It was a significant and noble reminder of the industrial history of the Red Hook Gowanus waterfront.
The morning of June 13, 2018, a coalition met at our offices on the MARY A. WHALEN to discuss saving the Bowne warehouse. The next day, Councilman Carlos Menchaca's office contacted Chetrit to say that he supported landmarking the building. That night, on June 14, 2018 the roof of the longstanding warehouse was set ablaze.
The New York City Fire Department determined that the fire was arson, meaning it was intentionally set, but to date, have not determined who set the fire. This presented a major problem to the coalition of citizens, organizations and elected officials who attempted to landmark the building because of a perverse aspect of NYC policy that says that the Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will not landmark a building with an open FDNY investigation!
In short, when a building is most threatened (by arson), the LPC will NOT act. This incentivizes unethical building owners to commit arson as a way to escape landmarking. This LPC policy should change. Many a New York City building under review has burst into flames.
Other aspects of city policy impeded efforts to save the Bowne Storehouse during the year from the arson until the Chetrit Group, the owner of Bowne, tore it down after violating many building permits and dodging regulations. The silos between the Fire Department (FDNY) and the Department of Buildings (DOB) plagued the situation. While FDNY was investigating arson, all work was supposed to stop, but DOB would issue demolition permits. Community members would spot violations and tip off the coalition, elected officials, and the community board; and the DOB would be notified. During bouts of permitted and unpermitted demolition (and sometimes unsafe jobsite conditions) the Chetrit crew picked away at the building.
PortSide thought that the Public Advocate should get involved to push for better inter-agency coordination between LPC, DOB and FDNY and contacted the Advocate's office. That overture went nowhere.
One of the ideas we wish to workshop with the Bowne coalition and others is the following proposal: that NYC should NOT allow demolition permits, unless a building represents a hazard, until there is a City-approved plan in place to build something new.
The current policy allows developers to destroy for a pipedream, a vision that may never happen, and leave neighborhoods littered with empty lots and rubble sites.
Red Hook alone has several such large scars on its waterfront and interior.
Current policy means that beloved and/or historic buildings can be destroyed before there is a viable plan in place to replace them. Current policy supports needless destruction.
In the case of the Bowne site, the Chetrit Group wants to build something that does not even conform to the zoning and heavy industrial uses adjacent to the site. Chetrit wants to build luxury residentail towers opposite a NYC DOT asphalt plant and a DSNY marine transfer station!
Updates on the building and the efforts to save it or raze it:
- June 14, 2018, a fire occurred in historic S. W. Bowne warehouse. FDNY concluded that the fire was arson and "the investigation is still open” (as in "who did it"?)
- Demo Permit issued February 2018
- At the March 13, 2019 press conference, Councilman Carlos Menchaca announced that Department of Buildings’ Borough attorney is seeking criminal court summons against developer Chetrit Group owner for repeated violations at this site.
Link to Press Release (pdf)
Video of press conference
- Stop Work Orders issued in March 2019
- DILEMMA: The Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) will not act on a landmarking request (such as the one for Bowne) if there is an open FDNY investigation - which makes arson an even more powerful tool. The LPC must be pressured to change this position NOW. As of Friday, 3/29/19, scaffolding was installed around Bowne, and the Coalition fears that demolition is about to start.
- Demolition of S. W. Bowne Building began.
- We have not been able to follow the multiple stop work orders and DOB demo permits as they were issued.
- June 27, 2019, the DOB issued another stop work order for unsafe conditions. "City bars ‘unsafe’ demolition at S.W. Bowne building in Red Hook" Brooklyn Eagle, July 1, 2019.
- 7/3/19 We opened up a case with the office of Public Advocate (case number 173797)
to get involved since several NYC government agences were not coordinating well, those being Department of Buildings (DOB), FDNY, and Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
Late in the evening of June 14, 2018, a fire broke out in the warehouse.
The morning after the fire, we were there when FDNY Fire Marshalls arrived and spoke to three. We learned that three fireboats were involved in fighting the fire, Marine units 6 and 9, in addition to firetrucks ashore. One Fire Marshall remarked to us, "normally when a fireboat puts water on a building, the building collapses, that is one strong building. Look at how thick those walls are.”
