Five years after the Chelsea Hotel was built, lending its name to what was then becoming a popular Gilded Age neighborhood for the city’s industrious class, the first New York Biscuit Company building began to take shape eight blocks south and one block west, in 1890.
From a series of red-brick bakeries rising six stories, New York Biscuit began to churn out the most famous sweet and savory crisps in the country. Eight years after the facilities opened, the competitors merged to form the National Biscuit Company, since known as Nabisco, and never looked back. By the 1920s, more than 22 buildings covering some 2 million square feet had been built.
The booming industry was good for business but bad for the neighborhood. The 10th Avenue freight line, the lifeblood of the neighborhood, was claiming ever more lives, so the decision was made to elevate it.
Louis Wirsching Jr., Nabisco’s chief architect at the time, came up with the turreted structure that still stands along 10th Avenue, operating from 1932 until Nabisco shipped out for suburban North Jersey in 1958.
The next year, the building was sold to Louis Glickman, a storied, bootstrapping developer who once threatened to tear down Carnegie Hall in favor of a new office building. He never did much with the old factory, nor did a succession of other owners.
In 1993, Irwin Cohen arrived, along with a group of Russian and Tajik backers, met through a friend who was an immigration attorney. They had $10 million in hand, all it took to buy an industrial building in the area back then. A former lawyer, Mr. Cohen had been doing a brisk business in renting up similar structures in Long Island City. “I like this type of building,” he said over a lunch of steamed vegetables last Friday at Sardi’s. “I couldn’t tell you why else I bought it.”
At the time, he had been working with City Hall on a plan to relocate the Flower district into new facilities, keeping it from moving to New Jersey. He thought the Nabisco plant, bought at auction, would be a good place. But the parking never worked out, so he had to figure on something different. A subsequent deal with the photography store B&H also fell through.
“And then I said, what can you do?” he recalled. “New York is food, clothing and shelter. We had lots of clothing in Long Island City, so I said, ‘Let’s do food.’”
Food was not such a wild idea, as the area was still very much the Meatpacking district, the cobblestones running red with blood. “When we first got in the building, we found three dead bodies, all on their knees, shot through the head, execution style,” Mr. Cohen said. He recalled having to devise clever ways to drive out the prostitutes who had overtaken the place.
His great innovation was requiring the wholesalers who took up in the building to also sell retail, creating the famous martketplace in the old factory’s concourse everyone now knows so well. It now attracts 300,000 visitors a year—the same number the High Line thought it would be getting. Amy’s Bread, the Lobster Place, Buon Italia, all helped attract companies to move their offices upstairs, starting with Oxygen, MLB.com and the Food Network, whose hosts regularly shopped downstairs during their shows early days. ABC’s Murder One and HBO’s Oz were among the shows shot in the vacant corners of the building, since transformed into office space.
Thus Jamestown’s desire to expand. Between the full occupancy here, and the success of Google in attracting yet more tech talent to the neighborhood, to say nothing of the fiber-optic infrastructure below ground that the techies obsess over, this has quietly emerged as one of the city’s premier office locations.
“We easily have 350,000 square feet of need now,” Michael Phillips, Jamestown’s COO, told The Commercial Observer in March. “We can’t just go to the vacant lot down the street and build a new building, because the infrastructure, the cooling tower, the electrical vaults, the recording studios, the servers are all up in this building.” (Mr. Phillips and his associates declined to comment for this article due to ongoing negotiations with the city over the building’s rezoning.)