Empire Stores: From 19th-Century Warehouse to 21st-Century Shopping Center

Empire Stores, Dumbo: From Warehouse to Shopping Center

Left: The Empire Stores in 1935, by Berenice Abbott, via New York Public Library. Right: Rendering of Empire Stores courtyard.

Empire Stores is the latest in a series of projects that have been turning the Dumbo waterfront into an attraction for both locals and tourists. Opening out onto the ever-evolving Brooklyn Bridge Park, the Empire Stores complex will be a 500,000-square-foot shopping and office complex with a projected opening date of the summer of 2016.

It’s not going to be a typical shopping center, though. It’s location in Brooklyn Bridge Park, so close to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Fulton Ferry Landing will make it a must-see stop for tourists visiting Brooklyn. Empire Stores will feature some of the best views in the city, especially from its rooftop beer garden, and a dedicated museum space, curated by Brooklyn Historical Society, will showcase the story of this historic building, as well Dumbo’s journey from a waterfront hub of industry to Brooklyn’s center for design and technology.

The complex, constructed inside a 19th-century warehouse that stood vacant since 1945, will include such destinations as the prestigious Vinegar Hill House restaurant, home furnishing store West Elm, watch and apparel company Shinola. There will also be space for local artists to display their works.

Empire Stores, Dumbo: From Warehouse to Shopping Center

The Brooklyn Waterfront in 1924, via the Brooklyn Historical Society.

In the years between the Civil War and World War II, the Empire Stores, along with much of the waterfront in what is now Dumbo, were the center of operations for the Arbuckle Bros. Coffee Company. By inventing new processes for glazing, roasting, and packaging coffee beans, the Arbuckle Brothers’ “Ariosa” brand took America by storm. It made the Arbuckle brothers very rich, and changed the face of the Brooklyn waterfront. (You can read the whole story in Suzanne Spellen’s history of the Arbuckle Bros. coffee empire, over on Brownstoner.)

Empire Stores: From Warehouse to Shopping Center

Rendering of Empire Stores via EmpireStoresDumbo.com

Back then, warehouses lined the entire waterfront. Of those, only the Empire Stores and the Tobacco Warehouse remain today. The latter is the new home of one of Brooklyn’s signature theater companies, St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Empire Stores, Dumbo: From Warehouse to Shopping Center

Empire Stores before the beginning of construction in 2014. Photo by Will Femia via Curbed.

It’s a big change from Empire Stores’ former incarnation as a warehouse, when shutters were opened for loading and unloading, and otherwise closed to protect the valuable coffee beans from sunlight and theft. During construction, workers found not only abandoned machinery but dusty coffee beans strewn across the floor.

The new Empire Stores will also include museum space dedicated to the history of the Brooklyn waterfront, with subjects ranging from the oysters that were once abundant on our shores to Dumbo’s more recent history as a community of artists.

Presumably, some space will also be dedicated to the story of Brooklyn’s coffee empire, and the buildings it left behind.


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