The New York City Fire Department, on 7/6/18 were deeming the fire incendiary, meaning it was intentionally set.
Excerpt from 6/15/18 press release by Councilman Carlos Menchaca about this fire:
"The two alarm fire last night at Red Hook’s historic S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, on Smith Street is highly suspicious.
It occurred after the Red Hook community raised alarms about recent, potentially illegal construction activity on the roof and after my office and community leaders took steps to start land marking the building. The red brick structure was built in 1886 and is a prime example of the Gowanus area’s rich maritime history." Full press release will be uploaded shortly.
Our 6/8/18 Alert: This historic building is considered under threat. See action info in italics below
The historic S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse is in danger. Take action to save it:
- Email Council Member Carlos Menchaca <email@example.com> this message: "Dear Council Member Menchaca, Please ask the Landmarks Preservation Commission to designate the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse as an individual city landmark."
- Email the Landmarks Commission and ask them to designate the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse as an individual landmark: RFE@lpc.nyc.gov
The Bowne warehouse has been declining as several owners have warehoused the property while seeking to flip it in a big real estate deal.
Soon after the fire Council Member Carlos Menchaca
in a press release placee the owners of this property on notice: "I will not allow demolition by neglect or fire to prompt zoning changes that allow residential or other nonmanufacturing uses at this site in Red Hook’s Industrial Business Zone"
July 9, 2018
The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition issued a statement:
"The Gowanus Landmarking Coalition has learned that FDNY believes the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse fire may have been intentionally set. We are sad to have our strong suspicions confirmed but are not deterred from continuing to advocate for the protection of important sites in the Gowanus area - including the S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse. In light of the upcoming Gowanus rezoning, these historic buildings are vulnerable to profound change and development pressures. They must be protected. We are also announcing a $300 reward for a tip or documentation provided to the FDNY that leads to an arrest in the suspected arson - a blaze that not only damaged an historic building worth landmarking, but also required firefighters to risk their safety.”
Articles about the fire:
Lore Croghan of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle followed this story particularly closely. Her coverage is very informed, so we post it as a block, with other reporting below it.
"Historic Red Hook Warehouse Fire Set Intentionally, Report Says" By Nicholas Rizzi, Brooklyn Patch. July 9, 2018
"FDNY suspects fire in Chetrit warehouse was set intentionally: Blaze gutted Red Hook property as locals sought to landmark it". By Joe Anuta Crane's New York, July 9, 2018
"Fire In Historic Red Hook Warehouse 'Highly Suspicious,' Pol Says" By Nicholas Rizzi, Brooklyn Patch. Jun 15, 2018
"Fire jeopardizes future of historic warehouse on Gowanus Canal" By Lore Croghan & Mary Frost, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jun 15, 2018
"Fire Rips Through Red Hook’s Historic Bowne Storehouse After Call for Landmarking" By Craig Hubert, Brownstoner, Jun 15, 2018 (Post-fire story citing previous violations on site)"Fire Tore Through Historic S.W. Bowne Grain Storehouse Thursday Night" By Pamela Wong. Bklyner, Jun 15, 2018
"2nd Alarm Fire Destroys Warehouse in Red Hook" BoroPark24, Jun 15, 2018
FDNY Twitterfeed with video of fireboats at the Bowne Fire, Jun 15, 2018
HISTORY of the S.W. Bowne Store House:
Into the early 20th century, the S.W. Bowne storehouse was part of a two-block-long complex of hay, feed, and grain processing facilities including a feed mill. A 1913 advertisement touted the quality of Bowne's Pure Grain Poultry Food, "Made A Little Better Than Seems Necessary."
Samuel Winter Bowne was a independent operator with his own warehouse and grain elevator. He was not part of the merger of most of Brooklyn's other grain storage companies that formed the Brooklyn Wharf and Warehouse Company trust in the late 1890s. The Report of the New York Produce Exchange of 1897 listed S.W. Bowne warehouse as having a capacity for 600,000 Bushels and as having one grain elevator.
