The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

vague stones and symbols

with 2 comments

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A caprice which your humble narrator enjoys, long have I referred to this part of the Newtown Creek as “DUGABO” – an abbreviation for “Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp“. Historically, this has always been home to companies who deal in the refining and distribution of fuel- whether it was spermaceti oil, coal, natural gas, or petroleum. Standard Oil had a base here, and it’s modern day incarnation as Exxon Mobil is still very much present in the locale.

A long history of fires and industrial accidents surround DUGABO, from the Locust Hill and Sone and Fleming refinery fires in the 1880′s to a 1919 immolation which consumed the bridge itself. Standing in the middle of this area of concentrated wealth and industry, however, is a 9 story tall enigma.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

425 Greenpoint Avenue is the address of this structure, and its bold face designates itself as “The Miller Building”.

Like many of the enormous factory structures which grace the Newtown Creek Watershed, its original purpose has been lost to changing economic times and in modernity it serves as a self storage warehouse. The building is visible from great distance, and for those of involved in the history of Newtown Creek- something of a mystery. Even my departed friend Bernard Ente, whose encyclopedic knowledge of Newtown Creek was legendary, was stumped as to its original purpose. It looks for all the world like a grain terminal. It’s not.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

First hand accounts from current occupants of the building offered few clues to its origins, although descriptions of an ad hoc pet cemetery located on its grounds tantalize with their wild suggestions. It is located in a petrochemical center, a poured concrete structure which is at a minimum 90 years old and some 9 stories in height (which is remarkable in itself), and stands on some of the most valuable real estate (from a early to mid 20th century point of view) in New York City.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

All the usual sources, including the estimable database maintained by the NYC Department of Buildings, return few if any results on its origins. this is often the case with older structures that were built in the so called outer boroughs around the time of “consolidation” and I’m sure that somewhere in the Brooklyn Borough Hall there must exist a record of the place in the atavist files of the City of Brooklyn- but I have not been able to find them. Accordingly, an attempt has been made to “beat the brush” amongst the many historical enthusiasts I have been fortunate enough to meet over the last few years.

T.J. Connick, a scholar who I’ve never met in person and know only from the vast interwebs, has been immensely helpful in the endeavor and is singled out for generously adding to the research effort.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Modern cohorts who run a large petro chemical business based on Kingsland Avenue responded to my queries about the Miller Building with “it used to be a glue factory” as late as the 1970′s. In fact, many Greenpointers will repeat this, as a 20th century glue and varnish factory was housed here which was legendary for its effluent smells. The earliest mention I’ve been able to find about the place, and which surely discusses the antecedent of the modern structure, is in a 1911 trade journal.

From Paint, oil and drug review, Volume 52 , courtesy google books

Unknown cause, Tuesday, July 11, destroyed the plant of the Charles Miller varnish works, at Greenpoint avenue and Newtown Creek, Brooklyn. The flames threatened surrounding factories, but the firemen kept the blaze confined to the doomed building. At the time there were but few employes in the place, and they escaped without injury. The damage was estimated at $3,000.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Logically- the modern Miller Building must have been erected sometime in the eight years between the 1911 fire and a conflagration in 1919 known as “The Standard Oil fire”. “The Miller building” discussed in the link below is obviously the modern structure.

From 1919′s Insurance newsweek, Volume 20, courtesy google books

Across the street from this plant is the Miller Building, which is fireproof and has wired glass windows. This building was undamaged, and prevented the fire from reaching the buildings of the Green Point Storage Co., in which are stored naval supplies such as resin and tar. The New York fire insurance companies also had lines on this risk. A remarkable fact was that no one was killed. This was probably due to the fact that exploding oil does not have the force of powders, and also much less concussion. The tanks that were blown, however, were twisted and torn as if some colossal force had thrown them down from a great height. The blazing oil which ran about in rivulets was a constant menace to the other tanks. The office of the Standard Oil Co., which was supposed to have been of fireproof construction, was destroyed, but most of the important records were saved.

Additionally, the 1919 fire was explored here at your Newtown Pentacle, in the posting “Tales of Calvary 11- Keegan and Locust Hill“.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

T.J. Connick, in answer to my queries about the Miller Building, sent along these fascinating tidbits which are presented as received:

