Residents fear for Vitagraph smokestack, last remnant of silent film studio
Midwood residents fear the last remnant of an historical film era may soon be demolished.
“The legendary Vitagraph smokestack is in danger of being torn down!” said Ellen Levitt, a lifelong Brooklynite and Midwood resident since 1971.
The smokestack, at East 15th Street and Locust Avenue, is an artifact from the historic Vitagraph Studios, a silent film company founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1897. It is now shrouded in scaffolding after permits were filed to erect a heavy duty sidewalk shed and pipe scaffold at the location.
“It is 110+ years old, and an important part of Brooklyn and film making history,” Levitt added. “I don’t think this is landmarked, which is a shame.”
An initial Change.org petition by Jennifer Redmond of Long Island to have the site landmarked gained 188 signatures, but was closed in 2012.
“I have been told by the Municipal Art Society that they are unable to help, and that the step I should be taking is to fill out a form with the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission,” Redmond wrote.
Her application was subsequently denied.
“As a fragment of the original Vitagraph Studios Complex, it has been determined that the proposed property is not an adequate representation of the Vitagraph Company,” read a letter from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Redmond said her friend Melissa Friedling is currently spearheading a new petition, and that “it seems that this administration is a bit more receptive to possible landmark status.”
“We can only hope,” Redmond said.
Regardless of its official status, Levitt called the smokestack a “visual landmark” for everyone who rides by on the Q and B trains, as well as those who live near the area.
“Everyone has seen this monument for ages and eons,” Levitt said. “Murrow High School students can see it from certain classroom windows. It is important to our film making history, to our borough’s history, to NYC history in general.
“I welcome the supporters of the Vitagraph smokestack to meet with me so we can discuss the significance of this piece of Brooklyn’s history,” Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said Monday.
Vitagraph Studios played an important role in the earliest era of the film industry. By 1907, it was the most prolific American film production company, producing many famous silent films, including the first adaptation of “Les Miserables” for the silver screen.
But after years of being squeezed out by distributors — and with contracts and production upended by the first World War — Smith sold the studio to Warner Brothers in 1925.
Yeshiva University purchased the property in 1967, and the location eventually became the Shulamith School for Girls, a modern Orthodox religious institution. But in July 2014, the School sold the property to 1277 Holdings LLC for $20 million, with more than $3.4 million of the proceeds diverted, by Court order, to satisfy outstanding obligations to the IRS, for payroll taxes and to various other creditors.
A security guard now posted at the location advised he heard the smokestack might be torn down soon.
Brooklyn Brief has reached out to The Shulamith School and 1277 Holdings LLC and can update this story if they respond.