Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Originally Empire State Dairy, then Borden’s Diary Factory
Address: 2840 Atlantic Avenue
Cross Streets: Barbey and Schenck Streets
Neighborhood: East New York
Year Built: 1914-1915
Architectural Style: Very simplified Medieval German-inspired factory building
Architect: Otto Strack
Other Works by Architect: E.W. Browning Company Building, 11 W. 17th St, Manhattan; Pabst Theater, Kalvelage House, both in Milwaukee.
The story: When we think of important landmarks that should be preserved, we think of buildings like Grand Central Station, or the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, or Gracie Mansion. If we really appreciate architecture, we may expand our list to buildings like the Eagle Warehouse in DUMBO, or the Riverside Apartments in Brooklyn Heights. It’s not very often that we consider factories on these lists, because factories are usually utilitarian, no-nonsense kinds of buildings that aren’t usually known for their architectural or even historical worth. But there are always exceptions to the rule, and East New York’s Borden Dairy Factory is one.
The factory, which spans the length of Atlantic Avenue between Schenck and Barbey Streets, is really a series of buildings, not one. There are four separate buildings facing Atlantic, as well as one other block spanning building just behind these. It’s quite a large complex. It was not built for Borden’s Condensed Milk Company, but for the Empire State Dairy, which had been in a previous building on the same site, Empire had outgrown their facility, and in 1913, commissioned Otto Strack to design a new building. Sometime between 1914, when the plans were announced in the Builder’s Guide as being for the Empire State Dairy, and completion, a year or so later, the building changed hands, and the Borden’s Company took over.
Otto Strack is not a familiar name to many New York architecture buffs. He was from northern Germany, and received his education in various schools of architecture and engineering in Hamburg, Berlin and Vienna. He came to the US in 1881, and settled in Chicago, where he set up practice. He soon found himself travelling often to clients in Milwaukee, and moved there in 1888. There he became chief architect for the Pabst Brewing Company. He designed breweries and saloons across the country for Pabst, including long gone Pabst saloons and restaurants in Coney Island, Harlem, Time Square, and at Columbus Circle.
In 1892, he left Pabst, and went out on his own again, but still did work for Pabst on special projects. His most well-known building is probably the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, today a landmark. He must have liked his time in New York, because he came back here at the turn of the 20th century, and designed a number of office buildings, a store in the Ladies’ Mile District, and this factory, among other projects.
Stract’s factory is no big deal, architecturally speaking. It’s similar to several that he did in Milwaukee, and elsewhere, for Pabst. Most of his work had a Germanic-castle look to it, but by 1913, he had toned down the crenellations and towers, so that they only appear on the center building facing Atlantic Ave, albeit much more subtly than his earlier work, like Milwaukee’s Gugler Lithographic Company, as shown below, built in 1896. Also the building has been altered over the years, and not for the best.
What separates it from the pack are the terra-cotta murals, made by the American Encaustic Tiling Company of Zanesville, Ohio. They are still in great shape, and just need cleaning. The murals show a bucolic, very German/Alpine country side dairy scene of a dirndl-skirted milkmaid and lederhosen-clad milkman, with a bovine family in tow, and the mountains rising behind. It must have been quite a sight for dirty, urban, and busy Atlantic Avenue. Large, polychrome terra-cotta murals like this are rare, and need protection of some sort, and shouldn’t be lost. Far too many have already been lost in this city.
The Borden factory operated until at least the 1950’s when they were processing milk, and making ice cream. They’ve been closed a long time, although I can’t tell you exactly how long. The rusting metal “It’s Borden’s, it’s got to be good,” sign still stands between the two murals. Much of the information for this article came from a very interesting web site called “The East New York Project.” Please check it out. GMAP
Thank you, SJTMD, one of our long-time readers, for asking me to do this piece, and supplying photographs. I hope I was able to find out something you didn’t know.