November 17, 2005

Council Says No to 184 Kent

For the second time in as many months, the City Council has voted to turn back the designation of the Landmarks Preservation Commission. On Wednesday, November 30, 2005, the Council voted 43 to 6 (with 1 abstention) to turn down the designation of the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse, located at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. In October, the Council turned back the designation of the Jamaica Savings Bank in Elmhurst, Queens.

Local Council Member David Yassky led the Council’s push to de-designate the building. Yassky claimed that designation impede the proposed redevelopment of the Williamsburg waterfront, “limiting development through the Landmarks Preservation Commission instead of through the community boards and the Dept. of City Planning.” Despite Yassky’s claims, the designation was supported by the Department of City Planning, and endorsed as part of the Council’s own vote to enact the rezoning of Williamsburg and Greepoint. Furthermore the designation of Austin, Nichols would have affected only one building in the 184-block rezoning area. Yassky’s position likewise ignores the significant role Landmarks has played in the rehabilitation and revitalization of many of New York’s formerly industrial neighborhoods.

The designation of the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse came after a year and half long campaign by local residents, during which time over 500 people submitted postcards to the Commission urging LPC to consider the building for landmark designation. Over 1,500 people, a majority of them residents of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, have petitioned the City Council to uphold the designation.

Earlier this month, the Council Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses also held hearings aimed at forcing the Landmarks Preservation Commission to be more responsive to local calls for landmark designation. Taken together, the Council’s recent actions have left many preservationists concerned over the future of the Landmarks law. Since its enactment in 1965, the Landmarks law has been instrumental in the revitalization of many of New York’s neighborhoods. Preservationists now worry that the Council is sending mixed signals, on the one hand demanding accountability to community interests, while on the other hand turning back designations that are well-considered and have strong local support.

Designed by Cass Gilbert in 1915 as the headquarters for what was then the larest grocery wholesaler in the United States, the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse has long been one of the most prominent industrial sites on the East River. The designation of the building was strongly supported by community residents, preservationists and architectural historians. At a public hearing before the Landmarks Preservation Commission on July 28, 2005, an unprecedented number of architectural historians testified in favor of designation.

The community-led push to designate the building was spurred by plans submitted with a variance application in 2004. Those plans, prepared by architect Karl Fischer, included significant alterations to the building, including removing large portions of the exterior walls and constructing a six-story addition on top of the six-story warehouse. It was these alterations, prepared by architect Karl Fischer, that spurred local preservationists to push for designation of the building.

The Waterfront Preservation Alliance of Greenpoint & Williamsburg continues to work for the designation of this important local landmark.

You can help by signing our petition online. Also, please take a moment to write to those Council Members who did support the designation of Austin, Nichols:

Tony Avella
Tish James
Margarita Lopez
Mike McMahon
Bill Perkins
Al Vann

Learn more about the Austin, Nichols & Company and why it deserves landmark designation here.

November 18, 2005

Why 184 Kent is a Landmark

The Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse, located at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, was designed in 1913 by Cass Gilbert for Horace Havemeyer and Austin, Nichols & Co. Facing the East River, the building has stood as a monumnent to Brooklyn’s industrial heritage for close to a century. Recently, this Williamsburg landmark was officially designated a New York City Landmark. [Update - But then again, not - see why.]

The owner of the building has gone to great expense to have the building not be a landmark, going so far as to hire say-anything historians to argue that this building is unworthy of landmark designation. For a complete analysis of why 184 Kent Avenue is and should be a landmark, click here (warning: pdf). For the Cliff Notes version, read on.

Cass Gilbert was one of the premier American architects of his era. In addition to the Woolworth Building, Gilbert designed the United State Supreme Court building (Washington, DC, 1935) and Minnesota State Capitol (St. Paul, 1905). Gilbert’s other New York City projects include the Gothic-revival style West Street Building (90 West Street), the Beaux-Arts style United States Custom House (now Museum of the American Indian) at Bowling Green, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park.
The Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse is an important bridge between the historicist architectural styles of the 19th and early-20th centuries and the modernist movement which was just taking shape in Europe and America at this time.

