The “Hoboken History Project,” led by Hoboken High School Social Studies teacher Rachel Grygiel, encourages students to discover and share the diverse history of their town through documentary production. As part of the program, 11th grader Francis Howitt explored the story of the Maxwell House Coffee plant and the current condominiums that now occupy the space. Howitt’s piece and other mini-documentaries on the Fabian Theater, Frank Sinatra and various Hoboken icons can be found on Channel 77 on Cablevision.
If you have been on 11th and Hudson Streets in Hoboken recently, it’s hard to imagine what was there just around 8 years ago. The world’s largest coffee factory, Maxwell House Coffee, produced 40% of that company’s entire coffee production. Can you imagine, the world’s largest coffee factory, right here in our mile square city?
In the space of about three square blocks there was a fully functional eleven-building coffee factory. Maxwell House employed well over 600 workers and was the highest paying taxpayer in the city. The factory was such a presence that the sweet-scented smell of coffee would sit in the air before a big rainstorm. A lifelong Hoboken citizen recounts that when her friend’s mother would go to dust the window sills the rag would always come out brown and covered with coffee grounds. She still says that to this day when you are going over the Park Avenue Bridge and the wind is blowing the right way you can still smell the coffee in the air.
Brewing up business
From going around the High School and talking to different teachers, they all reminisce about how important Maxwell’s was to the city. They mention having multiple relatives employed there and how when the company left things just weren’t the same. In 1990, when Maxwell House Coffee announced that they would be moving their operations to Jacksonville, Florida, the news was obviously met with sadness and a heavy heart. Many residents were sad to see that time period of Hoboken’s history come to an end. The closing marked the end of an industrial era in Hoboken, essentially leaving the barge repair company as the final business on the Waterfront. Maxwell House and all of the factories in Hoboken were very important to the city.
A main attraction to this plant was the giant sign that was on the factory facing the river, featuring the company’s name and a massive cup that poured coffee. It would be turned on at night and you were able to see it shining from New York City and the Empire State Building.
Putting it through the grinder
When the factory was beginning to be torn down in the start of 2003, the sign was, according to construction workers, taken apart and given an unceremonious ending. All that remains of the once great sign is the smallest of the coffee drops, which is measured at a height of 10 feet. It now resides at the Hoboken Historical Museum, located at 1301 Hudson Street—which is only 2 blocks away from its original home. In the beginning of 2003, the first steps of tearing down the factory started as they began to remove each building one by one. They tore down the smoke stacks that once provided exhaust for the coffee production. In only a few months the largest coffee factory in the world at one time was reduced to nothing more than a pile of rubble, soon to be replaced by condos and apartments. After the process of removing all of the rubble they soon began construction on the foundation for the new condominiums. In no more than three years after the factory was completely removed, there are now twelve-story residential buildings in its place.
Switching to Latte
The new buildings have brought new residents and a variety of new businesses to the city. It has given the city more open space, a beautiful playground, its own unique boathouse, a beach that has not been open to the public for almost 75 years is now available to everybody—all of which provides residents and visitors with one of the most amazing views in America.
Maxwell House was not just some random factory in Hoboken; it represented what America was all about—hard-working Americans. It was at its peak in a time when industry was big and factories made up many coastal towns. Hoboken is now a booming place for younger professionals who work in New York City but like the urban-yet-small town lifestyle that we have to offer.
Maxwell Place may end up offering our city just as much as the factory once had to offer. New residents may start businesses or become involved in local government; many will have children and enroll them in our public schools. Like all good things, Maxwell House came to an end. The factory ran its course and then moved on. It’s time that a new age in Hoboken’s History begins and this time Maxwell Place is going to play a big role in the changing of Hoboken. We are all one city and we all have the same goals for our city.
(Editor’s note: Tremendous work is being done by Hoboken High School Students in the effort to keep Hoboken’s past fresh in the mind of its present residents. We at hMAG were delighted to work with Mr. Howitt and Ms. Grygiel on this project. Of course, we all met at the Starbucks on 12th and Hudson—in space the Maxwell House Coffee Factory once occupied… how’s that for irony???—HALLERON)