“You ready?” he asks, and we head outside and around the corner, where we hop in his BMW for a 15-minute drive, across the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn waterfront. Here lies the heart and soul of his operation: a 130,000-square-foot circa 1887 former foundry that is part nuts-and-bolts factory, part archives and inventory, and part home (he lives in an adjoining carriage house). As it turns out, trying to understand Butler’s vision without seeing his Red Hook Works is like trying to understand Jay Gatsby without knowing about the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock—or trying to plumb the soul of Willy Wonka without visiting his Chocolate Factory.
The Works began, like most things central to Butler, as a kind of dream. “For years I had a very specific fantasy about finding a compound on or near the water with a smokestack and a pinwheel layout, with a courtyard and a factory,” he says. At the time Butler’s manufacturing operation on Spring Street was proving untenable, so starting in 1996 he spent two solid years doing little else but driving around looking at real estate.
When he first saw the huge redbrick compound we’ve just pulled up to, it was covered in additions and fencing, and was being used in part as a storage facility for large-scale garbage containers. “Once I got inside and started walking around, though”—one floor was filled with scores of people working out of tiny cubicles; a hospital occupied another section—“I realized the place had really great bones.” He has since torn down four structures and stripped everything to its original state, along the way crafting a garden and a reflecting pool out of what was once a work yard. As if to commemorate the achievement—which, in keeping with the Butler ethos, is still very much a work in progress—the compound’s smokestack has been affixed with a large gilded B on the side facing the water.
Walking through the large central building, we pass a number of idiosyncratically furnished semiprivate alcoves, home to artisans, designers, archivists, and finishing artists. (Butler, who started out working for his father’s architecture restoration business, now employs about 60 people and has projects in a dozen countries.) Row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves dominate the space and contain hundreds, if not thousands, of identical gray boxes with labels reading key escutcheon and crystal shell shanks and olive knuckle trim rings. Near an enormous pagoda chandelier made by the Viennese glassmaking masters J. & L. Lobmeyr (the piece was used to show off Butler’s box chain in the Prince Street vitrines) is a room filled with plans and research and molds for his restoration of the historic Tweed Courthouse in downtown Manhattan. “All the hardware had been stripped,” Butler says. “They had nothing. And then they found two small pieces of metalwork—an escutcheon plate and a key escutcheon—on a door sealed inside a massive wall. We had to extrapolate all the information from that.”