Unlike many other industrial buildings of its era, Austin Nichols derives its monumentality from its minimalist design – relying on its strong sculptural form rather than applied ornament for its architectural expression. This absence of applied ornament would become a hallmark of the modern movement in architecture.
Constructed to house a world-class grocery distribution concern, the Austin Nichols & Company Warehouse is one of the few purpose-built industrial buildings in the city to be designed by a prominent architect. The building was cited in period literature for its design and for its engineering accomplishments.

It is also unique in that it is an early example of the use of poured-in-place concrete to create the form (as opposed to just the structure) of a building. Austin Nichols was half a century ahead of Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal (1963, bottom right) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum (1957) – two masterpieces of poured-in-place concrete architecture in New York. It was also years ahead of other Landmark concrete structures such as the Municipal Asphalt Plant (Kahn & Jacobs, 1940, middle right).

The building itself is well suited for adaptive use. It has large windows ands high ceilings, which combine to create dramatic interior spaces with breathtaking river views. Many of Cass Gilbert’s landmark buildings are currently being converted to residential use (including 90 West Street and the Woolworth building); designation of this building would not prevent a conversion to residential use. Nor would designation hinder the rezoning or the City’s plans for the waterfront.

December 8, 2005

Council Nails the Coffin Shut

The result is certainly not what we wanted, but thank you nonetheless to everyone who supported the designation of the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse.

The Council, once again led by David Yassky, Simcha Felder and Melinda Katz, voted 37 to 8 with 2 abstentions to overturn Mayor Bloomberg's veto. We picked up a few votes from last week's hearing, but still wound up 4 votes shy of victory. While no one really wants to hear it, that in itself is an incredible accomplishment.

So thank you again for all of your work and all of your support. Thanks to everyone who wrote postcards and signed petitions (there were thousands of you); thanks to everyone who attended hearings (there were hundreds of you); thanks to everyone who called and lobbied council members over the past few days (there were more council members who were sympathetic to our cause, but just not willing to buck the trend).

If you are so inclined, please take a moment to write to those elected official who did support the designation of Austin, Nichols. They did so because it was the right thing to do; because the building deserves landmark status, and because the landmarks process should not be held hostage to the whims of any one council member.

This includes the council following members, all of whom were incredibly eloquent today:

Tony Avella
Charles Barron
Letitia James
Allan Jennings
Margarita Lopez
Michael McMahon
Bill Perkins
Al Vann
Gale Brewer (abstained)
Vincent Gentile (abstained)
(and that doesn't include the 4 members who did not vote)

It also certainly includes Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And last but certainly not least, it includes Robert Tierney and his staff at the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

All of these people, and their staffs, went out of their way to support designation. Send them a note of thanks.

And, of course, thanks to the staff of the Municipal Arts Society, the Historic Districts Council and the NY Landmarks Conservancy, all of whom put it all out on this issue.

And now, on to the next building(s)...

March 6, 2007

Kent Avenue and Austin, Nichols

Still from "Pickup on South Street"
(Via: I'm Not Sayin')

I'm Not Sayin' just posted this fantastic picture of Kent Avenue from the 1953 movie Pickup on South Street. The view is looking south from just past North 6th Street towards the (un)landmark Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse. The former cooperage, still standing on Kent between North 4th and North 5th, is visible on the left center of the photo.

And to answer INSIJS's question, George's Restaurant on the left appears to be in the building that now houses a marble works, two buildings north of North 6th Street. The brick building to the right (north of ANCW) was demolished some time ago, replaced by the corrugated shacks that served the Nekboh waste transfer station.

September 26, 2007

LPC's Industrial Legacy

Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse
Designated by LPC, 2005

With the designation of the Domino Sugar Refinery Processing House, the Landmarks Commission has proven once again that it gets industrial heritage. Sure, they could have gotten a lot more, but its worth highlighting the fact that this is the fourth major industrial site in North Brooklyn to be designated in the past few years. And to the great chagrin of the beauty pageant promoters who believe that landmarking is only about "pretty" buildings, not all of these buildings are pretty. But they are all significant, locally and to the city (some are nationally significant).

