50 Favorite Places #7
Even at its most ruined, the Coignet building was striking. And also strange: marooned on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street, facing the former American Can factory complex and a fenced-off Verizon lot and, these days, bumping up against Whole Foods, it has always projected faded elegance. It’s like an aging dowager fallen on hard times, querulous and irrelevant and no doubt an incorrigible reactionary, but dangling the promise of interesting stories (some of which might even be true).
For years, I assumed the boarded-up building with the Italianate facade had once been a grand mansion, the seat of the Coignet family. I imagined the Coignets hobnobbing with the Litchfields and the Pratts and the rest of Brooklyn’s Gilded Age elite.
But that’s not the history of this building at all. There was no Coignet family in Brooklyn, and the building on the southwest corner of Third and Third was never a residence. It was built in 1872-73 as the headquarters of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company – “Coignet” being the trade name for a type of concrete molded into blocks and architectural details that looked uncannily like stone. It was the invention of one Francois Coignet in France, introduced to the world at the 1855 Paris Exhibition and brought to the United States a decade later by two Brooklynites, Quincy Adams Gilmore and John C. Goodridge, Jr., who formed the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company and set up a manufacturing operation at what is now Smith St. and Hamilton Av. in Carroll Gardens (close to the Smith/9th station).
For a time, their Coignet stone was a hit. It’s what many “brownstones” were actually built from. It was used to form the arches of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It went into the original buildings of the Metropolitan Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. The ornate detail of Prospect Park’s Cleft Ridge Span? Coignet stone.
The company’s grand new headquarters was, naturally, built entirely of Coignet stone. Conceived as a way to showcase the beauty and versatility of Gilmore and Goodridge’s product to the wealthy property owners, developers and civic leaders who were their target customers, the building was always an oddity: a robber baron-worthy palace that would have fit right in on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, standing by itself alongside the Gowanus Canal with “nothing but wooden sheds and fences to contrast with it,” according to a contemporary reporter for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Not so different from today, then.
But despite the advertising value of the new building, the popularity of Coignet stone tanked as quickly and dramatically as it had risen. (Perhaps its very efficiency – the Coignet Stone Company could turn out the fronts of ten townhouses in a day, at a fraction of the cost of traditional stone-cutting methods – made it unappealing in an era of conspicuous consumption and ostentatious luxury?) Shortly after the Coignet Building was completed, the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company filed for bankruptcy and sold off its patents. Goodridge – a concrete man to the end – reorganized the business into the New York Stone Contracting Company, serving mainly industrial customers.
By 1882, the successor company was also bankrupt, and its Gowanus factory and headquarters buildings reverted to the owner of the land on which they stood, none other than Edwin Clark Litchfield. Litchfield was the railroad magnate who lobbied for and eventually developed the Gowanus Canal and, at one time, owned pretty much the entirety of what is now Park Slope. He turned the former Coignet Building into the main office of his own Brooklyn Improvement Company.
So while my imagined relationship between the (nonexistent) Coignets and the (extremely existent) Litchfields was wildly inaccurate, there was in fact a Coignet-Litchfield connection. According to one widespread rumor, the connection was physical, in the form of a tunnel between the Coignet Building and Litchfield Villa, six long avenue blocks away. I will say that the notion of such a tunnel never made sense to me; why would a Gilded Age tycoon slink through a narrow, dark passage when they could just call for their carriage? And in fact, no one has ever found a trace of anything resembling a tunnel on either the Litchfield Villa or the Coignet Building end.
I’m evidently not the only one with an overactive imagination.
When the Brooklyn Improvement Company dissolved in 1957, the Coignet Building began its long decline. Commercial tenants came and went. Someone covered the Coignet stone facade with red brick. Eventually, the building was abandoned entirely.
Fast forward to 2005, and enter Whole Foods. Lusting after that affluent brownstone Brooklyn market, Whole Foods was drawn (for reasons I still find hard to fathom) to a brownfield parcel on the banks of the Gowanus, at Third Avenue and Third Street. Negotiations over the site’s development went on for many years – for the better part of a decade, in fact, through the real estate boom and then its bust and the financial crisis that followed – and touched on many things, of which the fate of the Coignet Building, while hardly the most important, was one. In a victory for historic preservationists, the grocery chain agreed not just to not demolish or alter the building, but also to restore it.
Then: nothing. This was the period when I came to know the Coignet Building. Its windows were boarded up, its steps and banisters crumbling, its doorways and other crevices filled with an accumulation of wind-blown trash. But I admired its proportions and its red brick exterior, and enjoyed checking to see if any new or interesting graffiti or political posters had been slapped up on the plywood over its entrances.
That’s how it looked during the long construction delays. That’s how it looked when construction finally began in 2012. And that’s how it looked when Whole Foods opened in 2013 – except now, a building always characterized by splendid isolation was hugged tightly on two sides by its massive new neighbor.
Historical preservationists said “ahem” and probably a few stronger things; the city levied some rather modest fines; and after a few feints and delays and more outrage and more fines, Whole Foods kept its promise. By 2016, its original Coignet stone shining, the building was looking better than it had looked in a century.
(Can I confess something more than a little embarrassing here? As fond as I was of the building, I knew nothing of its history, and I kind of liked the brick exterior. When I saw all that concrete, practically glowing white, my first reaction was, “Goddamn Whole Foods! They destroyed a beautiful building with their hack restoration job. Motherfuckers!”)
More than three years later, the building is still unoccupied. It’s for sale, though, as you can see in the photo at the top of this post. If interested, call Erica or Vanessa at the Corcoran Group.