All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
“Launch yourself into Rocket Factory Lofts,” beckons the website of the building on South 4th Street, near the East River waterfront. “Experience authentic, industrial loft living in this former rocket and plane parts factory.”
In August 2014, Meadow Partners, a Midtown-based investment firm, bought the pre-war, low-rise building – in bankruptcy for years – for $52 million, with plans to “reposition” the property and bring it to “its full potential.” Newly renovated loft-style apartments hit the market in late November at prices ranging from $3,495 to $4,650 per month. Amenities include marble hallways, a glass-paneled elevator, and a roof deck.
The rocket legend is a good one: a pre-war building where rocket and airplane engines were manufactured becomes one of the most popular residential buildings in Williamsburg. Rustic Lofts Meet Luxurious Living. The original maple hardwood floors that once grounded plane engines now hold stainless steel appliances; oversized windows that once overlooked gray, cobblestone streets now let in beams of natural light and offer 360-degree views of the New York skyline and a trio of bridges.
It’s a good story, if true — and cool additional lore for a building with a 104-year-history pocked with its share of mystery, scandal, and, a year ago this week, the murder of then owner Menachem Stark.
But was it ever a rocket factory at all?
Gretsch & South 4th Street
The mysteries surrounding Rocket Factory Lofts begin over 100 years ago with the building’s first owner, a household name for anyone in the music industry.
For four generations, the Gretsch Company has manufactured some of the world’s most coveted guitars and drums. Neil Young, Charlie Watts, and Bono have endorsed the company and its instruments; in 1964, when the Beatles made their U.S. television debut appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, George Harrison played on a Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar.
In 1883, Friedrich Gretsch, an immigrant from Mannheim, Germany, founded his company in a small shop in Brooklyn. Newspaper articles of the time indicate that the business moved in 1894 from its original location at 128 Middleton Street to South 4th Street, where four wooden structures stood, according to a 1908 atlas at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Behind them, at 109 South 5th Street, in concrete, it shows Gretsch Building No. 1.
Gretsch died in 1895, leaving the company to his 15-year-old son, Fred. The family began planning business expansions, and in 1910, moved part of the business into Gretsch Building No. 2 at 104-108 South 4th Street. Architect Benjamin Finkensiepers designed the factory with the building’s name and address prominently displayed in four tiers across the facade: The Fred Gretsch Mfg. Co., Musical Instruments, 104-114 South 4th St., Brooklyn. A New York City Department of Buildings property profile overview, a Property Shark property report, and a 1918 Sanborn insurance map all confirm the 1910 completion date.
In 1916, Fred Gretsch moved the company to a mammoth 10-story building at 60 Broadway, and over the next several decades the company would become one of the most prominent manufacturers of modern American musical instruments. (In 2003, the 60 Broadway Gretsch Building was converted into residences and retains the Gretsch moniker. Today, it’s considered one of the most desirable loft apartment buildings in Brooklyn and has attracted many famous New Yorkers as potential unit buyers, including Lena Dunham.)
But back to our lot at South 4th. There is confusion about the building’s origins, caused in part by address discrepancies and changes. The official address today is 100 South 4th Street — not 104 South 4th Street as it was for decades. On the website of Scarano Architect PLLC, the architecture firm that designed the residential conversion in 2004, the address is 106 South 4th Street. These discrepancies, compounded by the Gretsch’s ownership of six other Brooklyn properties in the early 1900s, make it difficult to trace the building’s history accurately. But determining what year the building was constructed? That basic fact should be undisputed, right?
Maybe not. On July 30, 2014, Fred Gretsch III, great-grandson of Friedrich Gretsch and current president of Gretsch Guitars, blogged on the company’s website about a walking tour he took around his family’s old Williamsburg stomping grounds. Fred writes: “Once we all had our audio connection set, it was time to head out for our first destination: 104-114 South 4th Street, which was home to Gretsch Building No. 2, built circa 1895.”
But official records are unanimous in recording the date the Gretsches built No. 2 as 1910, not 1895. And just to distinguish between Nos. 1 and 2, the 1918 Sanborn insurance map puts the construction date for Gretsch Building No. 1 (109 South 5th) as 1903 and Gretsch Building No. 2 (104-114 South 4th) as 1910.
It’s plausible that the Gretsch buildings went by different addresses over time, which could explain the conflicting accounts. But can this Gretsch scion be 15 years off when it comes to the place that helped launch his family’s musical instrument manufacturing dynasty?
A 1916 atlas at the Brooklyn Historical Society confirms a concrete structure on the lot at 104-114 South 4th Street that year, which was also the year that Gretsch moved out. In the music company’s stead came another influential manufacturer: the Interstate Electric Novelty Company, “Home of Franco Flashlights.” In 1923, the firm patented the portable electric flashlight, which it developed inside the building. It was about this time that the Gretsch address of 104-114 South 4th Street gave way to simply 104 South 4th Street.
Scandal on South 4th Street
There are very few records detailing the uses of the building after the 1920s. A number of Brooklyn Daily Eagle articles mention various occupants, including Acme Packing Company (1926), Crown Metal Products (1927), and the Groman Candy Factory (1944). In the late 1930s and 1940s, many factories in and around New York City contributed to the war effort. For example, New Jersey-based companies such as Curtiss-Wright and the former Hercules Powder Factory were well-known manufacturers of aircraft parts and the former Sperry Gyroscope Company in downtown Brooklyn built bombsights, which were devices used by aircraft in World War II to more accurately drop bombs. But out of Williamsburg, my search turned up nothing.