Here's the rundown:

1. Hecla Ironworks administration building [pdf link] (designated 2004)
2. Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse (designated 2005)
3. Domino Sugar Refinery, Processing House (designated 2007)
4. Eberhard Faber Pencil Factory Historic District (designated soon?)

Add to that the recent calendaring of DUMBO, and LPC Chair Robert Tierney is right to tout his commission's role in designating industrial properties. There may be other Hecla, Domino and Eberhard buildings that are not landmarks and should be, but lets give credit where its due.

Landmarks has also been busy with some of North Brooklyn's non-industrial sites of late. Witness the designation of the Williamsburg Houses (2003), the original Smith-Gray Building [pdf link] (2005), and the McCarren Park Pool (2007).

And lest Mr. Tierney rest on his laurels, we will point out that there are a lot more highly significant (dare we say beautiful) industrial buildings out there to designate. Not to mention a host of other buildings in our (until recently) neglected corner of Brooklyn. And Williamsburg is still without a single historic district (hopefully not for long).

March 20, 2008

Landmarks Steps in to Protect Windermere

Via the Times City Desk, a report about an LPC action to force the owner of the landmarked Windermere apartments on the west side to make repairs to the building.

The Windermere was landmarked in 2005, over the vociferous opposition of the building's owner. In order to bolster their case against landmarking, the owners hired attorney and author Andrew Alpern to testify against the designation. Alpern's "expert" testimony didn't win the day, and the building was landmarked. Alpern, who has written books on luxury apartments in Manhattan, was busy that year - he was also one of the hired guns brought out to offer "expert" opinion against the designation of the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse. Landmarks didn't listen to him then, either.

April 7, 2008

Roger P. Lang Dies at 64


Roger Lang died last Monday after a brief bout with lung cancer. Roger was the Director of Community Programs and Services at the New York Landmarks Conservancy, which really meant that he was the voice and public conscience for the group. Roger was also an ardent supporter of many of our neighborhood preservation causes, most importantly the restoration and reopening of McCarren Park Pool (an issue I first heard him speak about 15 years ago). The pool is finally being restored, though Roger will not see it. He was also instrumental in the designation of the Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse.

In other words, he was a good friend of our good causes. And a good friend.

May 20, 2008

Austin Nichols Update

Austin Nichols & Co. Building (proposed)

Via Curbed, a new rendering has surfaced showing the proposed makeover of the Austin, Nichols & Co. building (184 Kent Avenue). The rendering was issued in connection with the marketing of the ground-floor retail space (an impressive 17,850 sf, with an option for an additional 8,600 sf of mezzanine space).

Astute readers will notice that rendering shows none of the atrocities previously proposed for the building - lido deck rooftop additions, picture windows, shaved cornices, etc. Curbed attributes this to "rumors" of a big preservation tax credit, and, in fact, that is the case (you can look it up). Nice to see that the new owner is preserving the building - we've thought all along that is was a wonderful building.

May 29, 2008

Landmarks Omission

This is an old article, but the tensions it highlights have not gone away. What it describes is a two-front war, the likes of which we have already seen here in Williamsburg and will no doubt continue to see. On the one hand, as we all know, it is a struggle to get the Landmarks Commission to recognize buildings that are significant for non-traditional reasons. This includes buildings of significance to minority communities (the focus of the article), but it also includes less "loved" buildings, such as industrial buildings, Modernist buildings, or workers' housing (to name but a few). In the 10 years since this article was written, LPC has done much better in recognizing architectural and cultural diversity, but still has a ways to go.

On the other hand, minority communities often see Landmarking as elitist - the vanguard of gentrification - or imperiling their own development plans (as the article says, the ministers, politicians and businessmen "just don't want some landmarked building getting in the way of their housing and economic development plans"). We have already seen this play out in the fight to landmark Domino Sugar, where local affordable housing advocates have argued that Landmark designation will somehow mean less affordable housing (a fire that has been fanned by the developer, in this case). In fact, Landmark designation has no impact on use, and in the case of a large site like Domino, doesn't even impact the overall density of development. (One of our Councilmembers, in voicing his opposition to landmarking the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse, claimed that designation would mean no affordable housing at the site. The landmarking was overturned by the Council, and the site is now being developed as 350+ market rate rental apartments - with no affordable housing component.)

