May 3, 2017

A Second Act For A Former Factory At Williamsburg's National Sawdust

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: Matt Zaller

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has become a flourishing spot for real estate development in the past decade, partially due to a change in the neighborhood’s zoning that’s allowed for a residential boom. So when Kevin Dolan, a New York tax lawyer with a passion for musical composition, started conceptualizing a plan for a new concert hall in 2008, he and the creative team he assembled weren’t expecting the ideal space to take the form of an early-20th-century sawdust factory in this formerly industrial part of town.

“There is a real kind of tabula rasa model of development there, where a lot of the old buildings are being ripped down, and big, glass, sometimes not-so-well constructed residential buildings were going up,” says Peter Zuspan of Bureau V Architecture, the project’s design architects. “A lot of the neighborhood kind of looked like a Western movie set in terms of old clapboard houses that were not in good shape.”

“So when we found this old brick warehouse building that was actually in decent shape and in an area that is surrounded by brand-new developments,” he continues,” we thought it would be a sort of defiant act of preservation to keep it, actually.”

The concert hall, which opened in 2015 after seven years and a $16 million, two-phase construction project, is named National Sawdust, after the factory that preceded it. Zuspan estimates that the structure dates from the late 1920’s or early ‘30s, but no one seems sure of the exact year. The governing body of National Sawdust is structured as a nonprofit, with the modus operandi of providing support for young and up-and-coming composers inside a state-of-the-art sound space.

photo by: Matt Zaller

Bureau V Architecture worked with SLAB Architecture and Arup New York, an acoustic design firm, to house the performance hall inside the shell of the masonry factory building. Zuspan, who joined the board of National Sawdust after finishing work on the architectural job, says that when members of Bureau V first went in to take a tour of the building, the roof was leaking, and one of the structural engineers fell through part of the floor.

The exterior, however, was sound, and other than some repointing of the bricks and the addition of a mural by artist Eli Sudbrack, it was left unchanged. Visitors and passersby can still make out the words “National Sawdust Co.” on faded ghost signs on two intersecting walls.

The building’s interior features box-in-box construction, with a performance space housed inside an eight-inch solid concrete shell sitting atop springs in the relatively small existing building—just 14,200 square feet. According to Zuspan, Arup New York described the project as “the most complexity per square foot” of any project they had ever worked on.

To bring the project to fruition, Dolan came up with what he referred to as a “philanthropic investor model,” wherein he leveraged the skyrocketing property values of the neighborhood to entice philanthropists. A consortium of National Sawdust board members own shares of the building, and after a stipulated 6-year period, they will donate their shares to the nonprofit, with the goal that the nonprofit will own the building outright. With the property inevitably appreciating to three or four times the amount it was initially bought for, the tax write-off for the board members will be much larger than it was at the time that they bought into it.

In its inaugural season, National Sawdust featured performances by a wide-ranging and eclectic group of artists, including mandolinist Chris Thile, American contemporary classical music composter Nico Muhly, Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, and pianist Alessio Bax. Its second season, which started in August of 2016, is placing an emphasis on music education, with artist residencies and a celebration of Philip Glass, who turns 80 this year.

"It's not in Manhattan," Zuspan says, "so while it is in a wealthier part of Brooklyn, it's accessible to a lot more people because of that."

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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