Historic Significance of the Jersey City Warehouse District by Rick James

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Historic Significance of the Jersey City Warehouse District
by Rick James

The Jersey City Warehouse District was a significant component of the regional and national industrial and commercial economy from the post-Civil War period until the Great Depression. Lorillard Tobacco, The Great Atlantic Pacific Tea Company and the Butler Brothers were icons of an expansive late 19th and early 20th century American capitalism. The land-filled extension of an earlier proto-industrial zone north of the New Jersey Railroad tracks, the Warehouse District was tied to the Pennsylvania Railroad's Harsimus Yards by a network of rail spurs and loading docks. As such, the district was an important node in the predominant rail landscape of the Hudson's west bank, a transportation system vital to the growth of the Port of New York. With the erection of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad's Powerhouse, the district literally became the motive force for the subway tying together Northern New Jersey and Manhattan Island. The district was the product of an internal redistribution of land use within the port. Lower Manhattan firms, squeezed for space and suffering an early freight transportation gridlock, sought cheaper land near the New Jersey railhead. Finding land in lower Jersey City, they indulged in expansive and impressive building, making the district something of a sampler of later nineteenth and early twentieth century industrial architecture. Opting for what was the exciting, new material of reinforced concrete, the Hartford family in its 1907 Headquarters Building initiated a series of gridded concrete monoliths that would, by 1915, form an A. & P. complex of considerable engineering significance. As the district evolved into a discrete and distinctive industrial zone in a rather amorphous city, both its reality and its ideal became an important referent in a Progressive Era crusade to reorder the city and the entire port of New York. Efforts of the nascent city planning movement to expand, improve or transfer the district would place it, and the entire topic of rail freight, at the center of a debate over the community planning and development of the port of New York.

The nascent City of Jersey City occupied a low lying protrusion of land on the west bank of the Hudson River; to its south lay Communipaw Cove, to its north Harsimus Cove. Both coves were tidal "mud flats," navigable only by shallow draft vessels. Following the laborious excavation of Bergen Hill (an extension of the Palisades that separate lowland from upland Hudson County) the New Jersey Railroad established a depot on the Hudson in the late 1830s. In its west to east trajectory across the city, on the eponymous Railroad Avenue, those rather soggy and flood-prone blocks (Douglass topographic map, 1841) lying between the tracks and the south shore of Harsimus Cove were isolated from the rest of the city. Following the lead of Robert Fulton, who earlier in the century had assembled experimental steamboats in his yard near today's Morgan Street between Washington and Green Streets, fledgling industrialists gravitated towards that land north of the tracks. (Similarly, another group of proto-industrialists gravitated around the edge of Communipaw Cove and the Morris Canal at the city's southern limits.)

The north of the tracks zone appears to have been, ab initio, the place for the noisy, the dirty and the dangerous. The Dripps map (Dripps, 1850) shows the existence of 5 "foundries," among them the Atlas Foundry of John D. Ward, a key figure in the introduction of a comprehensive water supply system to the growing city. Indicative of the hazardous nature of foundry work, an early directory notes that the "North Point Foundry and Machine Works" was established in 1848, burned in 1849 and was re-established later that year"(Ryerson, 1850-51). Adjacent to the tracks, we note the presence of a "Car Manufactory" and a "Railroad Factory." It seems not unduly speculative to assume that the latter were machining and assembling some of the parts cast nearby. Fink & Prentice's Saw Mill was supplied by water from a narrow pier extending approximately 100 ft. into Harsimus Cove at the point where it met the Hudson. This lumber would have been in great demand in a small city growing exponentially. Less obviously, shaped wooden patterns were a necessary component in the casting of metal. By the mid-1850s, members of the Edge family, today remembered largely for the wind-driven gristmill they operated near present day Exchange Place prior to the advent of the railroad, had established their New United States Laboratory producing "Superior Premium Fire Works." An advertisement (Gopsil, 1855-6) shows not only the understandably isolated laboratory, but seems to provide us with a rare view across an as yet unfilled Harsimus Cove towards today's midtown Manhattan--note the crudely drawn Cristal Palace and Latting Tower. Also advertised in Gopsil's Guide of 1855-6 is the New York Locomotive Works, said to stand at Steuben, Warren and Morgan Streets. This location is significant in that, according to the shoreline given by Dripps map (1850) the Locomotive Works would be either at water's edge or submerged. In the advertisement (Gopsil, 1855-6) it seems very much on terra firma. This is an early indication of the incremental filling of the shore of Harsimus Cove.

