The Sugar House Lofts condominium building on the east side of Washington Street at Essex Street was built prior to 1907 by the American Sugar Refining Company. The building survived a devastating fire in 1924 that destroyed almost all of the company's other buildings. The Sugar House Lofts is the last remnant of what was once an extensive complex of sugar refineries and warehouses that dominated the industrial waterfront surrounding the Morris Canal basin at the southern end of Washington Street in Paulus Hook from the late nineteenth century through the 1920’s.
The largest of Jersey City's sugar refineries was established by German immigrants Franz Otto Matthiessen (1833-1901) and William Alfred Weichers (1835-1888). Matthiessen had learned the basics of sugar refining as an apprentice in Hamburg, Germany. In 1858 he immigrated to America where he worked in several refineries in New York and Boston before opening his own establishment in Jersey City. He and Weichers founded the New Jersey Sugar Refining Company which soon became known as the Matthiessen & Weichers' Sugar Refining Company.
Danish-born architect Detlef Lienau (1818-1887) designed the first refinery for the new company that was constructed in 1863 on the southern bank of the Morris Canal between Washington and Warren Streets. The firm was quick to implement technological innovations in sugar refining such as centrifugal processing. By 1875, Matthiessen & Weichers' sugar refineries expanded north of the Morris Canal, and the company built a new seven-story office and warehouse on the site of the old Jersey Glass Works factory at the southwest corner of Washington and Essex Streets. The old American Pottery Company buildings on Warren Street between Essex and Morris Streets survived a little longer but these were finally demolished in 1892 for sugar house expansion.
Faced with recurring oversupplies of sugar and an overall decline in its price, owners of some of the larger refineries made various attempts to reduce competition within the sugar industry and revive profitability. By 1891, under the leadership of the Havemeyer family of Brooklyn, NY, several major sugar refining plants, including Jersey City's own Matthiessen & Weichers Co., were consolidated under a single corporate ownership called the American Sugar Refining Company. The incorporation papers were filed in New Jersey to avoid New York State’s stricter regulations, which had earlier thwarted the Brooklyn-based Havemeyers. Matthiessen relinquished direct control of his Jersey City refineries, but maintained considerable influence as a Director and Treasurer of the new organization. Often referred to as the "Sugar Trust," the industry remained a frequent target of anti-monopoly government lawsuits from its inception through the 1920’s.
An art collector and enthusiast, Matthiessen officially retired from the American Sugar Refining Company in January 1900 to pursue travel in Europe. However, he died not long afterwards and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, NY. At the time of his death, his estate was valued at approximately 15 million dollars.
On November 14, 1924, a four-alarm fire originating at the Battelle and Renwick Saltpeter Co. on Morris and Warren streets spread across the street to the Sugar House. Saltpeter or sodium nitrate is used in the making of explosives and is highly inflammable. The fire caused the evacuation of nine-hundred residents in nearby wooden tenements in the immigrant neighborhood of Paulus Hook known as "Gammontown." No one was killed during the fire. News reports claim that the daytime conflagration, starting at nine a.m., enabled firefighters to bring the injured to safety.
The fire gutted most of the Sugar House buildings. They had all been shut down by the company three years earlier when operations were moved to Baltimore, MD. The only part of the Sugar House complex to survive the blaze was saved by the dynamiting of "an overhead passageway connecting the soap plant and the sugar house to halt the flames" (Jersey Journal 18 December 1964).
The rapid spreading of the fire, explosive noises and shattering of windowpanes reminded some Jersey City residents of the Black Tom Explosion, only eight years earlier. Thickening smoke and sparks carried by heavy winds affected the surrounding homes. Firemen, incapable of reaching the fire, could only water adjacent properties as a preventative measure. Fireboats used the access of the Morris Canal Basin at the foot of Washington Street to protect the piers and properties south of the fire.
Fire officials claimed the overheating of the machinery in the manufacture of the saltpeter to be the cause of the fire; however, company officials held that a bonfire set next to the building caused the sparks to ignite a fire in the basement. The fire that raged for four hours destroyed thirty-seven tenement houses and several large factories with total property damage amounting to approximately one million dollars.
The only building on the block of the fire to remain intact was a small "fireproof" building was constructed in 1923 for Onyx Chemical Co., next to the saltpeter plant. Onyx Chemical would grow to occupy much of the area destroyed by the fire. In the late 1990's, Onyx would, in turn, leave Jersey City, selling the land for residential redevelopment. Today, the townhomes and luxury apartments of The Windsor at Liberty House complex line the formerly industrial streets.
The Sugar House condominium building serves as a reminder of Jersey City’s once important sugar refining industry. In its heyday, local operations employed over fifteen hundred workers and occupied four city blocks with an expanse of over nine hundred feet of waterfront to receive transport ships. During this time of industrial expansion, the company was noted both for the quality of its product and for its progressive views on the redesign of production equipment in its own machine shops to remain a leader in its industry. Jersey City refineries were producing a variety of over 5,000 barrels of 360 pounds each of refined sugar a day from raw sugar imported worldwide (Muirhead, 1910).
The current building known as the Sugar House Lofts at 174 Washington Street opened in June 2001 as a sixty-four unit luxury condominium building. Colgate-Palmolive owned the property from 1942 and sold the building to the developers during the late 1990's. Instead of demolishing the old brick and steel industrial warehouse in favor of new high-rise construction, the developers and the architects redesigned and renovated the building to blend in with the historic character of the surrounding Paulus Hook neighborhood. The original four-story warehouse building was likely constructed around 1900. The renovated design preserves its important design elements such as its large arched window openings and high ceilings. A segment of the Hudson River Waterfront Walkway was opened alongside the southern edge of the property. It provides public access to the adjacent Morris Canal Basin and the northern edge of Liberty State Park.
"An Extensive Building: Important Addition to the Sugar House." Jersey Journal 6 January 1875.
"F.O. Matthiessen Dies in His Paris Home." New York Times 10 March 1901.
"F.O. Matthiessen's Will." New York Times 23 April 1901.
Golodik, Thomas. "50 Years Ago: Jersey City's Worst Fire." Jersey Journal 14 November 1974.
Kramer, Ellen W. "Detlef Lienau, an Architect of the Brown Decades." Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians Vol. 14, No. 1 (Mar., 1955) pp. 18-25.
"Low-rise lofts on the Jersey City riverfront: Converting a sugar plant to the Sugar House." New York Times 2 August 1998.
Muirhead, Walter G. Jersey City of To-Day: Hudson County, New Jersey; America, Its History, People, Trades, Commerce, Institutions & Industries. Jersey City, NJ: Jersey City Printing Co., 1910.
"Soap Concern Buys Jersey City Plant: Palmolive Company Acquires Six Buildings of American Sugar Refining Co." New York Times 25 June 1942.
"The Jersey City Sugar House Fire: A Tremendous Spectacle." Jersey Journal 18 December 1964.
"The Pottery Disappearing." Jersey Journal 12 November 1892.