Because of these gaps in the building’s documented history, we have to fast-forward 22 years to 1966. Records of the New York City Department of Finance indicate that at the time the property belonged to Lily Krischer, who became owner after the death of her husband, Harry. In 1972, she sold the property to a realty company, which, six years later, sold the property to real estate developer William Muschel.
Records conflict about the exact date, but at some point in the early 2000s Muschel’s sons sold the property for $9 million to Menachem Stark and his partner Israel Perlmutter. (City records note that Stark was also known as Max Stark and Perlmutter was also known as Sam Perl.) Soon after, the two men approached David Maundrell, founder and president of aptsandlofts.com, to brand their new building and convert it for residential use.
“The building had been vacant and ignored for years,” Maundrell told me. “The two men came to us with the name and asked, ‘Can you come up with branding for this?’ They were not the creative type.” He said they offered as fact that the building had been a factory for rocket and plane parts. “They must have found out something to have named it Rocket Factory Lofts,” Maundrell said.
It’s still unclear how Stark and Perl came up with the name that the building’s future owners appropriated. A spokesperson for aptsandlofts.com says the company got its information about the building’s history from “word on the street.”
Maundrell went on: “I never really dug deeper into it because the name was given to us; it was a good name,” he said. “Usually when we name buildings — like when we did 139 North 10th in Williamsburg this past summer — we go through all the records, like what you’re doing, and then we see prior uses and find a name that’ll give a nice spin. That’s how we got Print House Lofts.”
In February 2004, Scarano Architect completed the building’s conversion into apartments. The company’s website describes the project as “a loft conversion of what was previously a factory building.” There is no mention of what kind of factory it was, rocket or otherwise.
The firm’s eponymous architect, Robert Scarano Jr., is well known for his work in Brooklyn and has received over 30 construction awards, including the first annual “Brooklyn Icon” award in April 2005. But in March 2010, the city’s buildings department barred him from submitting any new plans, charging him with “[making] false or misleading statements on his applications for two other new construction projects in Brooklyn.” Scarano in turn sued the Department of Buildings but an appeals court upheld the ruling in 2011, essentially preventing Scarano, but not his company, from doing further business in New York City.
Not long after the Rocket Factory Lofts opened in 2004, there was trouble. Tenants complained about high rents and bad maintenance, the Department of Buildings issued a stop work order on the building, and eventually, the property went into foreclosure. Court records indicate that Stark and Perlmutter were sued several times after defaulting on major loans. In 2009, the men filed for bankruptcy after defaulting on a $29 million loan in 2007 from CWCapital Asset Management that had been used in part to secure Rocket Factory Lofts; CW Capital Asset Management sued both men in July 2011.
Things were about to get profoundly worse for Stark, a 39-year-old Hasidic Jew and father of seven. On January 3, 2014, he was found dead in a dumpster outside a Long Island gas station. Police arrested construction worker Kendel Felix last April, charging him with Stark’s kidnapping and murder. Felix, 26, had completed about $20,000 worth of construction work for Stark but had not been paid. In court, he said that he had only planned to rob Stark and that strangling him to death had been an accident.
The media variously described Stark as a respected, prominent member of Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community; an “under-the-radar Brooklyn real estate developer”; and a “conniving slumlord with a long list of enemies.” At the time of his kidnapping, he was involved in several financial and legal disputes, including the one surrounding Rocket Factory Lofts.
“Everything hit the fan when [Stark] was murdered and the bank forced the sale,” Maundrell said. Stark’s management company, Southside Associates LLC, was taken over by another firm — but tenants in many of Stark’s buildings continued to be enraged, complaining about rats, flood damage, and missing security deposits. Maundrell would not become involved with the building again until Meadow Partners acquired the property in August 2014 and aptsandlofts.com became its executive leasing agency.
A Rocket Factory, or…?
I could be all wrong about this, but after spending hours poring over atlases at the Brooklyn Historical Society, online databases, newspaper archives, and city financial records, nothing I have uncovered indicates that this building at any of its addresses was ever a rocket factory or one that manufactured plane parts. I’ll grant that it is not clear what business or businesses occupied this building during the years from 1944 to 1965, where there are apparent gaps in the record. Over the years, it’s been a factory for guitars, drums, electric flashlights, and candy. But rockets?
And if it had been a rocket factory, why is it so difficult to find evidence to support the claims? No one currently involved with the property can corroborate this purported incarnation. And I can’t help but wonder why the developers didn’t just call it “Gretsch Guitar Lofts” or “Drum House Lofts” to honor the Gretsch connection. Maybe because 60 Broadway had already claimed that legacy?
“You know, it did dawn on me…” Maundrell told me when I asked him if he knew about the Gretsch connection. “I wondered about that because the building is a similar style to many others they owned in that geographical area.”
So, to all you musicians and artists living in or thinking about living in the lofts on South 4th Street: sorry about the whole no-rockets confirmation, but rest assured that some epic jam sessions surely took place in your living room about a hundred years ago.
Correction: The original version of this post was revised because it misstated the war in which bombsights were used.