Clearly, we all have a lot more work to do.

August 24, 2008

Austin Nichols Cleans Up

Last week, Curbed posted a photo set showing the progress of paint stripping at Austin Nichols (184 Kent). The white paint is off on most of the north side, exposing the original concrete substrate (if you look carefully, you can see the board marks from the original formwork). We don't know what the original finish for the building was - exposed concrete or a skim coat of sort? But we look forward to seeing the finished result.

The stripping also shows that beneath all the cosmetic ugliness, the building is in quite sound condition. It reminded us of a meeting we had with CM Yassky about three years ago - one of his reasons for opposing landmark designation was the deplorable eyesore condition of the facade. We said at the time that the facade was easily repaired, but the owner had convinced the council member otherwise. Maybe now Yassky believes us?

On a related note, the owners of 184 Kent have since listed their building on the National Register of Historic Places (WGPA applied for a determination of eligibility, which was granted by the State Preservation Office, but the owner did the actual listing on the National Register).

September 1, 2008

ANCW Cleaning Photos

Last week we mentioned the cleaning and paint stripping at the Austin Nichols building. Herewith, some photos of the same. It may not be apparent in the photos, but in person you can see the horizontal marks of the boards that were used for the formwork. As we said last week, the underlying reinforced concrete appears to be in very good condition for its age - a testament to Gilbert's design and Turner's construction (remember too, that this entire building was constructed in less than a year).

North facade (facing Northside Piers).

South facade.

September 30, 2008

184 Kent: Paint & Windows

In Curbed's latest update on the rehabilitation of the Austin Nichols & Co. Warehouse, the north facade is getting painted (white), and some windows are going in. This will be a very handsome building once its restored, which is, of course, what we thought all along.

October 20, 2008

Upcoming: Recycling New York's Industrial Past


MAS is holding a panel discussion titled "Recycling New York’s Industrial Past: Inspiration From Home and Abroad". Here are the details:

New York City was once the nation’s power house for manufacturing, and many of the buildings and factories that fueled that industry remain. Preserving these buildings and using them to foster green-collar industries or adapting them to new housing, cultural, and retail uses is the most sustainable action New York could take.

This program will explore two approaches to preserving industrial buildings: keeping them for manufacturing uses (which also means retaining good-paying jobs) or adapting these buildings to new uses.

The panel will be introduced by WPA's Ward Dennis and moderated by Mary Habstritt of the Society for Industrial Archaeology and WPA. Panelists include Andrew Kimball of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bob Powers, preservation consultant for the restoration of the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse (184 Kent) and Lisa Kersavage of MAS (a long-time WPA supporter).

When: Wednesday, October 22, 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., reception to follow.
Where: The Municipal Art Society, 457 Madison Avenue, at East 51st St.
Cost: $15, $12 MAS members/students. Purchase tickets online or call 212-935-2075.

December 21, 2008

Austin Nichols Protected?

The Times rewrites a press release from the Trust for Architectural Easements:

After years of battles between preservationists and the New York City Council, the old Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse in Williamsburg is now formally protected thanks to the donation of a historic-preservation easement to the Trust for Architectural Easements.

So does that does mean we can (re)landmark it now?

January 11, 2009

More Austin Nichols

In today's City section, Jake Mooney writes about the irony of the many twists and turns in the Austin Nichols (184 Kent) story. As it turns out, the building is historically significant. And for a building that was held up as a "piece of trash" by Councilman Simcha Felder, it sure is looking good.

Also, contra Dan Reardon, 184 Kent was never in any danger of winding up "in a landfill somewhere". In a City where FAR is king, an overbuilt building will always be "saved". The issue with Austin Nichols was that the original plan to save it was a fate worse than demolition.

In case you've forgotten what started it all, here is a reminder:

184 kent karl fischer.jpg
184 Kent, proposed rendering
Architect: Karl Fisher (ca. 2005)

Eberhard Faber