Brooklyn Boro

Site of deadly construction accident was once important part of Watchtower complex

Hockey-team owner and billionaire Viola is converting it to apartments

February 14, 2022 Raanan Geberer, Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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A Brooklyn Heights building where a construction worker fell to his death on Friday morning is a former Watchtower dormitory that is being converted to an apartment building by billionaire and Florida Panthers NHL team owner Vincent Viola.

The man, who had not been formally identified as of press time, had fallen from the roof of the 10-story building, according to Building Department records. As of Monday, the property had a stop-work order on it.

Since 2017, 17 complaints in connection with 124 Columbia Heights  — the majority since the beginning of 2021. These include “Worker was offloading pipe from dolly, pipe fell on foot, ambulance called” (Oct. 13, 2021);  “Inadequate guardrails at multiple locations” (June 22, 2021); and “A rise pipe fell onto a worker’s foot during installation, worker went to city MD” (April 27, 2021).

Published reports said police responded to the call around 10:20 a.m. on Friday and found the man lying unconscious.

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Vincent Viola, owner of 124 Columbia Heights and the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers. He also is the founder of several businesses, including Virtu Financial, and a past chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
AP file photo by Pat Carter

According to articles published in the Eagle, the Williamsburg-born Viola, who is also the owner of Virtu Financial and the former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange, purchased the building in 2016, as the Watchtower sought to divest itself of its Brooklyn-born properties. The religious sect was preparing to move its headquarters from Brooklyn Heights to upstate Warwick, N.Y.

Working through an LLC, Viola paid $105 million for the property. Afterward, residents of the building began moving out, a process that continued into early 2017, the Eagle’s Lore Croghan wrote.

Read more coverage of all Watchtower properties:

Where did they all go?

In 2017, the Eagle reported, the Landmarks Preservation Commission approved the work to convert 124 Columbia Heights into a 101-unit apartment building.

Plans included an indoor parking garage with an elevator for cars; replacement of existing windows with aluminum ones; and removing the building’s window air conditioners.

In 2018, an application was filed to excavate space for a pool in the basement, Croghan reported. But the


Read more coverage of all Watchtower properties:

How the Watchtower headquarters, the heart of an international religious movement, fell into private hands as part of a Jehovahs Witness migration.  

developers apparently changed plans, because last year, renderings from HS2 architects showed the building with a new rooftop pool, New York YIMBY, a real estate website, reported.

In addition to serving as a dormitory, 124 Columbia Heights once housed the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ radio station during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Croghan said the property is an amalgamation of several buildings constructed by the Watchtower between the early 20th century and 1949.

The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the famed abolitionist minister who presided over Plymouth Church, reputedly once lived in one of the brownstones that were on the current site of 124 Columbia Heights.
Wikimedia photo by Mathew Brady

Previously, the location was occupied by several brownstones, one of these being 110 Columbia Heights, from which Washington Roebling supervised the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. Another brownstone had been the home of the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist minister. The Witnesses began buying up the brownstones and assembling the site in 1909.

On the subject of the tragic accident, Councilmember Lincoln Restler, who represents the area, said on Twitter, “My heart goes out to the loved ones of the deceased. “Like this tragedy, these avoidable deaths often include Latino workers at non-union construction sites.” He promised an investigation.

Responding to his tweet, Jona Chicaiza, apparently one of the children of the deceased, said, “Thank you for the support. We are going through a hard time. My father was loved and deeply admired. My younger siblings are sad and heartbroken.”

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