Friday, October 2, 2015

Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse

Photo of building from corner
Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse
Bull's eye window with current company's name in stained glass
Brooklyn Clay Retort and Firebrick Works Storehouse
Bull's Eye Window
Neighborhood: Red Hook
Address: 76 - 86 Van Dyke Street

The building dates to the mid-nineteenth century, circa 1859, and was part of a complex established during the first wave of industrial development in Red Hook. The “powerful” looking structure was constructed from roughly cut, dark gray schist in an ashlar pattern with brick and sandstone trim.[1][2] The basilica-esque building form is typical of mid and late nineteenth-century low-rise industrial buildings. Today the building is supplemented with electrical lighting; however, its primary light source in the nineteenth century was a clear story of windows, skylights and a bull’s eye window in the Van Dyke Street facade.[1] The stained glass in the bull’s eye window beers the current occupant’s company name "Carvart Glass".

Historic illustration showing Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works complex
Illustration from Henry Stiles History of Brooklyn
(Image: Courtesy of
Current bird's eye view of Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works complex
Bing Bird's Eye View of Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Complex
In the historic lithograph above you can see the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse on the left. The building on the right with the tall smokestack was built by the company to house a steam engine and boiler rooms, as well as a carpentry shop for fabricating patterns and molds required for the various shapes of fire brick.[1] Although heavily modified, remnants of this structure still remain. Note: in the historic image, the relationship of the buildings to the water is not accurate.

Plaque commemorating the Landmark designation of the building
Landmark Plaque
The plaque pictured above commemorates the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse's Landmarks designation. The Storehouse was the first building to achieve landmark status in Red Hook. Prior to being landmarked, the building was purchased and restored by Greg O'Connell, a local developer.[3]

Fire brick discovered on shoreline of Manhasset Bay, NY
Cropped Photo of Company's Fire Brick
As Seen on Southern Manhasset Bay, NY Shoreline April 18, 2009
(Image: Courtesy of Sandy Richard)
The Company
The building was the storehouse for the J.K. Brick & Company, later the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works.[1] The J.K. Brick & Company was started in 1854 to manufacture products used in the production of illuminating gas by companies such as the Brooklyn Gas Light Company. Constructed near Red Hook's Erie Basin, Clay was once shipped from South Amboy, NJ to the Firebrick Works where it was made into “firebrick”.[2] Fire bricks are used to line kilns and furnaces. In addition to fire bricks, the company sold clay retorts, fire clay and stove lining bricks, as well as fire sand and fire cement for laying brick.[1][4][5] One of the innovations developed by the company’s founder was the fire clay retort, a vessel used in the process of coal gasification. The J.K. Brick & Company is credited with being the first business in the country to produce fire clay retorts. The company remained profitable into the late 1800s but sometime in the early 20th century closed its doors for good.[1][5] In my research it was unclear when the company ceased its operations but according to the Landmarks Preservation Commission report, the American Molasses Company began using the Brick Works buildings in the 1930s. Although the New York - New Jersey area was once a major fire brick manufacturing center, the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works buildings are the last known remaining structures in the area.[1]

Company's Founder
The company’s founder, aptly named Joseph K. Brick, was an authority on the construction and management of gas works. Brick was from Salem County, New Jersey and was educated in gas works engineering at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Moving to New York in 1848, he designed and oversaw construction of the Brooklyn Gas Light Company’s works near the East River. His portfolio of civil engineering projects also included the first gas works in Buffalo New York and the municipal water system in Savannah Georgia. In addition to his work at the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works, Brick was the engineer and director of the Brooklyn Gas Light Company.[1]

  1. Bradley, Betsy H. NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission Designation Report 18 December, 2001
  2. White, Norval, Willensky, Elliot, and Leadon, Fran AIA Guide to New York. Oxford University Press, 2010
  3. Buiso, Gary "At Long Last, Van Dyke St. Landmark to be Dedicated" Park Slope Courier 13 May, 2002.
  4. American Gas Light Journal 4, January 1897
  5. Blanck, Maggie "Brooklyn Clay Retort" May 2015