Spring has arrived in New York City, bringing with it a familiar pattern. First the songbirds start their morning calls; then, the tulips and daffodils begin to bloom; and then, eventually, the jackhammers and bulldozers kick in, starting off another season of demolition and development.
In Brooklyn, this spring will see the demolition (or the advancement of development plans) of several historic structures across the borough, tearing apart the urban fabric from Greenpoint to Coney Island, and from Red Hook to East New York. Few neighborhoods will be untouched by the wrecking ball, creating widespread alarm amongst those who value the borough’s history.
“Brooklyn is insane. It’s crazy. We are losing areas we never even thought were at risk,” says Simeon Bankoff, the executive director of the Historic Districts Council, reflecting on the rapid rate of demolition in the borough’s historic neighborhoods. “You think that everything is fine and then you go down to Sheepshead Bay and see what they are building down there … it’s mind boggling. Bushwick and East New York are completely under the gun. Bed Stuy is changing really, really quickly. Downtown Brooklyn doesn’t exist anymore, and Boerum Hill and Fort Greene and Clinton Hill are getting pushed out of existence.”
Developments both large and small are ramping up in Brooklyn, where major rezonings may soon transform the landscape of Gowanus and Bushwick. Meanwhile, wood-framed houses are disappearing in Bay Ridge and Flatbush; townhouses are being demolished in Crown Heights and Clinton Hill; and century-old churches have been torn down in Flatbush and Ditmas Park.
Even structures that are designated New York City landmarks aren’t safe: Developers have made inroads into the Brooklyn Heights Historic District, and city agencies have threatened to destroy the 68th Police Precinct in Sunset Park to make way for a school. And though it’s not threatened by encroaching development—rather, aging infrastructure is to blame—the Brooklyn Heights Promenade may be dismantled and closed down for six years as part of a BQE repair project.
These six structures represent a cross-section of the buildings are currently endangered throughout Brooklyn.
The S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, located on Smith Street just south of the Hamilton Avenue Bridge, is a prime example of the dangers facing industrial buildings along Brooklyn’s waterfront. Dating back to 1886, this stately warehouse has a long and colorful history, and is one of the most impressive artifacts from the Gowanus Canal’s industrial past. In February, the Department of Buildings approved a demolition permit for the building.
In recent years, the S.W. Bowne building was allowed to collapse by its owners, the Chetrit Group. By 2017, its windows and doors were left wide open, exposing the building to the elements, and in June 2018 workers began an unauthorized demolition, removing sections of its roof. Shortly after, a suspicious fire badly damaged its interior, which the Fire Department has declared was intentionally set.
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition wants to landmark the warehouse as part of its efforts to preserve the architectural history of the Gowanus Canal. There are currently only two official landmarks in the neighborhood: the Carroll Street Bridge and the Coignet Stone Building. “While the Landmarks Commission has made progress over the years in getting into the outer boroughs, I still think there is this huge hang-up about buildings that are working-class, brawny, brick, and huge heavy timbers, as we have here,” says Brad Vogel, a representative of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition.
The unique interior of the Bowne warehouse, seen here in 2017, before the roof demolition and fire. Despite the ongoing FDNY investigation and stop-work orders placed on the entire property, the building’s demolition permit was approved. “We already are losing the history of the Gowanus, because every year or two, some kind of monumental structure disappears,” says Joseph Alexiou, author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal. “I do fear that all of the historic, industrial buildings in the Gowanus could be stripped away, and then we will end up with kind of a Hudson Yards, astringently cleaned out of anything that makes that part of the city interesting.”
The 68th Police Precinct Station House and Stable, located at 4302 Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park, is a good example of how even designated New York City landmarks can be destroyed. The precinct building will soon be completely gutted, and the stable building demolished, with the permission of both the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the State Historic Preservation Office.
Opened in 1892 and singled out for protection in 1983, these buildings are among a handful of individual landmarks in Sunset Park. But they’ve been vacant since the 1970s and allowed to completely deteriorate, despite that protected status. An application to demolish the remains of the precinct’s interior was approved in June 2018, despite more than a dozen outstanding violations against the building.
