwee.

Below, he tells us why these little-known architectural treasures should be appreciated and saved from demolition.

Padwee, an expert on tile and longtime Park Slope resident, began submitting letters to the Landmarks Preservation Commission about the historic tiles at 2840 Atlantic Avenue in the late 1990s, asking that they be considered for landmark status. (Currently the building, while deemed eligible for designation, is not protected nor scheduled for a hearing.) Update: the building is scheduled for a public hearing regarding its potential designation on Tuesday, March 8. 

Until its midcentury closure, the factory processed milk and made ice cream.

The Medieval German-inspired factory building and its tiles could be “demolished or substantially altered” as a result of the proposed East New York rezoning, according to the New York City Department of City Planning’s final environmental impact statement on the proposal.

Brownstoner recently spoke with Padwee about about the tiles’ history, as well as his strong feelings about the East New York rezoning.

East New York Empire State Dairy

The Empire State Dairy tiles in 2012. Photos by Michael Padwee

How did you get interested in the Empire State Dairy tiles?

I worked in East New York in the late 1980s and first noticed the tile murals then. However, I didn’t become interested in architectural ceramic surfaces, and specifically in ceramic tiles, until the mid 1990s when my wife wrote a thesis about the International Tile Co. of Brooklyn (an 1880s company located at 92 3rd Street), and we joined the Tile Heritage Foundation and Friends of Terra Cotta.

East New York Empire State

The Empire State Dairy tiles. Photos via Michael Padwee

Do you know who created the murals?

At that time I went back to what I knew as the Borden Dairy Co. building and took photos of the two murals, which I thought were ads for Borden products. There was one tile at the bottom of one mural that was signed.

I took a closeup of the tile and, with some help, deciphered it. The writing stated the tiles were made by the American Encaustic Tiling Co. (AET), and gave an address, 16 East 41st Street, New York. According to early AET tile catalogs, that was the showroom and New York offices of the tile company.

East New York Empire State Dairy

“In 1913 Empire State had architect Otto Strach draw plans for the present building complex,” Padwee told Brownstoner. Photo by Michael Padwee

What’s the significance and style of the tiles?

The tile murals are significant because they are probably the largest architectural tile installation from that company (AET) and time period still existing. They are a one-of-a-kind installation and the murals are site-specific for that building. The murals are part of our architectural and artistic heritage and are irreplaceable.

The tiles are what were called “American majolica” — bright glazes, high relief, naturalistic forms. They were probably made by hand via the “wet” or “plastic” process, rather than the mass-production, dust-pressed tile-making process.

The Empire State Dairy building may be a one-of-a-kind architectural structure in Brooklyn by itself, but it is so much more because of the tiled artwork on its facade.

East New York Empire State Dairy

The facade of East New York’s Empire State Dairy building. Photo by Michael Padwee

How do you feel about the East New York rezoning plan?

I’ve read the Environmental Impact Statement about the rezoning of East New York. The Empire building was once put on the track for landmark consideration.

From that perspective, I find myself against the rezoning unless this building and others worthy of being landmarked are protected. I can’t go along with any rezoning plans that do not take community residents’ interests into consideration, rather than just the interests of developers.

East New York Empire Dairy

A blueprint for Empire State Dairy. Photo via Michael Padwee

Related Stories
Two of East New York’s Historic Structures Threatened by Rezoning, City Report Reveals
Young East New York Native Fights to Preserve Neighborhood’s Historic Gems
Building of the Day: 2840 Atlantic Avenue

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