Building of the Day: 1 Main Street

Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.

Address: 1 Main Street, corner Plymouth Street, corner Water Street
Name: 1 Main Street
Neighborhood: DUMBO
Year Built: 1914
Architectural Style: Industrial Neo-Classical
Architect: William Higginson
Landmarked: Yes, DUMBO HD, designated in 2007.

Why chosen: This is probably DUMBO’s most famous building, the tallest and most prominent of the Robert Gair Buildings. Its clock tower, and the apartment behind it, is symbolic of 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 US 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. 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 could 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. The Gair firm became the largest manufacturer of boxes in the United States, and by 1913 was employing over 1,700 people in his buildings in DUMBO. He was also a real estate developer, and developed much of the DUMBO area. He ran his business out of some of the buildings, and some were leased. 1 Main Street was the tallest reinforced concrete building in the world when built, and has 275,000 square feet of space. By the 1920’s 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 a Sears Roebuck, and 1 Main Street was then called Charles Williams Building Number 5, the Executive Building, holding offices for the company president and other officers, as well as general offices and the company’s apparel merchandise. 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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