When Vincent Pampillonia opened on Bergen Street in 1963, he was the area's lone manufacturer of custom, ornamental iron.
“There was no iron work in this neighborhood. I was the only one doing it and everybody would come. But now I got a lot of competition,” said Pampillonia, 75, a native of Italy who developed his unique iron skills at a young age as a blacksmith under the teachings of his father, uncle and grandfather.
“Now everyone copies my father because he was the first one who started this type of work here,” said Dominic Pampillonia, 19, Vincent’s son who has been working in the shop with his father and two brothers for as long as he can remember.
Pampillonia’s architectural metal art comes in the form of structural and ornamental window guards, railings, fences, gates, steel iron doors, room dividers, lamps, porches and even furniture.
“You can’t just buy out over 40 years of experience,” said Dominic.
“Everything we do is custom and we will do anything you need,” said Alfredo Pampillonia, 22, Vincent’s oldest son.
For 48 years, Vinnie's Italian Art has been specializing in the restoration and recreation of ironwork that can mostly be found in countless brownstones and landmark buildings throughout Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“I take something very old and make it like new again,” said Pampillonia.
of the Pampillonia family inside Vinnie's Italian Art Iron Works.
Pampillonia made the decision to leave his hometown of Palermo, Sicily when he was 27-years-old. It was 1963.
“My country can’t give me what I want – I come here for the future to make more money,” said Pampillonia in his thick Italian accent.
Pampillonia boarded an Italian vessel that exported wine to America with barely two pennies to rub together; he brought with him only the clothes on his back and a few other small possessions. Pampillonia and others like him searching for a “better” life spent 27 long days aboard the ship and slept on the dozens of crates of bottled wine on the bottom decks of boat. “I was drunk off the smell,” he said.
“When I went out on the top of the ship it was beautiful, but we suffered because we didn’t know where we were,” he said.
Pampillonia and others like him reached their destination at Ellis Island, the historical gateway for millions of emigrants traveling to the United States from the late 19th Century into the 20th Century. After passing through inspection, the first thing on Pampillonia’s mind was where he was going to find work.
The first three months that Pampillonia spent in the United States he utilized his skills and worked as an ironworker in Long Island while living on First Avenue and 12th Street in Manhattan. He was earning a wage of $1.20 an hour, or about $75 a week, which doesn’t seem like much now, but for Pampillonia in 1963, it was a lot of money.
To start up what would become Vinnie’s Italian Art Iron Works, Pampillonia partnered with two men who were working with him in Long Island. He bought 38 Bergen Street for $15,500 and paid a mortgage of only $57 a month. In 1964, he moved to Hicks Street to be closer to his shop.
Quickly, Pampillonia became Brooklyn’s top dog iron specialist and took the neighborhood by storm.
“Basically at one point my father owned Bergen Street,” said Alfredo who has memories as a 2-year-old child painting rails at Italian Art.
“It’s like my father is a landmark in this neighborhood,” added Dominic.
During the 1960’s, Pampillonia owned close to a dozen properties on Bergen Street, and used them for storage. He eventually sold them for a higher price than he bought them for.
The Brooklyn that Pampillonia experienced over 40 years ago is certainly not the Brooklyn that it is today. Smith Street, today one of the hottest spots in New York City, stretching a mile long and lined with rows of eclectic restaurants, bars and boutiques, was once a dangerous region.
“Smith Street was very bad,” said Pampillonia who remembers hearing the sounds of guns firing during the night.
“The neighborhood used to be very different – before you had to watch because if you had something out somebody would steal it from you one, two, three,” he said. “There was a lot of problems and there was a lot of danger, but everybody respected me because everybody knew me,” he said with a sigh of relief.
Pampillonia said when he came to Bergen Street in 1963 it was a two-way street lined with cobblestone.
“There was a lot of factories on this block – it was very commercial and now it’s changed a lot because it’s so residential,” he said. He even remembers a building on the corner of Bergen Street where prostitution was operated.
Even Alfredo, Pampillonia’s eldest son, remembers Bergen Street full of trucks bringing in various products to warehouses that lined that street.
Today, at 75-years-old, Pampillonia wakes at 6 a.m.and begins his workday along with the handful of employees he has at the shop. When asked why he does this type of work at his age he responded, “Because I love to do this – this is my life.”
For about 20 years, Pampillonia has been telling his sons that he will retire “soon.”
“He’ll probably be doing this until the day he dies,” said Alfredo.
“If my dad stops working he’ll get sick,” added Dominic.
And it seems as though Pampillonia is not slowing down. Recently, he thought up an innovative idea "to make New York City beautiful." Although the job would create about 200 jobs, he said, he will not yet disclose what it is.
Pampillonia’s success would have given him the opportunity to retire decades ago, but it’s the love of his work that keeps him going.
“Today I got no money, but I got a lot of brick,” said Pampillonia laughing. By that he means he owns a multitude of properties including his luxurious villa in Dominican Republic where Pampillonia’s sons Alfredo, Dominic and Vincent Jr., live with their mother.
“We’re like the Trumps of Dominican Republic,” said Alfredo.
“We grew up here, but we don’t live here – at the end of the summer we gotta go back to a tropical country where it’s hot everyday – it’s just totally different from here,” said Alfredo.
“We live in paradise,” said Dominic.
Pampillonia lives comfortably a few doors down from Italian Art and he and his wife of 27 years travel back and forth to see each other as much as they can. All three of his sons were born in Dominican Republic and along with additional extended visits they have been spending every summer for as long as they can remember working with their father at Italian Art.
“I remember when I was just a little blonde child I was walking around this shop with fire all over the place and I didn’t care – I used to paint and do whatever I wanted here. I even used to take the company trucks and just crash inside the garage; I think I did that about two or three times,” said Alfredo laughing as he reminisced.
The legacy of Vinnie’s Italian Art Iron Works may very well end with Vincent Pampillionia.
“It would be a great generation-type dynasty thing to keep this business going, but me and my brothers are studying different careers," said Alfredo.
And what about the statue of St. Joseph that stands so proudly on the roof of Vinnie's?
A month after Pampillonia had open-heart surgery this summer, he fixed up the St. Joseph’s statue. A gift from St. Paul's Church on Congress Street, St. Joseph has been in a glass case perched up above Italian Art since 1974.
Pampillonia did all the ironwork on St. Paul's Church, which is why St. Joseph, the patron saint of craftsmen, was given to him.
“Look at where I am – I died and came back to life again,” he said as he lifted up his shirt to show the vertical scar down his chest from the surgery. “I decided to fix up [the statue] because maybe it will help me out – who knows?”
Click here to watch a video of the Pampillonia family inside Vinnie's Italian Art Iron Works.