The two-and-a-half story, Italianate building at the corner of Brooklyn's 3rd and 3rd has gone by many names: historians may remember it as the former headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company; others know it as the Pippin building; and to a select few, it's just that pesky building that was in the way when Whole Foods first planted its flag in Brooklyn. For decades, the Coignet Building sat alone on that corner, falling into a state of disrepair as luxury condos and artisanal coffee shops sprang up in the surrounding neighborhood—but over the past year and a half, the decaying historical building underwent a serious restoration, and now the landmark is restored to its nineteenth century splendor, boasting a historic façade and a $5 million price tag.

Today, after a much-prolonged restoration, the Coignet Building is back to looking as it did when it was first completed in 1873. It was built as the headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company, the first U.S. company to manufacture the concrete commonly known as "artificial stone." The office, built out of that stone, is the first known concrete building in New York City, and shortly after its completion, Coignet stone enjoyed a brief heyday here: the company was commissioned to produce the stone that formed the arches and clerestory windows in St. Patrick's Cathedral; the Cleft Ridge Span in Prospect Park; and some of the earliest portions of the American Museum of Natural History.

The appeal lay in the technique: the concrete, patented by Francois Coignet in France during the 1850s, used molds in place of chisels and cutting tools, and as such could be made at a fraction of the cost of natural stone. The Coignet Stone Company was originally located at Smith and Hamilton Streets, but it relocated to the lot at 3rd and 3rd in 1872, and built the eponymous building to showcase its product.


At the time, a writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle called it "one of the most elegant business structures in the city... The whole structure is a beautiful evidence of the work that can be turned out by that Company who are determined to have a standing specimen of how it will endure all extremes of heat and cold, frost, snow and rain... The edifice in the most select neighborhood would be a very attractive one, but located where it is, having nothing but wooden sheds and fences to contrast with it, stands out proudly and challenges the attention of all wayfarers."

But the Coignet stone craze didn't last: despite getting big-name commissions, the company had to file for bankruptcy, and by 1876, it had auctioned off all of its patents. It held on for another few years as the New York Stone Contracting Company, but by 1882, that company, too, had folded, and the Coignet Building became the second office of the Brooklyn Improvement Company, the developers from whom the Coignet stone producers had leased their land. According to local lore, Edwin Clark Litchfield, who founded that company, connected the office to his home on Prospect Park West with an underground tunnel, but when we toured the abandoned building in 2014, there was no such tunnel to be found.

In 1957, the Brooklyn Improvement Company also dissolved, and the Coignet Building was sold off along with the rest of its properties. It was occupied by a number of other businesses over the following years, including the Pippin Radiator Company, and at some point in the 1960s, one tenant made the terrible decision of adding brick to the building's facade, covering up much of the historic Coignet stone.

For much of the second half of the twentieth century until quite recently, the building stood abandoned, decaying inside as its gorgeous exterior remained covered up with red brick. But then in 2005, an unexpected solution arrived: Whole Foods. The rapidly expanding supermarket wanted to open a location at the lot at 3rd and 3rd, but the city ruled it could only do so if it also agreed to fix up the Coignet Building on the corner. Whole Foods agreed, and the building was landmarked in 2006, preventing them from getting into any demolition funny business.

But then, the building sat unaltered for nearly a decade. Work on the Whole Foods stalled as the economy dipped, local residents expressed concerns about traffic and parking, and carcinogenic byproducts were found in the surrounding soil. Construction didn't get underway until 2012, at which point Whole Foods assured everyone that it would soon move forward on façade repairs to the Coignet Building. When the Whole Foods finally opened in late 2013, wrapping nearly entirely around the historic building, no repairs were underway.

In 2013. (Photo by Scott Lynch)

At this point, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission said enough was enough, and slapped Whole Foods with a $3,000 fine—pennies to the supermarket giant, but a nudge to make good on its promise to the community. Since Whole Foods had purchased its lot in 2005, the right bannister on the steps to the building had fallen off, and a large crack had appeared in the based, which neighbors said was due to construction on the supermarket. Whole Foods denied it.

By March of 2014, Whole Foods claimed it had started work on the façade, but preservationists weren't buying it: they argued that while supermarket-funded contractors had put up a scaffolding, no actually substantive work had been done. Whole Foods was fined once more, all the while staunchly denying that it was responsible for the further deterioration to the property. That seemed to be the final bit of pressure Whole Foods needed: by April, renovations were well underway, and by August, most of the bricks had been stripped from the façade, allowing the original Coignet stone to show through.

Today, swaddled on two sides by the Whole Foods that occupies the rest of the block, the Coignet Building is positively glowing, having been stripped of brick, paint, and stucco, and treated with limewash for a cool $1.3 million. In March, it won the New York Landmarks Conservancy's Lucy G. Preservation Moses Award, recognizing "excellence in restoration," and the building is now for sale for $5 million, where it's described as needing an interior gut renovation but one with a "great retail opportunity."

Inside the Coignet building. (Photo by gothamr / seemore photos from inside here)

The building was certainly a lot more striking when it wasn't squashed in Whole Foods's shadow—but it's nonetheless a beautiful piece of architecture, and a much-needed reminder that despite the endless development across the city, preservationists can sometimes keep old gems from being razed to make room for commercial interests (and even make those commercial interests foot the restoration bill).