It is clear from the Culver map (1866, revised, 1868) that the area that would become the Warehouse District had been filled to its current Second Street northern boundary by the time that this map was drawn. While it was hardly uncommon for surveyors and map makers to depict non-existent, "paper" streets reflecting grand civic ambition, the Culver was intended for fire insurance purposes and depicts in some detail actual footprints of buildings, number of floors, specialized land uses, and the location of industrial boilers and stills. It seems implausible that merely intended blocks could be depicted in such detail. We are informed by Shaw (Shaw, 1242) that a Captain Winants, who had achieved a certain success in the Hudson and coastal hauling of cargo, and who had outfitted steamboats for the Union blockade during the Civil War, had soon after the war secured a contract with the city of New York for the sweeping of the streets and the disposal of the debris. These sweepings, according to Shaw, were deposited over a ten year period in "some thirty acres" of "Harsimus Bay." Winants is said to have "engaged in filling this land, building docks, grading, paving and sewering the streets rendered necessary by the improvement, which added largely to the revenue of Jersey City by way of taxes, etc." We are further informed that upon this created property lie "the tobacco-factory of P. Lorillard & Co., one of the largest in the United States, the immense railroad terminal facilities, besides other large factories and buildings..." All of this is problematic in that, if the "immense railroad terminal facilities" referred to are the Harsimus Yards, it should be noted that they are considerably larger, in themselves, than the 30 yard total, were never paved and sewered, and yielded notoriously little to the city in revenue. Due to an extended dispute concerning riparian rights, we know that the Pennsylvania R.R. could not commence landfilling operations until the early 1870s. It seems likely that Winants might have also dumped some of his New York street sweeping into Harsimus Cove for the P.R.R.; what seems clear is that the "graded, paved and sewered streets" were a separate venture undertaken by himself, not the P.R.R. It was quite common for the original Jersey Associates, or their heirs, to sell off partially or fully submerged land at relatively low price to those willing to undertake the filling. Until the establishment of the Riparian Commission this was a rather simple legal procedure. (Van Winkle, Chapter XX) The Hopkins Atlas (1873), which lists property by owner, and only occasionally by use, shows G. E. Winants retaining ownership of two full blocks within the district and significant portions of four more. Railroad ownership is restricted to the rail yard north of Second St.

We know, from Culver and from city Directories that several years before the Pennsylvania Railroad "leased" the United Railroad and Canal Company and began its Harsimus Yard project (c.1871) that the newly landfilled blocks to the south were largely occupied. Much of the new activity involved the storage and sale of water-born bulk commodities needed in the physical construction of the rapidly growing city. Keeney & Muirhead sold "coal, lime, brick and lumber" from much of the block between First St. and Second Streets, Green St. to Washington St. (Culver 1866-8). By 1871 a Robert Muirhead would be selling "North River Blue Stone, flagging, curbs, copings, sills, lintels, hearths, water tables and cistern necks" (Gopsill, 1870-71) from an office at the corner of First. St. and Provost St. The block between First and Second St., Warren to Provost Streets, was covered by "Verplank's Oil Refinery." The block immediately south of Verplank's was covered with "Heinrich & Sommer Oil" (Culver, 1866-8). Local directories give no indication of what sort of oil was refined here. Wale oil had been refined nearby for "sperm candles" since at least 1841. Castor oil was being refined at the Baker Brothers' Manufactory on Washington St. since 1859, and a "Paint Works" probably requiring linseed oil, appears near Washington St. in the 1873 Atlas. Slightly later, Charles Woolsey's "Jersey City White Lead and Color Works" is described as located at the corner of Warren and Morgan Streets. The oil matter awaits clarification.

