Tyler Myers never expected to find the crucible. The former projects manager for the Frieze Art Fair had construction workers jackhammering into the concrete floor of a 50,000-square-foot industrial space in Maspeth, Queens, that had lain fallow for roughly a decade. What started out as a straightforward plan to install bathrooms turned into an impromptu archeological dig.
“We start digging in the floor of the building and we find these troves of broken, blown glass, then we find these tunnels in the floor in the basement,” Myers recalls. At the heart of the octagonal chamber lay the immense iron crucible once used for melting silica at more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Nearby were four lumps of opaque glass, roughly two by five feet each, in deep matte orange, navy, black, and white. “If you can think of a clear marble with the swirls inside, it’s very much those colors that we found in those big cleanups,” Myers says.
It turns out, that’s exactly what they were. Back in 1902, this building originally housed the Gleason-Tiebout Glass Factory, which produced the bulbs for indoor gas lamps below its three towering smokestacks. At the time, the surrounding area of Queens and Greenpoint to the south was a hive of industrial activity dedicated to the five “black arts” of glass-making, printing, cast iron welding, ceramics, and oil refining. Decades later, the factory turned to producing glass marbles, before transforming into a space for the Manhattan Door Factory, best-known for producing knock down door frames.
Since 2012, it’s been home to the appropriately named Knockdown Center, an interdisciplinary performance space that’s hosted everything from a “floating forest” art installation to a Carnegie Hall production of West Side Story. Yet even today, hallmarks of more than a century of history remain embedded into the space. Those blocks of colored glass, for instance, are still in that subterranean space, which now houses the techno club Basement.
“The architecture of the space, like a lot of buildings of its age, becomes a story of layers,” says Myers, now co-founder and director of Knockdown Center. “It’s very much the story of New York City. How many times has the city been built layer upon layer? Finding something of this scale and of that era that still was intact more or less is very unusual.”
Excavating those layers unearthed nine full garbage cans of discarded glass, and the stories that came with them. “Early in the Knockdown Center’s life, we did a flea market and during one of those an 84-year-old gentleman called Frank showed up and said, ‘I got my first job here as a teenager blowing glass,’” Myers says. “I was stunned and immediately asked him to give me a tour of the building. I asked him, ‘What’s the deal with all this glass?’”
It turned out that a particular trove of shattered blue-and-white globes were essentially the discards. How they wound up there was simple: the factory boss never looked at that particular spot. “If you blew something and you’d screwed up, you didn’t want him to see it, you just chucked it out the window,” Myers says.
Just as the original factory served the needs of its neighborhood, the current performance space aims to reflect the city’s current creative zeitgeist. Musical programming runs the gamut from Disco Tehran, which spins funk-forward tracks inspired by pre-revolutionary Iranian dance clubs, to blues to techno straight out of Berlin and Detroit.
“I think that there’s a movement in nightlife away from sparkly Champagne bottles and more towards collective engagement,” Myers says. “I think with all old architecture, part of what makes it so interesting and for me, so appealing for new purposes is the way that the history of a place evolves based on the community that’s there at any given time.”
Know Before You Go
Keep an eye on the website for upcoming events. Note that Basement, the underground nightclub, has a no-photos policy.