Sitting on the border of Woodhaven and Ozone Park is a clocktower that is visible from miles around. The story behind that clocktower is one of tragedy and triumph that shaped the future of the two communities that surround it.
It begins in 1850 when two Frenchmen, Florian Grosjean and Charles LaLance, started a business manufacturing tin utensils in a small factory on Pearl Street in Manhattan. After a few years, LaLance left the United States to manage their affairs from overseas. Meanwhile, by 1863 business prospered so much that a larger factory was required.
Grosjean’s search for space brought him east to Woodhaven Village, a small hamlet located in the rolling hills and farmlands of Queens. At that time, the village ran from what is now Woodhaven Boulevard to 85th Street, from 95th to 97th Avenues, land that today is known as Ozone Park.
Woodhaven Village’s first and only industry was a chisel factory built by John Sharp & Co. on 10 lots of farmland. The factory was comprised of several rows of wooden buildings along Atlantic Avenue and University Place (now 95th Avenue), but by the early 1860s the business was dying. Grosjean got a good price on it and thus, the LaLance & Grosjean Manufacturing Company began its fabled history in Woodhaven.
Over the next decade, LaLance & Grosjean was extremely successful and Florian Grosjean became a prominent figure in Woodhaven. There were little over a thousand people living in Woodhaven and over 300 of them were directly employed by Grosjean’s factory. In fact, nearly everyone in the community was dependent on the factory, either through a parent or spouse working there, or by owning or working for a local business that depended on Grosjean dollars.
His personal life was marred by the tragic loss of his wife Eugenie in 1870 at the young age of 31, leaving him alone to father their two children, Alice and Alfred, in their home on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn. And his professional life was dealt a stunning blow on Feb. 21, 1876, when the entire factory was destroyed by fire.
Inside the wooden factory there were several giant vats of melted horse fat, needed to process the tin plating on the utensils that the factory created. One of the vats burned so hot that the horse fat boiled over into the flames.
LaLance and Grosjean had their own Volunteer Fire Department, and the means to fight fire, but the inside of the buildings were so heavily encrusted with fat and grease that the entire factory became a raging inferno within minutes. The fire was so great that there were reports of sparks carrying as far away as Van Wyck Boulevard and Liberty Avenue.
As residents of the community watched the factory complex burn for hours, it appeared that the clocktower in the midst of all the buildings might be spared. The clock rang for the last time at 2 a.m., and 20 minutes later the tower collapsed in a giant cloud of flames.
It was estimated that Mr. Grosjean’s losses stood at somewhere near half a million dollars.
Legend has it that when he arrived at the building that morning, only to see a giant field of smoking ruins along
Atlantic Avenue, he fainted.
Many of the residents of Woodhaven, all suddenly without employment, were ready to pack up and move. Had they done so, there’s no telling what shape Woodhaven Village would have taken. It may have been a ghost town for many years.
Grosjean stepped up and immediately put everyone on half-salary, and this convinced most residents to stay put. It was a smart move on his part, one he hoped would be financed by his insurance settlement (it was) and he put the town straight to work rebuilding a new factory and many new homes for his workers, buildings that stand along 95th Avenue in Ozone Park to this day.
A larger factory, mostly brick with fire doors, was built and it re-opened in August that same year. The centerpiece of the new factory was a stone clocktower that could be seen from miles away in any direction. It was a bold statement that sent a powerful message to everyone that this community would survive.
Today, the land where the factory complex stood is home to a few stores. The clocktower building itself still stands and is home to the MediSys Medical Group, and you can find a nice tribute to the factory’s glory days in its waiting room.
Near the clocktower stands a sign erected by the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society acknowledging Florian Grosjean’s contribution to Woodhaven and Ozone Park. But apart from that, this man who helped build and then save our communities, is sadly little-known.