Building of the Day: 81-89 Washington Street

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Thompson Water Meter Building
Address: 81-89 Washington Street
Cross Streets: Corner of York Street
Neighborhood: DUMBO
Year Built: 1889
Architectural Style: American Round Arch Factory
Architect: Mercein Thomas
Other Buildings by Architect: Methodist Home for the Aged, now Hebron School, Crown Heights North, houses on Clinton Avenue and elsewhere in Clinton Hill and Fort Greene.
Landmarked: Yes, part of DUMBO HD (2007)

The story: A sign can mean everything, when it comes to identifying and remembering buildings, even if that sign is not exactly accurate. Case in point: the Thompson Water Meter Building, in DUMBO. As mentioned last week, in a BOTD on Thompson’s landmarked factory several blocks from this location, at 100 Bridge Street, John Thompson, a Scottish-born inventor, had made it big with his invention of an effective water meter, which as any homeowner today knows, measures the amount of water going into a building from the city’s water supply. Thompson’s meters were used in commercial buildings all over the country, and especially here in the greater New York City area, where his was one of the four approved designs for commercial meters which were mandated to be installed in every commercial space in the city, beginning in 1899.

This building was built ten years earlier for Ketchum & McDougall. They were a very successful jewelry company, which had grown large enough to need a group of three adjoining factory buildings: 75 Washington Street, 81-89 Washington Street, which is this corner building, and 47-49 York Street, which is just around the corner. Edward Ketchum and Hugh McDougall were in business for many years, starting out as small jewelers in Manhattan. Hugh McDougall lived in Stuyvesant Heights, in a house at 102 McDonough Street.

The company called upon the talents of Mercein Thomas to design their factories. Thomas was one of those relatively unknown architects of this time period who was well connected in his field, yet kept a low profile while creating some very fine work. His largest work was the Brooklyn Methodist Episcopal Home for the Aged, on Park Place and New York Avenue in Crown Heights, then called the St. Marks District. He designed this Dickensian pile in 1888, donating his services to the Methodist Church for the project. His most well-known houses are probably the pair of Renaissance Revival townhouses on the corner of Clinton Avenue and Gates, both quite resplendent in limestone, with carved details and stained glass.

For Ketchum & McDougall, Thomas designed classic slow-fired brick factory buildings in the popular American round arched style, a simple design that typifies classic Victorian factory buildings all up and down the east coast. When most of us think of Victorian factories, one of these comes to mind. John Thompson’s Water Meter plant was a tenant of this corner building, but was not the sole occupant, as one would think, by the size and boldness of the lettering on the side. The factory space would prove to be inadequate for Thompson’s manufacturing needs, and he left for his new factory on Bridge Street, in 1909. His name remained.

In 1913, the Royal Watch company was a tenant of the building on York, employing 45 people. Advertisements in the Brooklyn Eagle offered the building’s factory spaces for rent, as Ketchum & McDougall downsized over the years, especially after Hugh McDougall’s death in 1900. The Robert Gair company eventually swallowed up these buildings into their empire, at various times between 1913 and 1926. These types of factory buildings are great candidates for conversion into loft apartments, and today, are part of the Walentas family’s Two Trees empire. GMAP

Photo: Scott Bintner for Property Shark, 2007