Gowanus Brooklyn: This Gowanus manufacturing unit has historical past up its sleeve

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2015 and has been updated. You can read the previous post here.

A 19th-century brick factory building at 543 Union Street in Gowanus once housed the stores of successful box maker James H. Dykeman. Today artists work and exhibit there.

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

We think of boxes more like cardboard, but back then, wooden boxes of all sizes, shapes and thicknesses were used to transport everything from fragile china to machine equipment. Someone had to do it – who better than a carpenter?

Enter the architect Robert Dixon

The factory buildings were designed in 1889 by Robert Dixon, one of many architects who worked in the second quarter of the 19th century. Dixon doesn’t get a lot of press, but has done a lot to create the streetscape of our brownstone and industrial neighborhoods.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

Like his client, Mr. Dykeman, Dixon received his earliest training as a carpenter. He worked with his father, Dominick Dixon, who was successful in trading. He attended the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute and did an apprenticeship with Marshall Morrill in 1876.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

Morrill designed the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and the Feuchtwanger Stables, both in Fort Greene. After three years at Morrill, Dixon released his own clapboard and started collecting clients.

Many of its townhouses are in Park Slope, including more than 30 buildings in the Park Slope Historic District Extension. This includes row houses, shop window and apartment buildings as well as apartment buildings. He also designed two now demolished police stations, one on Coney Island and the other in Sheepshead Bay.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

An extension of the women’s poor house belonged to him as well as an overhaul of the asylum in Flatbush. He also designed the Tivoli Concert Hall in Park Slope and worked on the casino and jockey clubs in Coney Island, which are also long gone. He also designed several other factories.

The National Packing Box Factory

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

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

The site in 1886. Map on the New York Public Library

The Gowanus area was a perfect location for a factory. Dykeman bought land that bordered a canal arm. Here he could receive shipments of wood and other materials by water, a much easier and cheaper way of receiving materials and shipping his products.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

An advertisement from 1916 for the factory. Image about the pictorial history of Brooklyn

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

His business was in decline anyway. Between the increased use of corrugated cardboard packaging and the Great Depression, the company slowly died and went bankrupt in 1936.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

The building in 1960. Photo via Brooklyn Historical Society

The buildings were sold and used by a variety of industries over the century, including brass and furniture makers. But like many Gowanus buildings, they were often unused and empty.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

However, with the new popularity of large artist lofts and the need for gallery space, life in Gowanus has returned.

For a decade, from 2005 to 2015, the Proteus Gowanus building housed an interdisciplinary gallery and reading room that also housed a museum devoted to the history of the canal and its surroundings.

Gowanus Brooklyn Architecture 543 Union Street

Today the building houses a studio and study of Claireware, the pottery company of the artist Claire Weissberg. Your exhibition space is entered through the brightly striped awning on many contemporary photographs.

[Photos by Susan De Vries]

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