Building of the Day: 423-443 Atlantic Avenue

Brooklyn, one building at a time.

Name: Ex-Lax Buildings
Address: 423-443 Atlantic Avenue, between Nevins and Bond
Neighborhood: Boerum Hill
Year Built: Main Ex-Lax building (423) 1925, other buildings (435-443) around 1880
Architectural Style: Older buildings Romanesque Revival, new building Art Deco
Architect: Unknown
Landmarked: No

The story: The great fortunes made throughout history have very often been made by those who saw a need and made a product to address that need, in this case, regularity. So too, was the case in the history of Ex-Lax. Here in NY, a Hungarian-born pharmacist, Max Kiss, invented the little pills in 1906, trying different recipes that would make his over-the-counter laxative palatable. He finally tried chocolate, and a product was born. He named it “Ex-Lax” short for “Excellent Laxative”. Mr. Kiss got funding from another immigrant, a successful Lithuanian-born drug wholesaler named Israel Katz. Both men recognized that the success of their product lay not only in its efficiency, but also in its taste. Chocolate was the perfect choice, popular with adults and children alike. They opened a factory in Brooklyn in 1906 and began producing. In 1925, the Ex-Lax Company built a new factory and headquarters on Atlantic Avenue, incorporating adjacent buildings. By 1926, Ex-Lax was the most popular over the counter laxative in the United States.

The space they took on Atlantic Avenue was next to the former Herman Themig Bottling plant. Themig was a very successful wholesale and retail beer merchant who ran a bottling plant for the Anheuser-Busch company, bottling the barrels of Budweiser that were shipped to him from St. Louis, as well as other beers. He also sold beer from his store on the corner of Atlantic and Smith Street, where American Apparel is today. He died in 1892, and the plant continued to operate under the August Busch Company between 1893 and 1903. Like many of the buildings in the brewery business, the bottling plant may have been designed by German-American architect Theobald Engelhardt, but I was unable to find a record. They look like his style.

Ex-Lax’s little chocolate pills in their distinctive tins were manufactured here for many years. They changed their marketing strategy, not their pills, over the years to account for the tastes of the public, and realized a fortune in America’s desire to stay regular. They only made one mistake by once offering a fig-flavored Ex-Lax liquid. It did not do well at all. In 1981, the company was sold to Sandoz Pharmaceutical, and today Ex-Lax is still manufactured by Novartis. Israel Matz served as company president for 42 years, until his death at 81, in 1950. Max Kiss lived even longer, as chairman and treasurer, dying in 1967 at the age of 84.

In 1981, the Ex-Lax Buildings became one of Brooklyn’s first factory conversions, and 57 co-op units were created. A great adaptive re-use of a complex that is an interesting part of American culture and Brooklyn History. GMAP

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