The Somers Brothers Tinware Factory (later American Can Company) was built in 1884 for Somers Brothers, a pioneer of tinware production in the United States and one of the most significant and best-known manufacturers in Brooklyn from 1869-1901. Before the development of plastic containers and extensive use of aluminum cans, tinplate vessels were essential to the storage, preservation, mass production, and dissemination of a diverse range of products. In 1878, the Somers brothers—Daniel, Guy, and Joseph—began to use a lithographic process of Daniel Somers’ invention to print images on tinplate sheets, and custom equipment to cut and shape the sheets into containers. These processes set the firm apart as one of the earliest American companies to market tinware with integrated decorative surfaces rather than separate paper labels.
To better meet the intense demand for its products, Somers Brothers began to construct this polychromatic brick plant on the southeast corner of 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street in 1884, on a site with convenient access to the now-infilled 5th Street basin of the Gowanus Canal. The imaginative Daniel Somers was responsible for the design, and was the inventor of numerous devices and processes that were used to manufacture Somers Brothers’ tin boxes. Some features, like the L-shaped plan, flat roof, regular fenestration pattern, and narrow width to allow for daylight penetration, are hallmarks of late nineteenth-century industrial architecture. The mixture of segmental and semicircular aches and the regular grid of vertical piers and horizontal bands are characteristic of the American Round Arch style. The building’s distinctive polychromatic brick, patterns, projections, and prominent corner pavilion communicated a solid public image for the Somers brothers, longtime residents of Brooklyn, and lend to the building’s prominence in the Gowanus neighborhood’s urban landscape.
In the 1890s, the Somers Brothers Tinware Factory complex was written about as one of the largest tinplate factories in the world; Daniel Somers wrote that “the works are pronounced by English experts to be the finest tinplate works in existence.” In 1898, a portion of Somers Brothers’ operations became part of the American Tin Plate Company, a tinplate trust then in possession of 90% of tin mills in the United States. In 1901, Somers Brothers was absorbed by the American Can Company, which was responsible for a number of innovations in tin can fabrication, and bought out 98% of American tin can manufacturers to eliminate competition and dominate domestic tin can production.
Almost a century later, six of the seven buildings were acquired by the current ownership, and modest improvements were made to stabilize and upgrade the buildings. In 1989, after a fire destroyed much of the mill building, XØ Projects Inc (XØp) was hired to plan its reconstruction and restoration. In 1991, XØp moved its office to the complex, and in 1996, assumed leasing and management responsibilities and named the complex The Old American Can Factory. In 2003, XØp assumed a development and curatorial role and re-purposed the complex to serve the cultural and industrial communities, and it remains so today.
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Text above drawn primarily from NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission’s Designation Report issued October 29, 2019. Full report can be downloaded at: http://s-media.nyc.gov/agencies/lpc/lp/2640.pdf