  • Charles A. Miller appears, as described in my previous email, as father to Charles Clifford Miller.
  • It appears that Charles A Miller and Mrs. raised family at 128 Kent Street. Mr. & Mrs. were active in the Third Church (Universalist). Daughter Hattie was Sunday school teacher. Florence I. Miller appears at the address, class of 1903 at Pratt Institute. Maybe it’s Hattie, maybe some other relation.
  • Mrs. Charles A Miller’s obit appears in July 2, 1901 Brooklyn Eagle (p.2). Her name was Justice Liberty Miller – no joke. She died at 43.
  • Oct 26, 1913 Brooklyn Daily Eagle (page 2) reports on marriage of Charles Clifford Miller. He married Hazel Walrath of Fort Plain, NY in Universalist Church ceremony in her home town. He was described as head of Eclipse Box & Lumber Company (this located 425 Greenpoint), member of Northport Yacht Club (his yacht the 30-foot Dutchess), and motorist.
  • The couple planned to make their home at 13 Greenway Terrace, Forest Hills (Queens)
  • Subdued affair due to recent death of his father Charles Miller “prominent manufacturer of Brooklyn and a widely known Universalist.”
  • Advertisement appeared in New York Lumber Trade Journal of May 1, 1921
    “FOR SALE or LEASE Planing Mill & Lumber Yard
    Tel. 1803 Greenpoint Charles C. Miller
    425 Greenpoint Ave. Brooklyn NY
  • I also found description of Charles C. Miller where the author states that he Miller had recently joined Eclipse Box after association with Eclipse Oil Works.
  • Charles A Miller (presumably his father) appears in 1911 Directory of Directors in City of New York: Miller, Charles A. with Standard Oil Co., 425 Greenpoint Ave., Brooklyn
  • Charles Clifford Miller died in Fall of 1945 at home in Forest Hills.
  • Miller’s a common name; makes searches tough. Eclipse Box & Lumber a definite, and Charles Clifford Miller’s association established in the wedding report in the Eagle, and by industry items in some trade journals from 1904 onwards. As regards “varnish” connection, Miller was flexible with his operation. A 1904 report indicated that his business was providing wood shavings to the gaslight industry in the neighborhood. The leftovers were used to make boxes, hence Eclipse Box & Lumber. Boxes were varnished, why not make your own? Same for Glue, etc.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Connections with the Universalist sect track- in 1913, as the 425 Greenpoint Avenue address was given in a Universalist journal for a “Recording Secretary” named Ida Ritter East at the address. My bet would be that old man Miller was listing his office address, and that Ida was his actual secretary- but that’s idle supposition.

Connick’s postulations are also confirmed by this link which offers the address of Eclipse Box and Lumber at the selfsame 425 Greenpoint.

Eclipse seemed to have been sharing the space with other companies as early as 1917, if one believes the testimony of one Charles M. Bopp. Manhattan Briar Pipe Co. was on site as late as 1919, according to this scanned newspaper.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

A fairly reliable source, in 1912′s THE EASTERN DISTRICT of BROOKLYN, Eugene Armbruster listed:

“Eclipse Oil Works, Newtown Creek. The Eclipse Box & Lumber Company, Greenpoint Avenue. American Varnish Company, Greenpoint Avenue” as having occupied this part of the Newtown Creek waterfront.

Additionally, the Universalist creed of Charles A. Miller seems to be confirmed in this outtake from a Brooklyn Citizens Almanac of 1894:

Third Universalist of Reconciliation— North Henry st., near Nassau av.; org. 1857; Pastors. Alice Kinney Wright and Alfred Ellsworth Wright, 206 North Henry St.; Chas. A. Miller, Sec, 128 Kent St.; membership, 33; sittings. 300; S.S. Supt, C. H. Palmateer, 159 Dupoht St ; S.S. membership, 146; value of property, 88,000; Trustees: C. H. Palmateer, C. A. Miller, A. P. Howard, J. W. Moore, Chas. E. Lund and Jas. English.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Connick, it seems, is a force to be reckoned with. Thank you, T.J.

Personally speaking, I’m still not satisfied, and feel as if the Miller Building has defeated me. How, exactly, does an obviously significant structure such as this escape the historical record so successfully? Newtown Creek is in many ways a black hole as far as the aforementioned record goes, but this is frankly ridiculous… Grrr.

My hope would be that one of you, the knowledgeable lords and ladies of Newtown, will read this post and have some mercy upon a humble narrator- sharing some anecdote or family history that will put a face of some kind on this place. I can always be reached at this address.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Thanks, again, to T.J. Connick. At least have an idea who “Miller” was, and some of the texture of what happened in and around this mysterious structure which rises high above the Newtown Creek.

As far as the latter day history of the building, I think the picture says it all.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

November 15, 2011 at 12:15 am

2 Responses

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  1. [...] a visit to Lovecraft Country in Brooklyn was described in “frightful pull“, and “vague stones and symbols” came pretty close to answering certain mysteries associated with the sky flung Miller [...]

  2. […] abbreviation for “Down Under the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge Onramp“. It is across the street from the Miller Building, and was where one of the greatest conflagrations in Newtown Creek history […]


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