S.W. Bowne was the majority stock owner of the company, its director, and a worker on the warehouse floor. In 1916, The Daily Standard Union reported that "Mr. Bowne was inspecting a grain conveyor when his foot caught in the machinery and was mangled so badly it was necessary to amputate his leg." The accident led to a court case with Bowne arguing that he was an employee when he was hurt and thus deserving of worker's compensation.
The grain elevator that once stood at the property moved grain from Erie Canal barges into the storehouse. A 2004 Cultural Resources Assessment concluded that the storehouse was likely used only for local distribution and for on-site milling and not for supplying ocean going vessels because “of the limited draft available in this section of channel.” Transferring grain from warehouses supplied by canal boats to much larger sail and steam ships for export was, however, a major aspect of Brooklyn trade, and Red Hook in particular.
By the 1930s, the warehouse complex had been converted to general goods because the demand for hay and grain in the city dramatically shrunk as cars and trucks replaced horses, and overall, the port’s role in regional grain distribution declined. The business of warehousing grain, which transformed Red Hook, and was a major economic driver for the City, had largely ended by 1915. Canal grain traffic dried up and the export of grain had moved to other ports. Large capacity, floating elevators and the railroad retained the remaining traffic. The New York. State Barge Canal grain elevator completed in 1922 in Gowanus Bay was part of an attempt to re-direct the port’s grain traffic. Brooklyn continued to dominate the handling of bulk products in the Port of New York, as it had from the 1840s, until around 1970 when containerization had largely replaced the practice.
Late 20th Century History
From sometime prior to 1975, Marra Brothers, Inc., owned and had offices in the Bowne Warehouse. In that year Continental Terminals bought the property. Continental Terminals, established in 1958 by Gerald Ponsiglione Sr, is still today a family owned and operated coffee and cocoa wholesale business. According to Doug Martocci Jr., one of Ponsiglione's grandsons, in the 70’s and 80’s:
"We unloaded chartered coffee vessels at times into that warehouse, as well as some of the other buildings on the property that we owned and operated. Our main office was located there for some time. In the mid 80’s, we moved from that property to the pier foot of 23rd street (the former Moore-McCormick terminal) and continued to unload charter vessels and then containers into the facility."
"We stored many things in the Bowne warehouse during that period. That warehouse was first used and mostly used for coffee. As we expanded, we found that the tight columns and multi leveled storage was difficult to operate at times. Coffee had to be moved up through pass throughs in the floor from level to level."
"We also used the facility to store cased products on pallets – Rienzi Tomatoes, Slavin and Sons canned tuna, and Duc de Provence Wine were some of our accounts during our time at the warehouse."
[Personal correspondence with PortSide NewYork]
According to tax records Continental Terminals sold the Bowne Warehouse in 1989 to Edward Cohn. What Cohn did with the building for 18 years is not well known, though it was the home of I & E Tire for some time, and tugs would "put out a line" tying up to the property while waiting for the tide in the Gowanus Canal to change. As the bulkhead collapse, less of that occurred. In 2007 he sold to the current owners Chetrit - a major real estate speculator and development group.
In a photo essay in Curbed New York, Nathan Kensinger reports that the property was purchased by CF Smith LLC and Red Hook Developers Holdings LLC, in 2007 as part of an $11.5 million package for a four-block stretch of Gowanus waterfront at the southern end of Smith Street. CF Smith is a holding of the Chetrit Group. Since then the owners received numerous violations from New York City for failing to maintain the buildings.
There is strong community support to preserve the historic S.W. Bowne Warehouse. On May 18, 2018, alarmed by demolition taking place in the building, a coalition consisting of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG), Old Stone House, Park Slope Civic Council, CG CORD, and Historic Districts Council, along with a number of Gowanus residents requested an evaluation of the property by the New York City Preservation Committee.
The building has been featured in art photography and landscape paintings for years. See the March 29, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle article about Carroll Gardens painter Ken Rush and his love of the building.
