The Concrete Clock Tower of Robert Gair, an Iconic Dumbo Building

Editor’s note: This story originally ran in 2011 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

Until Empire Stores reopened, the clock tower building at 1 Main Street was arguably Dumbo’s most famous building. The tallest and most prominent of the Robert Gair Buildings, with a clock tower and condo apartments, symbolized the area’s new prominence as a hip, happening and expensive residential neighborhood.

But, of course, this was not always so. In the middle of the 19th century, Scotsman Robert Gair came to the United States as lad of 14. In 1867 he and a partner began manufacturing flat bottomed paper bags. Gair was a genius in inventing machines to fold and manipulate paper.

robert gair

Robert Gair. Image via Brooklyln Daily Eagle

In 1870, he invented a machine for making corrugated cardboard, and also patented a machine for folding boxes. The machine would cut and crease the paper, creating boxes that would go on to be used in food packaging. As one can imagine, this business was extremely successful at the dawn of the manufactured and packaged food industry.

This was also the time that many of Brooklyn’s merchant princes were inventing and manufacturing all kinds of new products, from tinned coffee to soap, chewing gum, cereals and crackers. Gair would package them all.

brooklyn architecture dumbo one main street

The Gair firm became the largest manufacturer of boxes in the United States, and by 1913 was employing more than 1,700 people in his buildings in Dumbo. He was also a real estate developer, and developed much of the area.

He ran his business out of some of the buildings, and some were leased. One Main Street was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world when built in 1914, and has 275,000 square feet of space.

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The building under construction. Photo via The Cement Era

By the 1920s, the building was leased to the Charles Williams Stores, a general mail-order firm. The company was actually owned by John Arbuckle, Gair’s friend, and owner of Yuban coffee, another Dumbo-based company.

The Charles Williams Stores were similar to Sears Roebuck, and 1 Main Street was then called Charles Williams Building No. 5, the Executive Building, holding offices for the company president and other officers, as well as general offices and the company’s apparel merchandise.

brooklyn architecture dumbo main street

A view of the waterfront in 1937. Photo by P.L. Sperr via New York Public Library

The bottom two floors were used for shipping, while the rest of the building was taken up by product testing facilities, ordering and buying departments, inspection rooms, and billing and receiving.

Today, of course, the building is now luxury housing, the jewel of the Walentas family’s Two Trees empire.

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