Birth of the Concrete Jungle

To love New York City is to fall for concrete and steel. Maybe it’s the iconic Brooklyn Bridge that raises the hair on your arms, or it’s an anonymous apartment building on East 10th Street. Buildings and structures become talismans here—reminders of constancy and comfort, landmarks not just of the city’s history, but also of our own timelines and stories, or the stories we wish were ours.

One of those buildings is 360 Third Avenue in Gowanus. It is crumbling and elegant, with steps that widen outward like open arms. An industrial wasteland of nothing surrounds it, as if it has been repeatedly left behind like a lost child in an empty parking lot. And there’s a slightly magical appeal to a building that sits on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street.

The Stone Company Building in 2005. Photo courtesy of Corie Trancho-Robie at callalillie.com

The number of times the two-story, Italianate-style structure has been mentioned in blogs by questioning residents or passers-by is a testament to its ability to captivate, as is the fact that two curious Park Slope dwellers and New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission employees took it up as their personal rescue mission. They uncovered its buried and misunderstood past, and it was designated a landmark in June 2006.

The building is now rightfully back on the map as the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company Building. The Preservation Commission calls it a “pioneering example of concrete construction in the United States” and as such it makes a profound statement about the Industrial Revolution’s arrival in this country—after which architecture was never the same. Although it cannot be torn down or significantly altered per Commission rules, its otherwise unknown fate prolongs the mystery.

F or Kate Daly, a preservationist and chief of staff of the Commission, and Matthew Postal, an architectural historian and researcher there, the building was one they passed for years on their bikes and always wondered about. The windows are boarded up and trash takes refuge against the foundation.

“I assumed it was the last vestige of development on that block. That building has been standing there alone for quite some time,” said Daly in an interview with Postal at the Commission office in January. “It raised a great deal of curiosity for me.”

She first asked Postal if he knew anything about the building sometime in 2005. He believed the urban legend—that it was connected to the seminal 19th century Brooklyn lawyer and developer Edwin Clark Litchfield, the man responsible for the Litchfield Villa (his mansion in Prospect Park is another City landmark). The building was connected, but the importance of its origins did not lie with Litchfield.

“I couldn’t even confirm that Litchfield had built this, and that’s when we got suspicious,” said Postal, who describes facts slowly and methodically. He is used to research being predictable. “I know how to find the information and I know what I’m going to find. This went from being a peculiar building to being an important building.”

Daly and Postal had reached an impasse in their research about 360 Third Avenue. The Litchfield legend couldn’t be proven true and they had no more leads. But a breakthrough came during Open House New York weekend in October 2005. When Daly toured the inside of the 1889 Montauk Club in Park Slope, she saw a 19th century photograph of the building on Third Avenue—surrounded by nothing, just as it is today. Printed on the photograph was the word “Coignet,” which neither Daly nor Postal had come across in their research.

Daly was so excited by her find that she borrowed a cell phone and left herself a message on her voicemail, dictating the information on the photograph. With the new clue in hand, Postal began trolling every database and library at his disposal, from the New York Time_s to the _Brooklyn Eagle to Columbia University.

“I just kept trying,” he said. “I got so frustrated.” Finally he typed in “Third Street” and “Third Avenue” in a search engine and got an article.

“Matt had a mission,” said Daly.

When all of the small articles and obscure mentions added up, they had a story.

T he 360 Third Avenue building was constructed to be a walk-in advertisement for the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company. It was designed in 1872, finished in 1873, and it was most likely made almost entirely of a type of concrete called artificial stone. Its basement is monolithic concrete—concrete poured into a form—and its first and second stories are made of concrete blocks. The floors are likely reinforced concrete.

The Stone Company building was one of the first concrete buildings in New York City, if not the country, and the company was one of the first in the nation to industrialize the production of concrete, according to Postal’s research and the report he wrote for the Preservation Commission. More amazing is that the building’s significance was almost entirely forgotten through the 20th century.

Norman Weiss, a specialist in the analysis and preservation of building materials and a professor at Columbia University, was one of three experts whom Postal called to ask about the building. Weiss, along with Michael Devonshire and Richard Pieper, who work for the architecture firm Jan Hird Pokorny, visited the building with Postal in the spring of 2006. “I had personally been by it and was curious what this handsome building was,” said Weiss. “I can’t overstate the significance of it,” he said, now aware of the building’s origin. “It is a remarkable artifact of the early history of concrete in America.”

The experts were ecstatic when they met Postal at the building. “These guys were talking a mile a minute,” he said. “It was like a party they were having. I could barely keep track of it, they were going so fast.”

“We were just like kids,” agreed Weiss in a telephone interview. “We were thrilled.” Weiss trained as a chemist and is currently working on the restoration of the exterior concrete of the Guggenheim Museum through a consulting firm where he is a senior scientist. When he visited the Stone Building with Postal, he called it “the Rosetta Stone of pre-cast concrete in America.”

