Speeding down the wide highway called Christopher Columbus Drive in downtown Jersey City, one cannot miss the bold letters on an expansive brick building: "JOSEPH DIXON CRUCIBLE CO. - EST 1827 - GRAPHITE PRODUCTS."
There aren't any yellow Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2 pencils coming off the line there anymore, as the building became home in the late 1980s to 467 apartments known as Dixon Mills.
However, because the seven-acre complex is in the national historic registry, the developers have had to preserve the architecturally-significant brick buildings, smokestacks, and bridges that were once the largest graphite refining company in the world.
A sale of the main apartment building last month for $78.5 million could see the apartments soon converted into condos.Massachusetts man built it in 1847
The factory was built in 1847 by Massachusetts entrepreneur Joseph Dixon - and not just for pencils.
A host of graphite projects were used in other industries around the country.
One product manufactured there was crucibles. A "crucible" is a vessel made of material such as graphite, which does not melt easily, used for high temperature chemical reactions.
By 1932, there were 34 individual brick buildings that stood like crucibles themselves, across the Downtown Jersey City skyline.
Dixon experimented with pencil-making as a young man. He built his business by mixing graphite with clay and water. He rolled the substance into strips, baked them in his mother's oven, and pressed the strips into pieces of grooved cedar wood for pencils.
By the 1950s, the company had 12 different manufacturing plants in the United States, Canada and Mexico with graphite mines located near Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y. (thus the famous Ticonderoga brand).
But the centerpiece was the plant that spanned several city blocks in Jersey City.
The brick buildings were not only graced with high smokestacks, but also with upper story walkways and wrought iron railings, reflecting the Romanesque Revival architecture of the time.
In particular, the executive offices for the Dixon plant known as the "Ticonderoga building" were built with red brick columns, terra cotta ornamentation, and exceptionally large windows.
Many of those details were retained when the Dixon plant were rehabbed in the 1980s. Another pencil company still works
The company was synonymous with Jersey City's industrial past, along with the now defunct Colgate Toothpaste factory on the waterfront (largely demolished except for its landmark clock) and the mammoth American Can Company on Dey Street (being turned into condos). Additionally, another pencil company still exists in Jersey City - General Pencil on Fleet Street.
But reminders of the Dixon company are everywhere. There are 150-foot tall smokestacks on the western end of the property, landmarks that are admired by city residents.
There's a bridge that spans hundreds of feet in the air above Monmouth Street.
And there's the name DIXON painted or engraved on different buildings through the former factory complex.
Interviews with a former employee and an architect shed light on the old factory. Making the transformation
Indranie Ramdhani worked for the Jersey City company from 1977 to 1984 as a data processor in an office building on Monmouth Street.
By the time she got there, she said, the factory was already on its last legs, with a number of buildings already closed or only partially occupied.
But the company lived on as the result of a workforce that was like family.
"It was a very nice atmosphere to work," said Ramdhani. "There were a lot of older people who worked there for a long time, the only job they ever had."
She added, "I also remember going into the building where they made the pencils and seeing dark, thick graphite all the time."
Ramdhani also saw a transition happening before her eyes.
"There were people coming around to the various buildings measuring rooms," she said. "Buildings were closing and people were getting laid off." Dixon Pencil becomes Dixon Mills
It was the early 1980s and the Morris Companies of Secaucus, an industrial real estate firm along with a development partner, Norman Reizen, bought out the old pencil factory and started clearing out the place.
James Lindemon, an architect still based in Jersey City, was hired in 1982 by the developers. His challenge was to renovate and preserve the pencil building, as well as to transform it into livable spaces.
"It's still the largest historic restoration to date in Jersey City until the old Medical Center is completely built out," said Lindemon. "I am still very happy and very proud to have been part of such a daunting task."
The daunting task began with creating a blueprint for the project - which begat 300 different plans.
"The plan was always to provide for a wide variety of uses," said Lindemon "that would offer apartments and lofts that would not be cookie cutter."
Lindemon said the preservation work included "preserving the exterior façade, keeping the original bridge, and all the original brick walks."
Wayne Street was closed off to provide a two-block landscaped cobblestone pedestrian mall. Preserved by federal govt.
The historic preservation work led to several awards. The complex is also a historic structure, certified by the United States Department of the Interior and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Five years and $52 million later, Dixon Mills opened for business in 1988, offering over 450 apartments, with rents running from $500 a month for a studio to $1,000 for a duplex.
Lindemon complimented the developers.
"They were pioneers who I don't believe ever profited from the venture," he said, "but they were as responsible for the revitalization of Jersey City as any of the early developers."
Sixty-five of the building's units are government-classified affordable housing. The future of Dixon Mills
In November, a partnership group of GoldenTree InSite Partners and the Robert Martin Company LLC officially purchased the Dixon Mills complex for $78.5 million.
Residents were upset because they didn't receive notice before the sale, and are contemplating their future. But the state law regarding condominium conversions allows them to rent for at least three years before making a decision on what to do.
As far the buildings themselves, a representative of the Robert Martin Company said recently that the current owners "definitely appreciate" the history behind Dixon Mills. The owners said they are also looking to restore the company's old power plant at the western end of the complex, which is not used. They may turn it into a health club, something the former owners envisioned but never pursued. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at email@example.com