Preservationists fume about demolition of historic Red Hook warehouse

Fire at S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse was 'deliberately set,' FDNY said

March 12, 2019 Lore Croghan
This March 2019 photo shows that the timbers have recently been torn off the south end of S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse's roof. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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Preservation advocates are crying foul about the demolition of a Red Hook waterfront industrial property that was damaged last year by a fire — a fire the FDNY said was “deliberately set.”

The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition sent reporters an alert on March 9 about a construction crew that was installing demolition scaffolding at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse at 595 Smith St. in defiance of a city Buildings Department don’t-work directive known as a Stop Work Order.

The historic 19th-century warehouse on the Gowanus Canal’s shoreline gained notoriety in June when it was engulfed in a nighttime two-alarm blaze.

Fireboats sailed up the canal and battled the flames along with firefighters on land. The conflagration damaged the south half of S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse’s roof and fourth floor.

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A Fire Department spokesperson told Crain’s New York Business in July that the blaze was considered “suspicious.”

FDNY spokesperson Jim Long told the Brooklyn Eagle that the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse blaze was “an incendiary fire.”

“We determined in our investigation that the fire was deliberately set,” Long explained.

The FDNY’s investigation remains “open and active,” he said.

‘Fifty yards of excessive debris’

When this reporter visited the site on March 9, the men working refused to say why they were on the job despite the Buildings Department’s Stop Work Order, dated March 5.

That Buildings Department directive says no work is allowed at 595 Smith St. because a contractor’s disability insurance has expired, there’s “50 yards of excessive debris” on the site and the exits on the building’s second and third floors don’t have guardrails.

Executives at the Chetrit Group, the property’s owner, did not answer the Eagle’s requests for comment by deadline.

The company bought the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse in 2007 as part of a package of Red Hook properties for which it paid $14.5 million, city Finance Department records indicate.

Buildings Department spokesperson Andrew Rudansky told the Eagle that agency inspectors went to 595 Smith St. on March 9 after receiving a 311 complaint. They issued one violation because of the flouted Stop Work Order and another because the construction crew didn’t have a variance to work on a Saturday.

On March 11, a Buildings Department inspector returned to the property and didn’t find anybody working — but issued yet another violation because there was a large hole in the construction fence, Rudansky said.

Here's a closer look at the crew toiling at Red Hook's S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse while a stop work order is in effect. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
Here’s a closer look at the crew toiling at Red Hook’s S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse while a stop work order is in effect. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan

‘A regrettable shame,’ advocates say

Preservation advocates object to the fact that the Buildings Department approved the 19th-century warehouse’s demolition in the first place. That happened in February.

“We’re outraged that the city has issued demolition permits for this historic building,” Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, told the Eagle.

“Losing this building would be a regrettable shame,” the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, whose members include community groups, businesses and city-wide preservationist organizations, said in its press alert.

The coalition has been campaigning since last spring for landmark designation for the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse. The building is historically significant because of “its documented architectural uniqueness and its ability to tell the long story of maritime commerce in Gowanus and Red Hook,” the group’s statement said.

The vacant four-story brick warehouse, built in 1886, stands close to the Hamilton Avenue Bridge. It’s on a list of priority sites the coalition has proposed as city landmarking candidates ahead of neighborhood rezoning in Gowanus.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission had planned to evaluate the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse as a possible candidate for designation — but has “held off on the evaluation” until the FDNY releases the results of its investigation into the fire, spokesperson Zodet Negron told the Eagle.

“The damage to the building would have to be factored into our evaluation,” which might make landmarking the building “more challenging,” she said.

A spokesperson for Councilmember Carlos Menchaca, whose district includes Red Hook, told the Eagle that the news about demolition work at 595 Smith St. is “disturbing, given our understanding that the FDNY investigation is still ongoing and the community has expressed interest in preserving the warehouse.”

The spokesperson added, “Our commitment to preserving the warehouse has not wavered.”

Follow Brooklyn Eagle reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.

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