Red Hook’s S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse has been torn down
Eye on Real Estate: The building is ‘a casualty of a system that does not work,’ an activist says.
I saw the death blow that brought down the Bowne building.
It happened on Labor Day — Monday, Sept. 2, 2019.
Construction workers all over America had the day off, but a demolition crew was on the job at the Red Hook property where entrepreneur Samuel Winter Bowne built a four-story brick grain storehouse for Gowanus Canal commerce back in 1886.
At 10:23 a.m., an excavator with a rope attached to it backed over debris-strewn ground — and with a single yank, tore the roof right off the historic S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse at 595 Smith St.
Mighty timbers that had held up the roof since Grover Cleveland was President snapped like toothpicks.
A long, flat panel of roofing material, which was ribbed with a row of wood beams, twisted as it plummeted earthwards. A torrent of brown dust cascaded to the ground.
Workers at the site cheered so loudly that I heard them on the other side of the Gowanus Canal, where I stood on the sidewalk of the Hamilton Avenue Bridge as noisy traffic rushed by.
The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, which belongs to the Chetrit Group, is the Gowanus Canal-side industrial building that preservation advocates and elected officials tried to save from demolition.
The roof the workers ripped off was the last thing that held together what remained of the north half of the building.
By early morning on Labor Day, a large portion of the brick wall on the side of the building facing the Gowanus Canal had already been knocked down.
An interior wall that had divided the north and south sides of the grain storehouse was exposed to the open air. When I stood on the sidewalk on Smith Street, I could see graffiti murals on it. One of them was labeled “Project Mayhem” in big letters.
The demolition crew was working although the city Buildings Department had issued a Partial Stop Work Order for the property on Aug. 29. On Monday, I asked agency spokesperson Andrew Rudansky if what they were doing was legal under the order’s provisions.
He said the order solely banned “scaffold work.”
Buildings Department inspectors who checked up on the crew at 595 Smith St. early Monday afternoon “determined that no scaffold work was ongoing, and the active demolition work did not violate the Partial Stop Work Order,” Rudansky told me.
A few days earlier, the demolition crew had obliterated the south half of the building. That’s the part of the historic property where a two-alarm fire in June 2018 was “deliberately set” — that’s what FDNY spokesperson Jim Long said earlier this year.
A Bureau of Fire Investigation report obtained by City Councilmember Carlos Menchaca says that on the night of that fire, a nearby hydrant that didn’t work properly had a brick and screws stuffed inside it. I just wrote a story about the report, which revealed there were no security cameras at the Bowne Building at the time of the fire.
But more about the Labor Day demolition work.
At 10:40 a.m., when I left my sidewalk vigil for the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, the excavator was using a pair of giant jaws to pick up broken bits of the building and toss them onto a pile.
Rubble in the rain
After I left the doomed building, it rained a lot.
When a huge mid-afternoon downpour subsided somewhat, I returned to the Bowne building and discovered the workers had done lots more demolition in my absence.
The very northernmost corner of the structure was still standing. Just about everything else was gone, gone, gone, reduced to mammoth mounds of rubble in the rain.
As thunder cracked in the distance and light rain fell, workers walked on wet piles of lumber. They don’t appear very clearly in my photos, but they were easy for me to see because several of them were wearing bright yellow vests.
The rain stopped for a few minutes, and the excavator got to work, tossing around torn-up timbers once again. It started raining lightly, but the machine kept right on rumbling.
‘Something is wrong with the permitting process’
In 2018, before there was a fire at the Bowne building, the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition asked the Landmarks Preservation Commission to put the property on its calendar to consider designating it as a landmark. That didn’t happen.
“The Bowne Storehouse is the Empire State Building of the Gowanus Canal,” Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, told me in July.
It was the waterway’s most visible 19th-century industrial building.
The Chetrit Group didn’t respond to a request for comment about what it plans to construct on the Bowne building site. Earlier this year, Menchaca revealed that during his first term as councilmember, the developer showed him a design with residential towers.
In the wake of the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse’s demise, preservationists and community activists think city regulations governing demolition permits should be changed — in particular, demolition permits for buildings with ongoing fire investigations.
“Something is wrong with the permitting process,” Bankoff said.
“On the one hand, you have the city recognizing that this is a worthy historic resource which has been damaged under suspicious circumstances; on the other, permits are issued to demolish the building and once issued, trump everything else,” he explained.
‘The law needs to be changed to stop bad actors’
“If there is an ongoing fire and/or police investigation of a site, the Buildings Department needs to bar issuance of demolition permits for the site until such time as the investigation has been completed,” Gowanus Landmarking Coalition member Brad Vogel said.
“This needs to be an automatic red flag in the Department of Buildings’ system — it should not be subject to the whim of the investigating agency as to whether it decides to inform DOB of the investigation or not,” he added.
The Landmarks Preservation Commission won’t landmark a property when there’s an open FDNY or NYPD investigation, said Carolina Salguero, founder and president of PortSide NewYork, which operates a museum and floating cultural center on a decommissioned oil tanker called the Mary A. Whalen.
“The historic Bowne Storehouse is a casualty of a system that does not work and an unethical developer who knew where all the cracks in the system are and who committed lots of violations along the way,” she said. “The law needs to be changed to stop bad actors like this.”
Follow reporter Lore Croghan on Twitter.
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