Today, Pfizer is the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, with dozens of factories and research labs across the country, over 100,000 employees, and hundreds of billions in revenue. Amazing to think it all got started in a now-empty factory on the border between South Williamsburg and Bed-Stuy.
Pfizer was founded as a fine chemicals business in 1849 by German-American cousins Charles Pfizer and Charles Erhardt at the corner of Harrison Ave and Bartlett Street. Their first success was an anti-parasitic called santonin, though citric acid production was the real early moneymaker.
As the company grew, the cousins bought up land around their property, eventually occupying an entire block bordered by Tompkins, Ellery, Marcy, and Flushing.
Despite a lack of space, significant downturns in the neighborhood, and the high costs of operating in New York City, Pfizer maintained its operations here for over 150 years in what seems almost to have been a loyalty to its birthplace.
You can find a lot of great remnants from older Pfizer days, like this sign above one of the entrances:
Another entrance, with a cool art-deco motif:
And lining the building…
…are numerous “Pfizer Quality” emblems:
By 2005, over 2 billion pills were being manufactured here annually, ranging from Zoloft to Lipitor to Viagra. Then, in 2008, the plant was finally shuttered for good.
A few weeks ago, I received an email from the new owners inviting me to take a look inside. Exactly what this all will become is still being worked out, but in the meantime, they’re more than happy to consider film production and photoshoot rentals (that includes you, student films with a limited budget!). The building is absolutely enormous, with hundreds of possible uses…
…But why don’t we take a look around?
Very little has changed since the final Pfizer employee walked out the front doors. We started down the entrance hallway, still lined with company slogans…
…as well as some historical photographs, like this 1936 picture of a man working a citrus concentrator.
Another, taken in 1945, of the Penicillin labeling line (I love that masked figure through the rear window):
From there, we headed past the old security desk and into the building:
This place is HUGE.
Cavernous warehouse spaces can be found at any turn in the 8-story building, and I had lost my bearings within minutes of walking in.
The pipes alone should give you a sense of the size and scope (note the one for “breathing air”):
We started our tour on the 7th floor…
…where dozens of old labs line the perimeter, many with great views of the city:
Many were built in the 1970’s, and I’m told you really don’t see this sort of design anymore:
Lots of drawers:
Chemical hoods, providing ventilation for noxious substances:
What really surprised me though was how much equipment Pfizer left behind. Like this – what is this?!
Oh, of course. A Doctor Machine.
Here’s another, across the room:
In fact, Pfizer left thousands of pieces of equipment, right down to the old 70’s pencil sharpeners on the wall. And yes, all of this can be used as props for film shoots.
A biohazard cabinet (glad the sign below says empty):
Cool old blue shelving:
I love the glass corner offices in some of the labs.
Worn steam heaters, used for heating beakers (hence the different sizes):
What size beaker are you looking for? They had ’em all…
This is the sort of thing that really gets the science nerd in me excited – I love random high tech electrical equipment, and it’s fun to actually get to push all the buttons without, you know, getting killed or blowing something up:
The stroboscope control unit. I’ve been meaning to get a new one.
One of my favorite closets in the building. I wonder if this was ever used?
There’s a lot of great left-over signage. I like the enormous red hand telling the little man not to come in:
I was assured that the place has been fully cleaned and inspected a zillion times over, so you can feel safe ignoring signs like this:
Awesome stencil glass lettering on chicken-wire glass:
Do not enter this room without…
Every once in a while, we’d come across a room that looked like the Incredible Hulk had ripped a hole through the wall. Apparently, some of the equipment Pfizer removed was so big, these needed to be cut to get it out.
We then took a stop in this room…
This is some sort of pill mixer…
…but what’s especially neat is that it stretches down to the lower floor…
…where a little tap could be opened at the bottom:
Two more in the room:
Inside the mixing unit:
Nearby were two container lifts…
…and the computer to operate them (featuring a legendary Shiny Red Button):
In another cavernous space…
…I love the mezzanine “overseers” level:
Further up the stairs are a bunch of sealed off rooms…
…used for God knows what purpose:
Ah, photohelics – got it:
The plant sort of reminded of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory (er, if Willy Wonka made Viagra). Like this “TopGrade Collection” arm – did you put pills in here to be suctioned away?? (it’s actually a ventilation unit, used if vapors are suddenly in the air):
On the ground floor is a full doctor’s office, complete with waiting room…
…and several examination rooms:
It seems like you were probably in bad shape if you had to go in this very claustrophobic windowed room (actually, writes reader Marie, this was used for hearing tests, which were given daily to employees engaged in louder operations):
One of my favorite relics in the entire plant – a beautiful old optics desk…
…filled with those little lenses for checking vision:
And that’s barely scratching the surface. There’s a cafeteria…
A big kitchen:
A store (could double as a post office):
A gym for employees:
Locker rooms (with authentic locker room odor!):
Hallways and entrance ways (reminds me of a public school):
And endless numbers of open rooms (police station, anyone?):
Several areas are large enough to be used as stage space, and qualify for the NY tax credit.
And I really cannot convey how much stuff was left behind, all usable as props…
…from filing cabinets and desks…
…to this…What is this??
And to top it off, tons and tons of parking:
Pfizer’s bond with this part of Brooklyn was of the sort that may never be seen again. According to the NY Times, despite numerous companies fleeing New York City during the 1970’s, “Pfizer, wanting to hold onto both its veteran work force and its birthplace, decided to help rebuild the neighborhood, on the theory that it would be both good for business and good for the neighbors.”
It worked with the city to create jobs and housing, donating land and cleaning up the neighborhood (remember: that’s South Williamsburg in the 1970’s). When an educational reform group expressed interest in creating a neighborhood charter school, Pfizer leased an entire 4-story building for $1 a year, spent half a million on renovations, and even lent their engineers to design the school’s science labs.
Sad to see an era come to a close, but Pfizer left a positive mark on Brooklyn that will be felt for years to come, and hopefully, others will be inspired to follow in its footsteps. Thanks to all the great comments for clearing up some of my questions!
Finally, one last important device in the old Pfizer lab…
Yup – that’s the dust collector.
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