Just east of the emerging district, two large lumber yards maintained active docks on the Hudson. Since "about 1860", Dodge & Meigs maintained a "Steam Saw and Planing Mill" producing millwork and packing boxes. Morrell & Vanderbeek had purchased the Fulton property in 1846 and established a lumber mill, box factory and brick and lime yard. Both firms appear to have supplied the booming local market and to have carried out an extensive export business. Doubly dependent upon Hudson access were two major suppliers to Jersey City of "Hudson Ice." Both the Hudson River Ice Company and the New Jersey Ice Company maintained large storehouses "up the Hudson" to store ice cut in winter. This ice was shipped down the Hudson to the dock on the foot of Morgan St. In the case of the New Jersey Ice Company, the ice was hauled to an interim storehouse at 149 Provost St., then subdivided and sent to hotels, shippers and private residences. The "bright yellow wagons" of what is called "the largest business in this section" were said to be a distinctive feature of the Jersey City street (Industries, 1883).

Entirely distinct from the bulk goods processing and trading that transpired on most of Winant's made land, the erection of the Continental Screw Company's factory was a quantum leap forward in both design and commercial scope. As represented in Culver, this three story high building fronted on an entire block of Washington St. and at least 200 feet of First. St; it included a single story interior wing with boilers and chimneys. As presented, the buildings footprint is congruent with today's main (4 story) Lorillard block. It is possible that the shorter top story of today's building, above a string course of brick, was considered an attic, equally possible that today's top story was raised or added. The Screw Company was advertised as early as the 1866-7 Gopsil. By 1873 (Hopkins) the business had been absorbed by the American Screw Company. Rybzinski explains (Rybzinski, 78) how a technological breakthrough in the tooling of the screw led to the creation of one of America's first national conglomerates: the American Screw Company. This is the earliest instance of a franchise of regional or national import locating in the district. Within two years the screw company would depart, replaced by another "first"--the arrival of an expanding New York concern to the district.

Finding the room for expansion in Jersey City that it lacked in its densely built lower Manhattan location (the Gold St. building would stand until the 1960s, as shown in Huxtable, 1964, 122), P. Lorillard's Tobacco and Snuff Manufactory occupied the entire Screw Company block by 1875. A "fold out" map from a rare 1875 promotional pamphlet (Sackett, 1875) clearly shows an entire shaded-in block as the "tobacco factory." It likewise shows a block south-west of the main factory as a Lorillard facility. Hamilton Wicks, in his well-known Scientific American series "American Industries" (Wicks, 17) states that the Lorillard factory--"the largest institution of this kind in the world"--was "erected in 1875." Wicks also states that the "factories" of the Tobacco Works occupied "nearly the whole of another block in addition." This might be the aforementioned half block, or it might be the block directly north of the former Screw Company. In any event, by 1883 the complex--"the largest in extent of the manufacturing institutions in this country" (Industries, 886)-- is described as consisting of "three immense brick buildings." In addition to the main block, this included two 7 story roughly cubic red brick buildings linked by a common boiler room as well as a lower-rise "box factory" attached to a lumber yard. A photo-engraving accompanying the 1883 publication shows the main (today 111 First St.) building. At least 9 horse drawn "trucks" carry rectangular boxes to or from the factory. The Harsimus Yard is visible in the horizon, but no rail track approaches the factory. Nor are the near-twin 7 story buildings visible over the north roof of the depicted works, though they would have been clearly visible. Either the photo-engraving was out of date, or the text anticipated that which had not yet been built. Both the 1883 Birdseye View and the 1887 Fowler Atlas confirm the existence of the "cigar factory." The Birdseye shows only the cigar factory. A circa 1910 line drawing illustrates the extent of the Lorillard buildings (Muirheid, 1910).

Apart from the Tobacco Works, the district retained much of its mid-19th century character until the turn of the 20th century. Lumber yards, box, molding and "oil barrel" factories were intermingled with small "chainworks," "spike works," foundries and machine shops. Typical of the latter is the extant Ribon Machine Shop, a partially pre-1873 (per Hopkins) two story "pier and panel" common brick production shed. Presaging the advent of newer technologies was the shop of C.R. James and Co., Engineers, Machinists and Millwrights, who specialized in the "manufacture of ice-refrigerating machinery--compressors, pumps. pulleys and shaftings." (Industries, 850).

