Sneak peek: A new life for old Watchtower headquarters
A look inside the renovated complex, which is called Panorama.
Here’s a first look inside the Watchtower’s old world headquarters, which is being transformed into a cutting-edge office-and-retail complex with possibly a small hotel, too.
The nearly completed renovation at 25-30 Columbia Heights has created big, airy office spaces with views of leafy treetops. There are terraces with jaw-dropping views of the Manhattan skyline, DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and the Statue of Liberty. There’s even a plaza with a “selfie platform” where visitors can snap shots of themselves with the Brooklyn Bridge in the background.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses kept the five-building Brooklyn Heights complex closed to the public for nearly half a century, only opening their doors to guests for occasional tours.
New owner Columbia Heights Associates, which is a joint venture of CIM Group and LIVWRK Holdings, has spent the past three years remaking the factory-turned-religious buildings into a commercial complex called Panorama.
The architects responsible for the transformation on Tuesday gave reporters a sneak peek inside the property, which has extensive frontage on Furman Street and is right across from Brooklyn Bridge Park and the Brooklyn Bridge.
Much has changed since the Jehovah’s Witnesses sold the property three years ago. For starters, the exterior of the Watchtower headquarters was golden-hued, but the new owner has painted it a soft shade of blue-gray.
At 25 Columbia Heights — which has frontage on dead-end Vine Street across from a dog run with tall trees — Amanda Carroll and Robert Fuller of architecture firm Gensler took reporters to the top of the building to see the 12th floor “jewel box,” as they called it, a space with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and new wrap-around terraces.
The architects wanted to create a “highly effective work environment” for office tenants at Panorama, Carroll said — but at the same time give that environment a “wow” factor.
When it’s lit up at night, the glassed-in jewel box on the 12th floor will be visible to people strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge.
“We wanted the architecture to signal that somebody’s home,” Carroll said.
The property owner hasn’t revealed whether it has signed office or retail leases or how many prospective tenants there are.
The architects aren’t involved in the leasing campaign for the property, which has more than 635,000 square feet of office space, more than 35,000 square feet of retail space, more than 15,000 square feet of hospitality space and 17 terraces. But Carroll did say the architects designed the space to be flexible. The complex could accommodate a single large office tenant, or “seamlessly support 20 different tenants,” she said.
The architects took reporters across a fourth-floor sky bridge over Columbia Heights. The building on the other side of the bridge was 30 Columbia Heights, which also has dramatic space on its 12th floor.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses had used this space as a recording studio, which was built like a “black box” with no views, the architects said.
They revamped the room, whose 20-foot ceilings are now visible.
The terrace on this floor has a view of the poolside lounge chairs on the roof of 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge, and there’s a clear view from the terraces into the hotel rooms that face Furman Street. When tenants start moving into 30 Columbia Heights, those guest-room window curtains will need to be closed.
On the Furman Street side of 30 Columbia Heights, the architects replaced loading docks with an outdoor seating area and a dramatic set of stairs with lights built into them. The selfie platform is a partly glassed-in walkway above this seating area.
There are also three 19th-century buildings in the old Watchtower headquarters complex.
One of them, 58 Columbia Heights, could be turned into a 23-key hotel. Fuller said the building has an occupancy qualification for use as a hotel or lodging.
The architects have created an interesting amenity for the general public at Panorama — a shortcut for pedestrians to get from the top to the bottom of Brooklyn Heights: an outdoor staircase with an entrance beside 58 Columbia Heights, which leads to other newly constructed staircases that end on Furman Street.
The two architects didn’t have any news about what will replace a red electric Watchtower sign that stood on the roof of 30 Columbia Heights, along with numbers flashing the time and temperature, for nearly five decades.
Nor did a spokesperson for the development, who said via email, “This is still a work in progress. Once we have something definitive regarding the sign we will share that with the public.”
One possibility is that the property owner will put the word “Panorama” on the 30 Columbia Heights sign. That’s what a rendering on the complex’s website depicts. Another option is that the name of one of Panorama’s big tenants could be put on the sign.
The Watchtower sign was famous. Its 15-foot-tall letters were visible on the Brooklyn Bridge and in Lower Manhattan.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses removed the sign’s letters from the rooftop in 2017 and put them in storage in upstate New York, where they have moved their world headquarters. They left behind the framework on which the letters stood and the time and temperature numbers.
Last year, Columbia Heights Associates argued successfully before the city Board of Standards and Appeals that it should be allowed to put a new name on the Watchtower sign’s empty framework. The board’s vote overturned an earlier city Buildings Department decision not to allow the property owner to replace the Watchtower sign.
The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York bought the Columbia Heights buildings from pharmaceutical manufacturer E.R. Squibb & Sons Inc. in 1969, city Finance Department records show.
The religious organization sold the properties in 2016 for $340 million to their current owner, whose investor partner at that time was Kushner Cos. Jared Kushner, who headed the real estate firm, later stepped aside to become a senior adviser for his father-in-law, President Donald Trump.
In 2018, Kushner Cos. sold its stake in the Watchtower headquarters to CIM Group.
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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