Report on the History of the S. W. Bowne Grain Storehouse for the Army Corp of Engineers, 2004This imposing structure at the mouth of the Gowanus Canal was, until 2019, one of the few surviving traces of the brick warehouses that ringed the South Brooklyn shore for about a century starting in the late 1800s.
It was a relative, not the same, as the brick warehouses in Red Hook that have the Fairway Market and are on the piers to either side of that store. One part of its original business, storing hay, is part of the history of fuel, in that hay fed horses when they were the engines of public transportation, fire trucks, and private conveyances.
A description and history of the storehouse was published in 2004 by Northern Ecological Associates for the in May and December, 2004. Here is an excerpt from the report (the full report is linked below):
“S. W. Bowne Grain Storehouse, west side of the canal between Bay and Creamer Streets (Plate 3.24)
This massive 4-story, 200-by-80-foot brick building is an end-gabled structure with a central transverse firewall and eight bays on its long side, most of which have round-arched window openings. A monitor runs the full length of the building’s roof peak. Although the storehouse’s interior was not inspected, it was almost certainly a wood-framed structure, with 12-foot ceiling heights as later reported (e.g, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1988).
The Bowne storehouse can be dated with some precision to 1886, as the Sanborn insurance map published that year labeled it as “Grain Ware Ho. Being Built.” Into the early 20th century, the storehouse was part of a two-block-long complex of hay, feed, and grain processing facilities from Creamer to Sigourney streets, including south of Bay Street a feed mill removed circa 1904-1915 and a large 1912 hay and feed storage building (Sanborn Map Company 1904, 1915).
As originally operated, the storehouse was associated with a grain elevator on the bulkhead opposite the storehouse’s south end. The elevator, for which limited information is available, was probably equipped with grain legs to transship grain from Erie Canal barges into the storehouse, where a grain elevator at the southeast corner probably helped move grain to a conveyor in the monitor for distribution to storage bins. The storehouse probably served for local distribution and for on-site milling.
Transhipment from the storehouse to ships for export, once an important component of Brooklyn waterfront traffic [...] seems less likely here because of the limited draft available in this section of channel...
A horizontal conveyor between the canal side elevator and the storehouse evidently entered the latter at the fourth floor southeast corner above the windows in that bay; the present blocked-in opening at this spot may represent the former conveyor access (Sanborn Map Company 1904, 1915; Plate 3.25).
The waterside elevator stood until circa 1950-1969, but by 1938 had been converted to part of a general warehouse facility along with the rest of the complex.
Demand for hay and grain had declined significantly, as cars and trucks replaced horses in the city and the port’s role in regional grain distribution declined. The two-block Bowne Company was now part of a larger “Bowne-Morton’s Stores, Inc.”, an “approved public warehouse.” The firm had another building on the west side of Smith Street, and the entire north side of Bay Street from Smith Street to Court Street. There was no mention of hay, grain, or milling in any of the building labels on the 1938 fire insurance map; the grain warehouse was no longer in specialized use, it had apparently become a general-use warehouse. By 1950, the southern part of the Bowne complex, below Bay Street, was engulfed in later buildings associated with cargo and stevedoring companies.
North of Bay Street, a one-story warehouse was built between the canal and the northern part of the grain warehouse before 1950. Now gone, the eastern façade of the grain warehouse shows signs of its former location, visible from the canal (Sanborn Map Company 1938, 1950, 1969; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers 1932, 1942, 1953, 1965, 1978, 1988).
The Bowne storehouse is an unusual, probably unique example of a 19th-century Brooklyn storehouse adapted for grain handling. Brooklyn dominated the handling of bulk products in the Port of New York from the 1840s until the firm establishment of container traffic by circa 1970. For most of this period, bulk products on much of Brooklyn’s waterfront were transhipped and stored at small terminals consisting of narrow finger piers with or without piersheds, bulkheads retaining wide marginal wharf space, and masonry storehouses lining the wharves.
Evolving from earlier 19th-century storehouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn, most of the classic Brooklyn storehouses were built circa 1850-1880 between Main Street and Erie Basin, with a smaller number on Smith Street and the latest examples built at Bush Terminal circa 1895-1905. They were especially notable from Atlantic Avenue to Main Street, once forming a nearly unbroken wall except around the Fulton Ferry.