By approximately 1902 the Merchant's Refrigeration Company had cleared an entire block of the district between First and Second Streets between Provost and Warren Streets and constructed a seven story steel, concrete and brick (Sanborn, 1906) refrigerated warehouse. The New Jersey company was an affiliate of the New York Merchants' Refrigeration Company, which maintained cold storage warehouses on Chambers St. and North Moore St. on the lower west side of Manhattan (in what is today known as Tribeca). The New Jersey Affiliate, providing 3,500,000 cubic feet of cold storage space, much of it sub-zero, contained an ice plant capable of producing 100 tons per day of ice produced from filtered water. Butter, cheese, eggs, meat and fruit arrived by rail siding from the adjacent rail yard, were unloaded into small "trucks" and distributed throughout the warehouse by eleven freight elevators. By 1910, as many as 28 freight cars per day were being unloaded into the warehouse (Muirheid, 1910). The freight elevators, evidently driven by electric power produced by the warehouse's dynamo, were critical to the intensification of land use in the district signaled by the eight story building. Earlier "store" type buildings, dependent upon stairs or hoists, had restricted heavy material to the lower floors. With the increase in upper floor loading brought about by the modern elevator, stronger structural systems were required.

By 1905 the Butler Brothers Corporation had acquired all but one corner of the block between Bay and Morgan Streets, Washington to Warren Streets and had constructed an eight story warehouse containing more than 500,000 square feet of display, office and storage space. The Butler Brothers (originally three who pioneered "five & ten" counters and stores in New England) had evolved into a national network of wholesalers advising and supplying independent variety stores across much of America. Outgrowing their cramped New York headquarters on Broadway in lower Manhattan (at 495 Broadway, in what is today called SoHo) the company sought a location served by rail in which showroom, open stock, surplus and packaging could be carried out under one roof. Prior to construction, the Jersey city Street and Water Board had granted the company permission to run a rail spur down Washington St. to its site. It is from the record of this request (JJ, Feb. 24, 1904,) which cites the precedent of the Merchants' Refrigeration spur, that we are able to assign priority to the refrigerated warehouse.

Within the decade following the construction of the Butler Brothers warehouse, the Warehouse District achieved its mature expression. Almost simultaneously, the Powerhouse of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad (1906-8) and the Headquarters Building of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (1907-8) arose at the district's eastern and western limits. The Powerhouse, essentially an enclosed boiler and dynamo, was absolutely dependent upon rail service for coal supply and ash removal. It replaced a collection of "oil barrel" shops and sheds, presumably related to the Castor Oil works filling most of the block due east. As the Powerhouse was rising, the connecting tubes of the "uptown" and "downtown" lines of the H. & M. Railroad were run under the district beneath Washington St. The opening of the Exchange Place and Grove-Henderson St. H. & M. stations provided the district, a growing center of employment, with very convenient public transit stops.

The establishment of the A. & P. headquarters building in the district, fronting on Provost St. between Bay and First, was yet another instance of the arrival of a growing New York-centered business needing more and cheaper space than available in lower Manhattan. Curiously, George Huntington Hartford, the founder, had started his commercial career in New York on Gold St. (Hoyt), not far from the old Lorillard building. Subsequent to its installation in Jersey City, the company experienced a growth spurt that necessitated rapid expansion of its plant. This was partially achieved by the doubling of the size of the original building in two (1914 and 1915) expansions west into the jumble of residual low-rise businesses, "pipe yards" and stables. The A. & P. also built a 6 story building on Bay St. (1914) and an adjacent bakery fronting on Warren St. (1915). Its detached power house on Bay St. was also expanded, as intended, into another 6 story Auxiliary building fronting on an entire block of Provost St. (1915). One of Hartford's sons, Edward V., who invented and manufactured components for the early automobile industry, also built an eight story loft building across Morgan St. from the A & P auxiliary building. The reinforced concrete construction and classically inspired design of this "Hartford compound" gave the western section of the district a distinct identity. Rail spurs and loading docks permitted direct rail supply and delivery from these buildings.

