The Struggle to Save the Austin, Nichols and Co. Warehouse

This building is a piece of trash, and it should be knocked down.” – Simcha Felder, member of the New York City Council and chair of the council’s Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting and Maritime Uses

Preserving this site is important for the fabric of our community.” – Michael R. Bloomberg, Mayor of New York City

I could not distinguish this warehouse from dozens of other warehouse and factory buildings on the waterfront. It just simply doesn’t deserve it. It’s a nondescript white box of a building.” – David Yassky, member of the New York City Council

Of course it should be landmarked. It’s by Cass Gilbert, one of our great architects. You have people who absolutely know nothing making outrageous statements about the architectural value of the building.” – Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic

You can’t tell me the reason we voted it down isn’t related to the interests of the developer. This sends a chilling message to the Landmarks Preservation Commission and preservation groups.” – Tony Avella, member of the New York City Council

The quotes above are a small sample of the range of feelings evoked by the Austin, Nichols & Co. building at 184 Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The warehouse was built from 1914-1915 for its namesake, the largest importing and manufacturing wholesale grocery business in the world. Critics of the time described the building, designed by renowned architect Cass Gilbert, as an outstanding example of Egyptian Revival architecture rarely found in New York City and the United States.

Wurts Bros. Austin Nichols Building, watercolor perspective rendering, dated 1913. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4399

Noted architects Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius identified this type of building as the stimulus for the development of European modernism.

Wurts Bros. North 3rd Street. Austin Nichols Co. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4502

The warehouse utilized piers, railway tracks, freight elevators, conveyor belts, and pneumatic tubes for the production of foodstuffs under the Sunbeam Foods label.

Wurts Bros. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Austin-Nichols and Co., control and motor to refrigerator plant. ca. 1916. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4936

Wurts Bros. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Austin-Nichols and Co., peanut butter machines. ca. 1916. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4935

Wurts Bros. Austin-Nichols and Co., coffee roasting department. ca. 1916. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4937

The building remained the headquarters for Austin, Nichols & Co. until the late 1950s. The building was acquired by 184 Kent Avenue Associates in 1986 and rented to residential and commercial tenants. In 2004, the building’s owners submitted a proposal to the Board of Standards and Appeals to construct a rooftop addition and transform the 72-unit building into 256 condos. This would have drastically altered the building’s appearance. The Landmarks Preservation Committee (LPC) subsequently held a public meeting and deliberated over possible landmark status for the warehouse, which would negate the owners’ plans for the building.

At the public meeting  held on July 26, 2005, 27 people, including representatives from the Cass Gilbert Society, McCarren Park Conservancy, Municipal Art Society, and New York Landmarks Conservancy, spoke in favor of the landmark designation. In addition, the LPC received over 500 postcards in support of the designation, mostly from Williamsburg residents. Architectural historians Andrew S. Dolkart, Sharon Irish, Sarah Bradford Landau, and Robert A. M. Stern also wrote letters to the LPC endorsing the landmark status. The LPC also heard statements in opposition to the designation, from representatives of the building’s owners and councilman David Yassky.

Two months later, the LPC designated the Austin, Nichols & Co. warehouse a landmark. But on November 29, 2005, the New York City Council took a rare step in reversing the LPC’s designation. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg vetoed the council’s reversal, but the council voted to override the veto.

Cass Gilbert is perhaps best known for designing the Woolworth Building. When the building opened in 1913, it was the tallest skyscraper in the world. The LPC designated that building a landmark in 1983.

Wurts Bros. 233 Broadway. Woolworth Building, final view. ca. 1914. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10817

In addition to the Woolworth Building, Gilbert designed other NYC landmarks. His first design in New York City was the Broadway Chambers Building in TriBeCa, built from 1899 to 1900. The LPC designated this office building a landmark in 1992.

Wurts Bros. Broadway and Chambers Street. Broadway Chambers Building. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.4846

In 1899, 20 architectural firms competed to design the United States Custom House in Lower Manhattan, but Gilbert won the commission. It was completed in 1907 and designated a landmark in 1965.

Wurts Bros. Bowling Green. New York U.S. Custom House, general exterior from N.W. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.746

The West Street Building was also completed in 1907, and designated a landmark in 1998.

Wurts Bros. West Street between Albany Street and Cedar Street. West Street Building, finished view. ca. 1905. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.741

The New York Life Insurance Company Building, just north of Madison Square, was built from 1926-1928 and designated a landmark in 2000.

Wurts Bros. Madison Avenue between 26th and 27th Street. New York Life Insurance Building, view looking S.E. from N.W. corner of 28th Street, with foundation of new building in foreground. 1961. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.10170

Not all of Gilbert’s buildings have fared so well, however. The Westchester Avenue railroad station, built in 1908 to serve the old New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company, is on the New York Landmark Conservancy’s list of endangered buildings.

Wurts Bros. Westchester Avenue Station, N.Y., N.H. and H.R.R. ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.1842

And what of the Austin, Nichols & Co. building? Surprisingly, the council’s decision was not the last word on the fate of the warehouse. Shortly thereafter, the owners sold the property to 184 Kent Fee LLC, which then donated a historic preservation deed of easement to the Trust for Architectural Easements. In return for the donation, the new owners qualified for the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentive Program. The Austin, Nichols & Co. building continues to function as rental residences, but thanks to the donation, its height and shape will be preserved in perpetuity.

During the month of May, we’ll be posting more entries on historic preservation in the city. The Museum of the City of New York is competing for a $250,000 grant from Partners in Preservation, a joint program sponsored by American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The winner is determined by popular vote, and individuals may vote once a day through May 21st. Please help us by going to http://www.helpmcny.com/ and voting today.

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