These 5 Gowanus properties could become city landmarks
For some, "a great first step." For others, "low-hanging fruit."
The fabled Batcave and the Old American Can Factory artists’ studio are among a group of five Gowanus sites that could soon be added to the city’s list of landmarks, provoking mixed responses from preservationists and Gowanus residents.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission voted unanimously on Tuesday to put the five Gowanus buildings on its calendar: the Batcave, the Old American Can Factory, the Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House, the Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company Building and the ASPCA Rogers Memorial Building.
The commission will hold hearings about granting them city landmark status.
Prior to the vote, commission Chairperson Sarah Carroll said the commission evaluated properties primarily located within the proposed rezoning area in Gowanus before selecting these five buildings for landmark consideration.
Activists have been campaigning since 2018 for landmarks designation for many more historic sites. Their sense of urgency comes from the city’s plan to rezone the neighborhood.
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition had asked that the LPC calendar historic Gowanus properties before the rezoning proposal is “certified” — which means it’s officially ready for public review — and the preservation agency did so.
“We asked for this since day one,” Kelly Carroll, director of advocacy and community outreach at the Historic Districts Council, told the Brooklyn Eagle. The Historic Districts Council is a member of the coalition.
A meeting with LPC staffers left her with the sense that the Landmarks Preservation Commission might consider calendaring two or three more Gowanus properties.
For some, ‘a great first step’
Having the commission calendar “priority buildings” before the rezoning is certified is “a major ask and a vast improvement over previous rezonings,” Historic Districts Council Executive Director Simeon Bankoff told the Eagle.
And having the LPC leave the door open to additional designations in the neighborhood is “a substantial policy improvement over previous rezonings,” Bankoff said.
In a prepared statement, Gowanus Landmarking Coalition co-founder Brad Vogel called the calendaring of the five buildings “a great first step” by the LPC and said, “It is heartening to see even a handful of true landmarks calendared before the proposed rezoning arrives.”
The coalition will continue to push for historic preservation in Gowanus.
And it plans to keep advocating for zoning “that reduces the incentive to demolish historically significant Gowanus structures on and beyond our priority list,” Peter Bray of the Park Slope Civic Council said in a prepared statement.
His organization is a member of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition.
For others, ‘low-hanging fruit’
But another member of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition criticized the LPC for not calendaring more of the neighborhood’s historic buildings until now.
“It is shocking that the LPC is not taking a more aggressive stance in Gowanus as the history of manufacturing in New York City is being wiped out incrementally citywide, in what amounts to ‘death by 1,000 cuts’ development,” Lynn Ellsworth of Human-Scale NYC, a nonprofit advocating for “livability” over development, told the Eagle.
“Obviously we need some real historians on that commission and to get rid of the insidious influence of the real estate lobby on decision-making,” Ellsworth said.
“The LPC has long been excessively permeable to real estate interests and is not capable anymore of determining landmark status or historic districts on the merits alone,” she charged.
Some preservationists are upset the LPC did not respond to their pleas over the past year to calendar the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, which is located on the banks of the Gowanus Canal in Red Hook.
The Chetrit Group, which owns the S.W. Bowne building, recently started demolishing it once again after a two-month hiatus brought on by a Stop Work Order from the city Buildings Department.
The iconic brick warehouse played an important role in the canal’s 19th and 20th-century industrial history.
“I am so frustrated by this situation,” real estate broker, Community Board 6 member and preservationist Victoria Alexander told the Eagle.
She said the buildings that were calendared are being stewarded by organizations that have no intention of tearing them down — and they’re mindful of how the properties create a sense of place in Gowanus.
In the meantime, the LPC “is sitting by and doing nothing to save the S.W. Bowne building and the Lidgerwood Building because they’re owned by giant companies,” Alexander said.
“They’re going for easy, low-hanging fruit instead of protecting buildings that are in danger,” she said of the LPC.
The demolition of Red Hook’s Lidgerwood Building, which belongs to UPS, has been halted at least temporarily thanks to the intercession of U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez.
Parties, painters and puppies
The five newly calendared Gowanus buildings are all at least a century old.
The Batcave began its existence as the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company Central Power Station Engine House. The Romanesque Revival-style building at 153 Second St. was constructed in 1901 through 1903.
In recent years, it was known as the Batcave — a beloved and derelict place that attracted squatters, clandestine parties and graffiti artists.
Joshua Rechnitz bought it for $7 million, city Finance Department records say. He’s turning it into an artists’ studio complex called Powerhouse Arts.
The Old American Can Factory at 232 Third St. is a home to artists, designers and manufacturers. It was originally the Somers Brothers Tinware Factory, which the American Can Company acquired.
The American Round Arch-style building with Queen Anne and neo-Grec details was constructed around 1884.
The third property that made it onto the LPC’s calendar is the Gowanus Canal Flushing Tunnel Pumping Station and Gate House. The Colonial Revival-style structure was constructed in 1910 and 1911. It’s known by a couple different addresses, including 209 Douglass St. and 196 Butler St.
This building is near the Gowanus Station at 234 Butler St., which advocates had tried unsuccessfully to get calendared for landmarking.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to tear down the Gowanus Station and incorporate portions of two of its walls into a new headhouse building that will be the above-ground portion of a combined sewer overflow storage tank.
The fourth Gowanus location on the LPC’s calendar is the Montauk Paint Manufacturing Company Building at 170 Second Ave. Architect George Heghlman designed the American Round Arch-style factory, which was constructed in 1908.
A later occupant of the building was Norge Sailmakers, which manufactured sails for yachts.
The fifth calendared Gowanus property is the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Rogers Memorial Building at 233 Butler St.
The neo-Romanesque building was recently transformed into Public Records, a hi-fi record bar, sound room and cafe that opened in the spring. The cafe’s menu is vegan to honor the ASPCA.
The building was the ASPCA’s Brooklyn office and garage — and animal shelter. Architecture firm Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker was the designer. It was constructed in 1913 and expanded in 1922.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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