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Touring Williamsburg's Old Pfizer Building, Mid-Makeover

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week, as part of an ongoing series on soon-to-change neighborhoods, Kensinger visits the old Pfizer headquarters in Brooklyn.

[The Pfizer building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn is undergoing a remarkable transformation from a former pharmaceutical headquarters to a small business incubator. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

When Pfizer closed down its Brooklyn headquarters in 2008 after more than 150 years of pharmaceutical manufacturing, the company left behind a deserted behemoth: 660,000 square feet of space, filled with lab equipment, computers and furniture. Acumen Capital Partners purchased the shuttered building in 2011 and have slowly brought it back to life. After years of labor, the old Pfizer building has now become "the creative epicenter of Brooklyn's food scene," according to Edible Brooklyn. But much work remains in reclaiming the maze of empty offices, science labs, laser modules, and locker rooms. "It's still in this rough stage, as you can see," said Jeff Rosenblum, the co-founder of Acumen. "We are going to redo the whole building. It needs lipstick and makeup, for sure."

"It was almost like Pfizer gave themselves 24 hours and left," said Tim McCollum, one of the founders of the Madécasse chocolate company. "It was like one of those armageddon movies." Two years ago, Madécasse was one of the first tenants inside the building, and McCollum remembers spending that winter in a small office with no heat and no neighbors, his space heater constantly tripping the circuits. New tenants came in the spring, and as the building's population grew, Madécasse also expanded, from a single office to three rooms and a warehouse. They now ship their Madagascar-made chocolate around the United States from Pfizer. And with new neighbors, new partnerships have formed throughout the building. Bakers share ingredients with the chocolatiers. A metal shop shares resources with a jeweler and a research lab. "It's like a giant incubator, except everyone has their own space," said McCollum. "Looking at how the building was two years ago versus now, it's hard to believe it's the same building."

"I refer to this place as an animal. It is an organism unto itself."—Alex Dodge, Brooklyn Research Lab

Today, the hallways of Pfizer are a convivial meeting place. "It's like a college dorm," said Jeff Rosenblum, who is on a first name basis with many of his tenants. "If you just watch them, they are sharing ideas." Food has helped spur many introductions. Wandering through the occupied halls, tenants can stop in and sample fresh-baked croissants, vegan cookies, and pay-what-you-will coffee. A different food company cooks lunch each day of the week—Mac Bar Mondays come courtesy of Milk Truck and Thursday Pasta Lunch is cooked by Sfoglini. Lines form down the hall. "It was a wild sort of place to come into," said Alex Dodge, co-founder of the Brooklyn Research lab. "A lot of empty space, wires hanging down from where the EPA made them take out certain things."  As the building has come back to life, though, "we have all these wonderful people in the space," says Dodge. "I refer to this place as an animal. It is an organism unto itself."

The Pfizer company started in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 1849.  Before it closed in 2008, it employed more than 2,000 people.

Employees were fed in a now-empty cafeteria. The non-profit God's Love We Deliver now uses an adjoining kitchen to cook 4,600 meals everyday, which are delivered to clients with "life-altering illnesses."

Acumen has plans for the many empty spaces in the building. This 15,000 square foot space on the 8th floor will soon become the Pratt Institutes's Brooklyn Fashion and Design Accelerator.

Decommissioned equipment left behind by Pfizer can still be found throughout the building, including this water filtration system. Jeff Rosenblum has plans to salvage some of this equipment as a reminder of the building's past. 

Empty science labs, offices and warehouses are located on all floors. "We're going to demo a lot of these offices," said Rosenblum. "We've got a lot of these rooms."

Television and film crews have been drawn to these unique interiors, Rosenblum said. "The new Spiderman was here. We've done Batman, Blacklist, Persons of Interest."

Jeff Rosenblum's plans for the building include creating a ground floor market space, punching out new windows, removing the drop ceilings, and finding a home for the thousands of old Pfizer relics he has stored inside. "I've got 3,000 full height lockers in the building."

"I share a little bit of Jeff's vision," said Tim McCollum, who ships Madécasse chocolate around the United States from his warehouse in Pfizer. "Our business is a little outside of the norm of the chocolate business."

"When we moved in, it was nothing… it looked like a hospital," said Olivier Dessyn, the owner and baker at Mille-feuille Bakery. "We took the space because of the view."

Fresh croissants are made each day at Mille-feuille. Tenants in the building can stop by to purchase one whenever the bakery is open. "People interact with each other, which is nice."

"We were the first distiller in the Pfizer building. There are now two others," said Joseph Overbey, as his assistant Sean McKnight strained the mash for his latest batch of bourbon. "There's an interesting cross-pollination happening with all the small businesses. I talk to my neighbors who are bakers and scientists, and we bounce ideas off of each other."

This was the alcohol storage room for Pfizer's own distillery, according to Overbey. J.W. Overbey & Co's first batch of bourbon is now aging in barrels, and should be ready by March.

Alongside food companies, Pfizer's new tenants include several creative spaces. The Brooklyn Research lab is a membership-driven research and development space whose recent projects included creating an event in Bryant Park for the Super Bowl.

Upstairs, the Public Lab is fabricating balloon mapping and home spectrometry kits. "A thread weaves it all together," said Liz Barry, one of the founders of the Public Lab. "We have a lot of social and environmental aspects. It's not just a random hacker space."

"We've got some artists in here, painters, sculptors, brewers. We've got everything," said Jeff Rosenblum, who believes his tenants are a reflection the surrounding neighborhood. "You have a deeply diverse population—they're actually in my building. It becomes this meeting point, which I think will help the community."
· Pfizer coverage [Curbed]
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· How NYC's Decade of Rezoning Changed the City of Industry [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]