Building of the Day: 543 Union Street, a 19th-Century Box Factory in Gowanus

Photo by Christopher Bride for PropertyShark

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    Editors note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.

    Brooklyn, one building at a time.

    This Gowanus factory building once housed the successful packing-box manufacturer James Dykeman. Today, artists work and exhibit here, alongside a museum dedicated to the famous and infamous canal.

    Name: National Packing Box Factory
    Address: 543 Union Street
    Cross Streets: Corner of Nevins Street
    Neighborhood: Gowanus
    Year Built: 1889
    Architectural Style: Typical late-19th-century brick industrial building
    Architect: Robert Dixon
    Other works by architect: Factories, row houses, storefront, tenement and flats buildings in Gowanus, Park Slope, Bedford Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill/Wallabout and other brownstone communities
    Landmarked: No, but part of proposed Gowanus Canal Historic District for the National Register

    James H. Dykeman was a successful Brooklyn carpenter. In 1877, he decided to branch out and open up a box-factory business.

    We tend to think of boxes in terms of cardboard, but back then, wooden boxes of all sizes, shapes and strengths were used to transport everything from fragile china to machine equipment. Someone had to make them — who better than a carpenter?

    Robert Dixon, Architect

    The factory buildings were designed by Robert Dixon, one of many architects working in the latter quarter of the 19th century. Dixon doesn’t get a lot of press, but contributed greatly to the streetscapes of our brownstone and industrial neighborhoods.

    Like his client, Mr. Dykeman, Dixon’s earliest training was in carpentry. He worked with his father, Dominick Dixon, who was successful in the trade. He attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and apprenticed with Marshall Morrill in 1876.

    Morrill designed the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Feuchtwanger Stables, both in Fort Greene, among many others. After three years with Morrill, Dixon put out his own shingle and began collecting clients.

    Many of his row houses are in Park Slope, including more than 30 buildings in the Park Slope Historic District Extension. They include row houses, storefront and flats buildings, as well as tenements. He also designed two now-demolished police stations, one in Coney Island and the other in Sheepshead Bay.

    An extension of the Women’s Almshouse was his, as was a reworking of the Insane Asylum in Flatbush. He also designed the Tivoli Concert Hall in Park Slope and worked on the Casino and Jockey Clubs in Coney Island, also long gone. He designed a few factories, too.

    Gowanus Brooklyn 543 Union St National Packing Box Company

    1960 photo via Brooklyn Historical Society

    The National Packing Box Factory

    James Dykeman’s first factory, on Front Street, was called the Union Packing Box Factory. It was destroyed in an 1880 fire along with several others, and he decided to rebuild at this corner of Nevins and Union streets and rename his business to National Packing Box Factory.

    The Gowanus area was a perfect place for a factory. Dykeman purchased lots that backed onto a branch of the canal. Here, he could receive shipments of lumber and other materials by water, a much easier and cheaper way receive materials and ship his products.

    He was quite successful here, and the National Packing Box plant grew to include a total of five buildings, all adjacent to this main building. But in 1932 another fire burned out the rear of this building.

    Gowanus Brooklyn 543 Union St National Packing Box Company

    Photo via Six to Celebrate

    His business had been declining anyway. Between the growing use of corrugated cardboard boxing and the Great Depression, the business slowly died and went into bankruptcy in 1936.

    The buildings were sold and throughout the century were used by different industries, including brass and cabinet-manufacturing companies. But like many Gowanus buildings, they were often underused and empty.

    However, with the new popularity of large artist-loft spaces and the need for gallery space, life has come back to Gowanus.

    Gowanus Brooklyn 543 Union St National Packing Box Company

    Photo via Fadingad.com

    Today, the building is home to Proteus Gowanus, an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room. Proteus also includes Gowanus Hall, a museum dedicated to the history of the canal and its surroundings.

    It is also the studio and workroom for Claireware, the pottery business of artist Claire Weissberg. Her showroom is entered through the bright striped awning in many of the contemporary photographs.

    Gowanus Brooklyn 543 Union St National Packing Box Company

    Photo via Gowanus Report for the State of New York

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