The new Whole Foods that opened up in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn in December was a pretty big deal to those of us who live there. For me, the new 56,000 square foot grocery store, with its rooftop beer garden and expansive food selection, felt a bit like I was walking into the promised land. The store has been using a “3rd & 3rd” slogan during its launch to draw attention to its cross streets of 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street. But what you actually find on the corner of 3rd and 3rd is a run-down mansion, that not only looks out of place next to the shiny new Whole Foods, but is also very different from the other structures in the industrial neighborhood.
Known as the Coignet Building, the Italianate-style mansion was designed by architect William Field and Son in 1873 and was the former headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company. Founded by two Brooklyn businessmen, the company used the techniques of French concrete mogul Francois Coignet to be among the first to create cast concrete building elements, such as columns, blocks, and window tracery. Nestled next to their factory on the Gowanus Canal, this building was crafted as an office and showroom for the company’s work, demonstrating how the building elements could be used in construction. Built on a layered monolithic concrete foundation, the structure was built out of concrete blocks, with concrete floors reinforced with iron, and cast concrete doorways, windows, porticos, and columns.
The company filed for bankruptcy shortly after, and the property has changed hands a few times. The structure’s concrete blocks were covered up by a red brick veneer in the 1960s, and the building has remained empty and fallen to disrepair since then. It received landmark status in 2006. According to a report by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, it is the earliest known concrete building in New York, and a pioneering example of concrete construction in the country.
As part of the deal to build on the surrounding lot, the Whole Foods promised to restore the Coignet Building. So far, they have not, and the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission recently hit the retailer with a $3,000 fine for failing to maintain the building. Preservationists have also noticed a new crack in the building, which some have blamed on the nearby Whole Food’s construction.
The Coignet Building deserves to be restored and maintained, not only for its architectural history, but for its role the history of the neighborhood.