Down Under


(L-R): Gair Building No. 5; Eskimo Pie Building; and 135 Plymouth Street in DUMBO.

Fran Leadon

Early in the morning on August 11th I visited the neighborhood known as Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass (OK, fine, let’s just call it DUMBO) to shoot some photos for the upcoming fifth edition of the AIA Guide to New York City (Oxford University Press, 2010), which I am completing with Norval White, FAIA. For those who experienced DUMBO in those long-forgotten days of the 20th century, a visit today can be a bit of a shock. Back then, circa 1994, the place was deserted. Most neighborhood activity seemed to revolve around the now demolished Between the Bridges bar on York Street and within Rudolph Daus’s 1901 former tin can factory at 135 Plymouth Street. That beautiful Romanesque pile, with monumental brick arches, was headquarters for a carting company that noisily compacted garbage on the ground floor. (I am somewhat happy to report this aromatic activity is still taking place there; the neighborhood hasn’t completely given itself over to cappuccinos and Jacques Torres chocolates.) After a series of shootings in front of 135 Plymouth in the early 1990s a police cruiser was positioned there 24 hours a day. That’s when I first visited DUMBO; a classmate of mine had a sculpture studio in the building. I had trouble sleeping.

Had I fallen asleep then, in 1994, and slept for 15 years and woken up last Tuesday, I would have thought I was in the middle of a film set for some happy, romantic comedy. Cafés? Restaurants? Children? Playgrounds? Bookstores? Pet stores (“all dog sweaters on sale this week only”)? Where am I? I still get a profound feeling of amnesia no matter how often I go to DUMBO. There are actual people streaming to and from the previously deserted and terrifying York Street station! (One indication of how quickly DUMBO has changed is the fact that the last edition of the Guide, in 2000, barely mentions it, and then only as an aside within the Fulton Ferry section of the book.)

The Landmarks Commission designated DUMBO a historic district in 2007, and there are many notable industrial buildings in the neighborhood in addition to 135 Plymouth. The former Grand Union Tea Company on Jay Street (between Front and Water Streets) was designed and built in phases from 1896 to 1907 by Edward N. Stone, and features an intact mosaic in the floor at the Jay Street entrance. Louis E. Jallade designed the onetime Eskimo Pie Building, originally the Thomson Meter Company, at 100 Bridge Street (between York and Tillman Streets) in 1908. Its beautifully arched façade has glazed terra-cotta decoration and was possibly inspired by Auguste Perret’s 25 bis rue Franklin in Paris. The Gair buildings, all seven of them, are extraordinary early (1888-1908) reinforced-concrete lofts erected by Robert Gair, a pioneering entrepreneur in the corrugated box industry. The Gair buildings form a solid mass that defines much of DUMBO and makes it feel as if the neighborhood’s cobble-stoned streets are spaces carved from a single piece of stone. Recent buildings by Scarano Architects, Gruzen Samton, and CetraRuddy tower above the bridges and don’t fit in as well as the older industrial buildings. Lately, we’ve been calling the area RAMBO (Rising Above the Manhattan Bridge Overpass).