Coignet Stone was the first concrete structure in New York City and may well be the last abandoned building in Gowanus. Now a two story lump of crumbling red brick on 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street, its façade was once heralded by the Brooklyn Eagle as the neighborhood's bright spot: "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." Now the black sheep of the block, Coignet Stone's current neighbors consist of high-rise luxury towers.
Built in 1872 by William Field and Son, Coignet Stone was constructed to showcase Beton Coignet, a French concrete popular for being cheaper than natural stone. The concrete was produced on site at a five acre factory complex which extended along the Gowanus Canal called the New York and Long Island Stone Company, one of the first firms in the United States to industrialize the production of concrete. Briefly enjoying a huge success, they produced the arches and clerestory windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as well as the base construction for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Natural History Museum.
Bankrupt just a decade later, the factory closed in 1882 and the building became the office of Edwin Clark Litchfield’s Brooklyn Improvement Company. Legend has it Litchfield built an underground tunnel connecting his new office with his villa six avenues up in Prospect Park. In 1957 Litchfield gave up the office, and after a brief new life as the Pippin Radiator Company, the once beloved little structure was left for dead, and has since acquired its present state of decay.
A 2006 landmarking did little to improve Coignet’s state, nor did Whole Foods, which recently built their flagship store in the massive lot behind the structure, signing a memorandum of lease with owner Richard Kowalski in 2005 requiring them to restore the building. Restore the building, that is, without owning it, as Kowalski refused to sell it to the corporate super-chain, holding out for smaller buyers.
The City Landmarks Preservation Commission is now suing WholeFoods for $3,000 in fines for failing to fix up the building. Since the supermarket opened in December Whole Foods has done nothing but repair the roof and damage to the structure’s façade. Indeed, there’s only five feet between the building and the new high-end grocery store. Despite this, realtor Ken Freeman tells the Daily News he’s “Gotten a lot of interest” from national retailers to local stores and nonprofits since it was placed on the market for $3 million (or a $180,000/year lease) in 2013.
Despite its easily accessible front door, for years Coignet Stone was nearly impenetrable due to deadbolts on the obvious entrances. Even after scaling a side wall, the only access point was a broken window some 50 feet off the ground. Then Whole Foods moved in and installed scaffolding. Suddenly, Coignet Stone (and the Whole Foods roof) became ridiculously accessible for roughly two months before someone got around to putting up a six foot fence to keep out would-be trespassers.
The place is gutted of everything but pigeon shit. The top floor is full of holes and some five different rooms and closets, much more homey than its professional exterior would suggest. A workman's ladder leads to a hatch to the roof which has clearly been recently redone, and it contrasts sharply with the rot beneath its white sheen. A spiral staircase leads to the ground floor, which is cut into two rooms, one of which has a backwards facing door reading "Office" under its portico, and cheap wall-to-wall wooden paneling. The spiral stairs continue into the basement, where I found no secret tunnel, but a vault full of saws and graffiti and a strange elevated room with a paper towel dispenser.
Looking at the two buildings from across the street, they seem like a parody of New York's constantly changing nature. Two more dissimilar buildings sharing a street corner would be hard to come by.
Written by Hannah Frishberg, a 5th generation Brooklynite.