Typically, the storehouses were flat-roofed structures four to six stories high, 150 to 200 feet long, and 50 to 80 feet wide with three to five bays of round-arched windows on the short sides facing the water and the streets Timber-framed with longitudinal arrays of square columns generally 15 to 18 feet apart transversely, the storehouses had timber floors, brick exteriors and party walls often made of rubble stone. The most intact examples include the Empire Stores in the project area, the former Merchants or Governors Stores on Pier 41 at the foot of Van Dyke Street, the Beard Stores (Warehouse Pier) in Erie Basin at Van Brunt Street, a smaller block of stores in Erie Basin at Richard Street, the Bowne Stores, and the brick storehouses at Bush Terminal. Less intact examples include the Tobacco Warehouse west of Empire Stores and parts of the former New York Dock Company Cold Storage Building. The Bowne storehouse, which falls within the size range of other Brooklyn stores and has the familiar round-arched window, is the only gable-roofed example in this class of building, and also the only one oriented with the long side–and all windows–facing the bulkhead (Raber Associates 1984; Beyer Blinder Belle 1990; Parrott 2002).
The gable roof at the Bowne complex was clearly adapted to grain handling, and was in some ways a retention of a slightly earlier form of warehouse more widespread until the mid-19th century, when the dominant flat-roofed form emerged (Parrott 2002). Unlike large grain elevators built later in the 19th century to accommodate rail and marine traffic, the Brooklyn grain facilities were somewhat idiosyncratic, sometimes combining general warehouse forms with grain handling functions largely intended for export traffic, and sometimes including highly specialized structures with little resemblance to typical storehouses. Until the repeal of the British Corn Laws in 1846, export of unmilled grain remained a relatively minor feature of port activity. There were few if any specialized storage or handling facilities for grain before the Corn Laws repeal immediately quadrupled grain exports through the port, and made grain traffic to Britain a major component of transatlantic trade (Albion 1939:76-94; Anonymous n.d.). All of the port’s grain facilities developed between circa 1846 and 1922, serving either railroad car or canal boat. The Brooklyn facilities all received grain from canal boats in bulk.
Three types of facilities eventually handled grain at the port, in various combinations and sequences: private grain stores (almost all in Brooklyn) with stationary wharfside grain elevators; floating grain elevators which transferred product from canal boats to ships; and grain elevators at railroad terminals. The grain stores and floating elevators appeared as soon as the Corn Laws disappeared, while the railroad elevators did not start to rise above the port’s shores until the late 1870s. The grain stores disappeared by circa 1915 after the virtual disappearance of the canal grain traffic which supported the grain stores, and the sharp decline in the port’s share of export grain traffic. The railroad and floating elevators retained the remaining traffic. The New York. State Barge Canal grain elevator completed in 1922 in Gowanus Bay was part of an attempt to re-direct the port’s grain traffic, and was something of an anomaly in being a large grain elevator designed for canal traffic.
Early 20th-century changes in overseas grain shipping patterns highlighted a fundamental lack of grain handling development that had been a growing problem in the Port of New York for a quarter century. With essentially no improvements in grain facilities after 1922, competition from other ports significantly reduced grain traffic following a relatively brief surge of Canadian grain exports through the Port of New York during and after World War I (Anonymous n.d; see Raber et al. 1984: 95-104 for discussion of Brooklyn export grain facilities).
Located where ship traffic was probably made difficult by limited dredging efforts, the Bowne complex was most likely used only for local distribution, as noted above. This may explain its orientation parallel to the nearest street, to facilitate wagon loading rather then marine transshipment.
Today the building is one of the few distinctly 19th century structures on the canal banks. It retains its brick exterior with shutters at the few wall openings, and no major additions or alterations are visible from the exterior. The former Bowne Grain Warehouse typifies the canal’s role in importing bulk goods into the city, and was built just as the canal was nearing its peak. The company’s fortunes followed those of the urban hay and feed trade, but today the warehouse is one of the most visually intact canal-side structures linked to the canal’s role in the growth of Brooklyn.”