Built in 1913, just prior to the A. & P. Bakery and adjacent annex, the Eckerson Company's brick veneered 6 story building intervened between the Bakery and the original A. & P. Headquarters. Paste-on additions to the Sanborn 1906 base map indicate that these two parts of the A & P empire were connected by a tunnel running under Bay St., as were the Headquarters Building and its 1907 powerhouse. The Eckerson Company appears to have specialized in the production of "butterine." (Buyers Guide and Industrial Directory of Jersey City, N.J., 1919) By 1922, following a legal campaign spearheaded by the dairy industry, the product is advertised as "oleomargarine" (Directory, 1921-22). The block due south of the margarine producer was itself vital to the dairy industry; the Dairymen's Manufacturing Company began manufacturing milk cans for bulk shipping in 1900. In 1904 a 5 story red brick loft of mill construction was built at the corner of Warren and Morgan Streets, later (c. 1915) the two small buildings fronting on Warren St. were demolished and a 5-story reinforced concrete building constructed. The additions to the 1906 Sanborn indicate that the two story building now at the corner of Morgan and Warren Streets was constructed in 1961. The bricked in windows conform to those of the 1904 loft. In all probability the upper stories of the loft were torn down and the remaining lower stories were roofed over in 1961. The full northern wall of this brick building has been left in place against the concrete wall of the adjacent building, revealing its interior pier construction. It seems likely that the interior wall of the reinforced concrete building had been poured and tamped directly against the earlier brick wall, so that today the two form one unit.

The 1919 Hopkins Atlas depicts a district that has achieved a sort of stasis. Although the A. & P. Headquarters building was left without a western cornice, and with a less "finished" western facade, the building had not been extended west, except for a larger truck garage. The two blocks south of Butler Brothers, one appearing largely vacant and the other covered by a lumber yard, have not been the sites of major construction. The Lorillard Company has begun its move out of the district to a new "fireproof" plant in the Marion section on Jersey City’s west side. Butler Brothers now occupied the Lorillard warehouse (104 First. St.) Otherwise, established uses have been maintained.

The 1928 Hopkins shows a district physically intact but with a greatly changed group of owners and users. The entire A. & P. group has changed ownership, the company having moved its headquarters to the Graybar Building over the Grand Central tracks in mid-town Manhattan by 1924. All of its food processing and storage functions have also been moved. The Headquarters building, largely vacant for two years, was sold in 1926 to a Chicago furniture manufactures for storage. (JJ, Dec.15, 1916, p. 1) In the year prior to its removal the A. & P. published in its internal newsletter, The Tattle Tale, an overview of its soon to be abandoned Jersey City empire (64th Anniversary Issue, in Walsh, photo section). Lorillard retained only its original Cigar Factory, its main block having passed to "J.R. Reynolds" (sic). The Dairymens' has become the Package Manufacturing Company, the Bakery transformed into Hudson Wholesale Grocery Co. Butler Brothers remained, as did Eckerson and the Merchants' Refrigeration Company. The onset of the Great Depression, the competition from the Pennsylvania's Harborside Terminal and the rise of trucking at the expense of the railroad would all contribute to the economic marginalization of the district. These factors would also insure its preservation.

The installation of Lorillard's Tobacco and Snuff Manufactory on First St., in the early 1870s, was something of an anomaly in the early history of either the district or Jersey City’s industrial take-off. Founded in lower Manhattan in 1760 by a Huguenot refugee, the eponymous Pierre, this was a large, mature enterprise prior to its migration across the Hudson. As such, it differed markedly from such growing nearby industries as the Dixon Crucible Company or Colgate's Soap Works, which were growing incrementally with the city. We know that in 1868 a former mayor of Jersey City, George Siedler, was admitted as a Lorillard partner; it seems not unreasonable to conclude that Siedler had alerted his partners to the availability of newly created land near rail yard and docks in Lower Jersey City. Siedler would also have been able to assure the Lorillards that a ready pool of labor, largely of Irish and German origin, awaited them in the burgeoning "Immigrant City." The existence of a piped municipal water supply system, for both industrial use and fire suppression, must also have contributed to the appeal of the city and the district. We know that by 1873 the Jarvis Tobacco warehouse had been built adjacent to the Erie yards on Provost St. between Twelfth and Thirteenth Streets. McLean described this isolated cluster of five and six story brick buildings as the "largest of its kind in this country" (McLean, 454). It is unclear why the Lorillards chose a site ten blocks from the Tobacco stores, other than the obvious fact that land around them was given over to rail yard use.

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