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Fire rips through Gowanus Canal warehouse that locals want landmarked

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The 1886 warehouse was one of the buildings locals had proposed for landmark status ahead of a rezoning

Photos by Nathan Kensinger

A fire ripped through a historic warehouse along the Gowanus Canal on Thursday night—a building that preservationists have continually sought to name a NYC landmark. The two-alarm fire erupted shortly after 11:15 p.m. at the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse at 595 Smith Street, according to ABC7 Eyewitness News, which first reported on the incident.

No one was injured in the fire, and it’s not yet clear what may have caused it, or what damage was done to the structure. A video on the FDNY Twitter account shows firefighters battling the blaze from the Gowanus Canal. (We’ve reached out to the FDNY for more information.)

The fire is a blow for Gowanus residents and preservationists, many of whom have been trying to landmark this historic structure for over a decade now. The building is one of several put forward for protection ahead of a planned rezoning for the neighborhood. Brad Vogel, a member of the coalition advocating for landmark status for these structures, told Curbed that he met just this week with a staffer from City Council member Carlos Menchaca’s office to once again push for landmarking the Bowne warehouse. Prior to that meeting, he had also submitted a formal request with the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to consider the building.

Later on Wednesday, Vogel received an email from the same staff member saying that they had spoken to the owners of the property and to the LPC, and would get back when they heard more.

“The timing of the fire immediately on the heels of the meeting and the subsequent outreach to the owner paints the blaze in an incredibly suspicious light,” Vogel said in an emailed statement to Curbed. “This is a true, sad loss for the community. It’s time for an investigation.”

John Needham, from the New York chapter of the Society for Industrial Archeology, which filed the first formal request for landmarking the warehouse in 2009, also raised concerns about the nature of the fire.

“The timing is indeed suspicious when a wood timbered warehouse of this type suddenly ‘catches fire,’” said Needham in an email exchange with Curbed. “All very odd.”

Carolina Salguero, the founder of the Red Hook maritime group PortSide New York, was on the scene this morning, and said that the building was still mostly intact. She said she saw a charred piled of lumber to the east of the buildings, but that the walls were still standing.

Plans filed with the city’s Department of Buildings lists Meyer Chetrit of the Chetrit Group as the owner of the warehouse under the business name of CF Smith LLC and Red Hook Developers Holdings LLC. Repeated calls to numbers listed for the Chetrit Group remained unanswered. The above-mentioned LLCs purchased the warehouse in 2007 as part of a package of buildings in the neighborhood. The building deteriorated in subsequent years, and the city had issued a vacate order on the property by 2014. Soon after, it became a popular spot for graffiti artists, who covered it with their work.

Curbed columnist Nathan Kensinger wrote just last month that demolition plans for the building were filed by its owner in 2017, and that workers had begun removing the roof of the warehouse.

Following its construction in 1886, S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse functioned as a grain, hay, and feed processing and storage facility for stables, and was part of a two-block long complex. It stayed that way until the 1930s, when it became a general warehouse, and by the 1950s it was being used by cargo companies. In the following decade, the building was abandoned, and before Thursday’s fire the warehouse was essentially the last structure to remain standing in the original complex.

“When we cautioned that Gowanus was going to be remade in a firestorm of rezoning, we didn’t realize we were speaking literally,” says Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, another group that had been campaigning to preserve the warehouse. “Landmark status is not fire-proof armor, but sometimes is the only thing ensuring that a damaged building is repaired rather than demolished.”