A failure since its construction, The Red Hook Grain Elevator looms behind IKEA Brooklyn at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal. The forgotten feat of engineering stands as one of the last structures of its kind in the area since the Todd Shipyard and Revere Sugar Refinery were demolished.
An anachronism in its own time, the Red Hook Elevator was completed in 1922 and almost immediately dubbed the "Magnificent Mistake." Most grain warehouses in Brooklyn were built in the late 19th century before inland rails, when the grain shipping trade was still booming. They averaged four stories high and 200 feet long.
By comparison, The Red Hook Grain Elevator is a useless monster. Twelve stories high and 430 feet long, it was built seven years after the last grain terminal in Brooklyn was converted into a storage warehouse, leading the Engineering News-Record magazine to dub it an "expensive luxury." The terminal had been built to invigorate New York State's Canal System, but Governor Nathan L. Miller's opening day remarks hinted at the improbability of this plan: "Even if the barge canal were never used in normal times, it is a good thing to have it in case of emergencies."
The structure itself is as sturdy as a bomb shelter, as the elevators built to hold the combustible grain are explosion-proof. Inside, there is a bottom floor and a top gallery, separated by 54 cement silos, each 120 feet tall and eight inches thick. Grain from the Great Lakes was washed, dried, and stored within the elevator, and then a 1,200 feet long conveyor belt loaded the product onto freight ships which distributed the grain to flour mills, breweries, and distilleries.
In addition to the main structure, the Red Hook Grain Elevator includes several brick outbuildings, contributing to the $2.5 million total cost of construction, an enormous sum for a building that was obsolete even before its completion.
In 1944, after 22 years of profitless operation, the state deeded the elevator to the Port Authority, which rehabilitated the structure and continued operation. But by 1964 it was clear the building was in financial ruin, with grain costing exponentially more (78 cents a ton) in New York than in the south (only 15 cents a ton in New Orleans). So in 1965, after 40 years of under-use, the grain terminal was officially deactivated. In 1987, state officials remembered the structure long enough to demolish its conveyors and loading pier.
In the early 90s, locals used the roof as a kind of asphalt beach in the summer. One neighbor, who preferred to remain anonymous, recalls, "Whole families of people from the local projects would be barbecuing, picnicking, sunbathing up there. It was really easy to get into back then, I don't even remember if there was a fence or not."
Then in 1997, John Quadrozzi Jr., president of the Gowanus Industrial Park and the man who spotted Sludgie the whale and Gowana the harp seal, bought the building from the Port Authority, hoping to restore it to commercial use, specifically concrete production and road salt storage.
A large concrete block fence has since been erected around the structure's perimeter, but it remains empty, and the silos able to contain 70,000 tons of cement are all bare. In the summer of 2002, Zacho Dance Theater presented an aerial performance where dancers scaled the building and 100-foot video images of Red Hook were projected on the terminal walls. David Bowie bizarrely filmed his 2013 single "Valentine's Day" on the terminal's ground floor.
Unless a market appears for large, windowless silos ("Cool & Quiet, Lots of Space!!!") the Red Hook Grain Elevator is unlikely to be turned into condos. The elevator stands out among new waterfront buildings today more than ever as a monument to Brooklyn's past. But to those in-the-know, it has never really belonged.
Hannah Frishberg is a 5th generation Brooklynite. A version of this photo essay was originally published on Atlas Obscura.