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As Red Hook’s industrial history is demolished, what comes next for the neighborhood?

The remaining vestiges of Red Hook’s industrial past are slowly being lost to development

Down on the Red Hook waterfront, a part of Brooklyn’s history is being erased. This week, two of the neighborhood’s most significant historic industrial structures—the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse and the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company—are being demolished, destroying some of the last vestiges of the community’s long maritime history.

Workers are now dismantling the upper floor of the S.W. Bowne warehouse, which has stood along the banks of the Gowanus Canal on the east side of Red Hook since 1886. Despite rallies, protests, and the interventions of local politicians, the structure is now vanishing brick-by-brick.

On the opposite side of the neighborhood along the Buttermilk Channel, the Lidgerwood Manufacturing complex has been almost completely razed after standing on the waterfront since at least 1882. Just one small section of its warehouses remains, after protestors and politicians demanded that UPS halt the demolition of the buildings.

It is not clear what will be built at the S.W. Bowne warehouse site, which is located at the end of Smith Street and owned by the Chetrit Group. But at the Lidgerwood Manufacturing site, UPS plans to build a truck depot which could be up to 1.2 million square feet. Similar facilities are now being built throughout Red Hook, which will soon lead to a massive influx of trucks and traffic along these once-quiet streets.

In the center of the neighborhood, along Columbia Street, two enormous new shipping warehouses will also soon replace the old industrial landscape. At 640 Columbia Street, ground has been broken for a 370,000-square-foot warehouse which, when complete, will be the tallest e-commerce distribution center on the entire East Coast, according to Real Estate Weekly. And at 537-555 Columbia Street, an entire block of old warehouses has been razed to make way for an 88,000-square-foot warehouse intended “for last-mile distribution tenants,” according to the Commercial Observer. Both of these sites are being developed by Dov Hertz’s DH Property Holdings.

As the residents of Red Hook mourn the loss of their neighborhood landmarks, and prepare for a truck-heavy future, what can be done to preserve the community’s remaining historic industrial structures?

S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse.

The last time Red Hook experienced such an enormous shift in its landscape was more than a decade ago, when the neighborhood lost the Revere Sugar Refinery and the Todd Shipyard. These two sprawling complexes were located side-by-side along the waterfront of the Erie Basin on Beard Street, and both contained historic buildings that dated back to the 1800s. They were demolished in 2006 and 2007, severing a vital link to Red Hook’s identity as a maritime industrial community.

The iconic dome of the Revere Sugar Refinery was a neighborhood landmark that was once described as Red Hook’s Mount Rushmore. The Civil War-era warehouses of the Todd Shipyard were also a quintessential part of the neighborhood fabric, and were familiar to generations of stevedores, sailors, and dockhands. Still active up until its demolition, this ship repair facility was replaced by an Ikea, in a deal that has since been described as a “billion-dollar boondoggle.”

The remains of the Todd Shipyard’s drydocks are now buried underneath Ikea’s parking lot, while the grounds of the Revere Sugar Refinery have been left empty for the past 12 years by their owner, Thor Equities. Plans to build an 800,000 square foot Norman Foster-designed office complex here, called Red Hoek Point, have now been cancelled, according to The Real Deal, and the site may soon become home to yet another “last-mile warehousing” facility, for trucks delivering e-commerce.

Todd Shipyard and Revere Sugar Refinery, 2006.

Despite the loss of so many important pieces of its history, the opportunity still exists to save some portion of Red Hook’s industrial landscape. A precedent was set earlier this week in Gowanus, where the Landmarks Preservation Commission took the unprecedented step of calendaring five industrial sites for potential landmark designation. After years of effort by local preservation groups, and months of protests and rallies, Gowanus may soon quintuple its number of industrial landmarks.

Even if these buildings are not designated as official landmarks, just getting them considered represents a remarkable achievement. The Landmarks Preservation Commission has long turned a blind eye towards the city’s industrial architecture, giving developers free rein to tear down countless historic buildings from Greenpoint to Sunset Park over the past decade. This is despite the fact that in 2007, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Brooklyn’s entire industrial waterfront at the top of their list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Places.”

Very little of Brooklyn’s industrial waterfront has survived the onslaught of the past decade, and in all of Red Hook, only one industrial building has been made an official landmark: The Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse, an impressive 1859 structure that was designated 18 years ago. Many other significant industrial structures still exist throughout the neighborhood, but are unprotected and could be demolished at any moment. These include the Red Hook, Merchant, and Beard and Robinson Stores, a complex of warehouses that stretches along the waterfront from Van Brunt Street to Ferris Street. Landmarking the complex, which is owned by the O’Connell Organization, would be an easy process that would protect one of Brooklyn’s most significant stretches of historic waterfront.