The precinct’s interior, seen here in 2011, was a rotting ruin of collapsed floors and ceilings before being gutted by workers in 2017. Initially, the city planned to completely demolish the precinct, but now will demolish the stable structure, and keep just a portion of its street-facing exterior facades, as it constructs a new, larger school building. “It is ridiculous,” Bankoff says. “It’s one of the few landmarks in Sunset Park, it is a very prominent building, it was a city-owned landmark for decades, and the city is deciding to spend tax dollars to destroy it.”
The Grashorn Building, located on Surf Avenue between Jones Walk and West 12th Street, is an example of the difficulties facing old wooden buildings throughout Brooklyn. Dating back to the 1880s, this is the oldest remaining building in Coney Island, and is one of the last historic buildings still standing along Surf Avenue. The city approved a permit to demolish the structure in January.
Purchased by Thor Equities in 2005, the structure has been left vacant and rotting for more than a decade, becoming home to squatters and rats, according to one local worker. After tearing down several other historic structures in the area, Thor is now trying to sell off its Coney Island holdings.
Community groups like Save Coney Island and the Coney Island History Project have been working to bring attention to the plight of the Grashorn Building, but its demolition could occur any day now. If that last last historic building disappears, the only official landmarks left will be the Wonder Wheel and the boardwalk. “The Grashorn Building is a kind of a one-off. There is nothing left that really looks like that in Coney Island,” says Bankoff.
The Flatbush Presbyterian Church, located at 494 East 23rd Street in Ditmas Park, is one of many churches facing demolition throughout Brooklyn. Its long history dates back over 120 years, and it was once known as “The Little Stone Church in the Potato Patch.” It is currently for sale as a development site, leaving neighbors fearful that it will soon be demolished.
This past December, the local preservation group Respect Brooklyn filed an emergency landmarking request for the church, stating that “taken as a whole, the Flatbush Presbyterian Church is a striking example of Gothic architecture here in Brooklyn that is entirely intact even after over 120 years.” One of its chapels dates back to 1898, and was designed by noted architect John J. Petit.
The prospects for the church are dim, given the recent destruction of other religious structures in Brooklyn. These include the Carpenter Gothic church in Bedford Stuyvesant, which dated back to before 1854 and which was demolished in 2015; the St. Rosalia Church in Dyker Heights, founded in 1902 and demolished in 2018; and the Baptist Church of the Redeemer in Flatbush, built in 1919 and demolished in 2018.
The former home of the Lafayette National Bank, located at 200 Montague Street, was designed by architect Philip Birnbaum and completed in 1960. Despite being protected as part of the Borough Hall Skyscraper Historic District, the building is now threatened with demolition and may be replaced by a 20-story residential tower. The LPC appears to be ready to approve the demolition, and recently encouraged the developers to “create a bolder design” for its replacement.
“There is no love for modern buildings,” says Bankoff. “It’s just worth so much more money to the developers if they can knock down that building, which is really unfortunate because Birnbaum is probably a good 10 to 15 years away from being loved or appreciated as an architect.”
Nearby, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade is also facing the wrecking ball. As part of a much-needed overhaul of the BQE, the Department of Transportation has put forth a plan to “dismantle the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and build a new road in its place for at least three years, with promenade access disrupted for six years, while contractors rebuild the structure below,” as Curbed has reported.
The plan has been met with outrage by a wide cohort of neighborhood residents and preservationists, especially since the promenade is protected by several different landmarking laws. “It’s landmarked up and down,” says Bankoff. Brooklyn Heights is a National Historic Landmark, as well as a NYC historic district. “It’s even the only [special scenic view district] in New York City—there are no others.”
“How can the city do a highway widening and destroy a recognized landmark?” asks Bankoff. “That is what all of our landmark laws and all of our historic building laws were designed to prevent. And yet, the city of New York is like, ‘Hey, gotta do it.’”
Under the city’s plan, a new promenade would be built once the BQE repairs are completed. Still, preservationists would prefer to not have that happen, and several alternate plans have been put forth to protect the promenade from destruction, and “It is going to require an enormous amount of energy and an enormous amount of resources just to convince the government to listen to its own laws and not do this dumb thing,” says Bankoff.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.