T he history of concrete is complicated and lengthy, but it helps to understand that the introduction of artificial stone in the United States during the Industrial Revolution was, along with steel and terra cotta, an answer for architects and builders looking to build more economically, more quickly, and for longevity. The materials were lower in cost than natural products like stone or wood, and they were fire resistant. They led to modern architecture, said Weiss.

A French chemical engineer named Francois Coignet (1814-1888) was the grandfather of concrete. Although a form of concrete existed in ancient Rome, Coignet used sand, lime, cement, water, and iron reinforcement to make concrete blocks and molds. His work won him fame in France and abroad. A group of American men trained in Coignet’s techniques in France and brought his patents to Brooklyn in the late 1860s.

Originally, the company was called the Coignet Agglomerate Company of the United States, and it was located on 16 lots in Carroll Gardens. By 1872, the company had leased land owned by Litchfield and created a five-acre factory complex on the Gowanus Canal that surrounded the now lonely Stone Company building. The company is responsible for the Cleft Ridge Span in Prospect Park, America’s first concrete arch and one of the earliest cast stone structures still standing in the U.S., as well as the arches and clerestory windows in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the first stages of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the receiving tomb at Evergreen Cemetery in Queens.

But by October 1873, the Stone Company had burned out. It filed for bankruptcy and, although it tried to reorganize, Coignet’s patents were sold by 1876. It is unclear why the company didn’t succeed. Postal suggested that it may have gotten too big, too fast.

“These guys were too early,” said Weiss. Artificial stone finally took off and became a booming industry in the United States around 1910. “There were many buildings that succeeded [the Stone Company building], but very few were as important as this building and the Cleft Ridge Span,” he said. “They were two key elements of the very start of this industry in the U.S….To me, Coignet is a real hero. He is to the development of artificial stone worldwide what the Romans were to suspension bridges worldwide. That’s why the survival of the building is just remarkable.”

When the Stone Company closed for good in 1882, Litchfield made the building into his office for the Brooklyn Improvement Company, which managed all of his investments. The building was sold in 1957 after the Brooklyn Improvement Company dissolved. In the 1960s it was resurfaced with the red brick that can be seen today. The Landmarks Commission said it hopes to see the building restored, which would involve removing the brick. Any changes to the exterior of the building would require a permit, said Daly.

Postal and Daly enjoyed the thrill of helping save something with a history so buried that it extended to the literal—the concrete that makes the building significant is buried underneath a scrim of brick.

“W hat was fascinating was solving the mystery of this building,” said Daly. “Matt’s detective work answered the questions of anyone who has ever walked, biked or driven by this building. Why is this orphaned building still standing on this corner? And so Matt really peeled away the layers of the mystery. I think it’s wonderful to go from wondering about the building to ensuring that the building won’t be demolished. It’s an amazing process.”

Although the building won’t be demolished, it sits there now with unimaginative graffiti scrawled on its steps, grubby, obviously in need of repair. The site has undergone a two-and-a-half year cleanup of contaminants and pollutants, and a controversial Whole Foods store is set to open in 2008. While, according to Postal’s report on the Stone Company building, Whole Foods has owned it and the surrounding site since purchase in 2005, and New York City’s online property information lists Whole Foods as the owner and taxpayer, Whole Foods says both are in error.

“Whole Foods Market does not own the recently landmarked building or its corner parcel at Third Avenue and Third Street,” said company spokesman Fred Shank. “The owner from whom we purchased our property retained ownership of this parcel and our new store has been designed to wrap around it. We have not been in contact with the owner about the future of this property and therefore are unaware of any planned or future uses.”

Whole Foods provided the name of the lawyer for the man they say owned the building when they bought the land—a Peter S. Gilfillan in Buffalo, NY. Reached by phone, Gilfillan refused to name his client and said he had not spoken to him since Whole Foods closed on the land and had no way of getting in touch with him.

A sign for a radiator business down the street has hung on the building for some time. Calls to the business only yielded a secretary who said that the owner listed in the yellow pages, Richard Kowalski, had retired and was not reachable.

Recently, another sign has been hung on the building—garishly out of place with its cadmium yellow background and blunt advertising for N & M Demolition. A man who answered the phone there said that he was given permission by the building’s owner to hang up his sign in exchange for boarding up the building after evicting the bums and the rats living there. He refused to give the owner’s name or contact information, but said the man was “waiting to see” what to do with the building.

So a new mystery has surfaced. And while the New York and Long Island Stone Company Building has its place back in the history books, hopefully it won’t take another century to regain its stature on the block. Its curving steps are beckoning.

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Laura K. Raskin

Laura K. Raskin is a writer living in Crown Heights.