Although the fight to save the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse and the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company appears to have been largely lost, hopefully the New York preservation community will capitalize on their recent successes in Gowanus and refocus their attention on Red Hook. It’s not too late to save some aspect of the neighborhood, before it is completely bulldozed and turned into a truck depot.

This week, workers were demolishing the upper floor of the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, despite an ongoing FDNY investigation into a suspicious fire that ravaged the building in 2018.

The Bowne warehouse in 2017, before fire and demolition destroyed its roof and upper floor. The warehouse was part of a much larger complex that stretched to the end of Smith Street, which has since been entirely demolished.

The interior of the Bowne warehouse in 2017 before it was gutted by fire. This stately wood-beamed structure had a long history dating back to the 1800s, and although it was allowed to fall into disrepair in recent years, it was in remarkably good condition.

The demolition of the Lidgerwood Manufacturing Company has left just one extant section of the building along Coffey Street. Local preservationists hope to save the facade of this last section of warehouse, but the majority of the complex has already been destroyed.

As of late June, this was all that remained of the Lidgerwood complex, which once covered an entire city block. UPS has not indicated whether it would save any aspect of the remaining warehouse segment.

This section of the Lidgerwood warehouses at Coffey and Ferris streets, seen here in 2016, has been completely demolished. The company was a “world famous maker of hoists and boilers,” according to an extensive history written by Maggie Blanck, and had been standing here since “at least 1882.”

Inside the warehouse in 2016. Local preservationists have not made any demands to save these unique wooden interiors, and most these spaces have now been destroyed by UPS.

The destruction of these interior spaces, which Curbed visited in 2016, represents a distinct loss for Red Hook. They were preserved in remarkably good condition, and the building’s previous owner, Est4te Four, had hoped to re-use them for a creative campus. They will now be replaced by a trucking warehouse.

The Todd Shipyard, seen here in 2006, shortly before it was demolished. The shipyard dated back to 1869, when it was known as Handren and Robins, according to Red Hook Water Stories. Its dry docks were still in use up until it was sold to Ikea.

The shipyard’s Civil War-era warehouses along Beard Street, seen in 2005 before demolition. The destruction of the shipyard’s facilities has been described as a billion dollar blunder because of the increasing need for ship repair facilities in the New York harbor.

The opening of Ikea was like “a funeral” for neighborhood preservationists, according to the New York Times. The dry docks were filled in here for a parking lot that accommodates 1,400 cars (but is rarely full). The shape of the buried dry dock is traced out with paving stones, and the cranes have become a backdrop for tourist photos.

Up the street from the Todd Shipyard was the Revere Sugar Refinery, seen here in 2005 before its demolition. The refinery began business in 1915 as the American Molasses Company, according to Red Hook Water Stories, on a campus that included buildings dating back to the 1800s.

The entire campus, including its historic buildings and the iconic dome of the refinery, was demolished in 2007 after it was acquired by Thor Equities. The site has remained empty and unused ever since.

Today, all remnants of the Revere Sugar Refinery have been completely erased. A e-commerce truck facility may now be built here, after plans for a complex known as Red Hoek Point fell apart.

Just a block away from the Revere Sugar Refinery site is the Brooklyn Clay Retort and Fire Brick Works Storehouse, Red Hook’s only officially landmarked industrial building. Located at 76 Van Dyke Street, this building dates back to 1859.

According to the AIA Guide to New York City, a second section of the Brooklyn Clay Retort complex is located at 110 Beard Street. Though very similar to the structure on Van Dyke, this building has not yet been landmarked.

Another historic structure ready for landmark consideration is located at the corner of Imlay Street and Pioneer Street. This warehouse dates back to at least 1900, when it was home to the Columbia Engineering Works, according to research by Maggie Blanck, and was later the home of Ramberg Iron Works.

Another candidate for landmarking is this stately brick warehouse at the corner of Ferris and Wolcott streets. Once home to Le Comte & Co., a manufacturer of tin cans, the building dates back to the early 1900s, according to Forgotten NY.

The waterfront of Red Hook from Van Dyke to Van Brunt streets is lined with a series of warehouses owned by the O’Connell Organization which could be landmarked. These warehouses include the Merchant Stores, at 175 Van Dyke Street, which were built in 1873.

The Red Hook Stores complex at the end of Van Brunt Street is now home to a Fairway Market. Originally known as the New York Warehouse Co.’s Stores, this structure dates back to the 1870s. It is also not landmarked.

The Beard and Robinson Stores, located at the very end of Van Brunt Street, date back to the 1860s. The buildings are in remarkably good condition, despite extensive flooding during Hurricane Sandy, and would be an excellent candidate for landmarking.

Perhaps the most iconic industrial structure left on the waterfront is the Red Hook Grain Terminal, which was built in 1922. Left abandoned for decades, this monumental building is one of the most instantly recognizable landmarks left in the neighborhood, and should also be considered for official landmarks designation.

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.

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