Friday, October 11, 2013

Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse 184 Kent Avenue

Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse
Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse As Seen from East River
Designed in the Egyptian Revival style by Cass Gilbert, the Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse was renovated a few years ago for use as a residential building. The warehouse almost met its demise in 2010 when developers were ready to build condos in its place. Of the condo buildings along the Williamsburg waterfront, this building has the most character and is the most contextually relevant new residential development due to its historic roots within the community. The building itself, although short by comparison to the new residential high rises adjacent to the site, has a large footprint taking up an entire block. It was difficult for me to appreciate the volume of space this structure occupies until I entered the building. 

Artwork in lobby of Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse
Art in the Renovated Building's Lobby
The interior of the building has been completely modernized with a contemporary interior design and modern amenities. The interior design of the lobby includes a cavernous entry with a large art installation and a set of stairs employing clean lines and a simple but elegant tapering form. The artwork in the lobby titled "New York Times Headlines (January 1, 1969-March 18, 1975)" by A.J. Bocchino was installed as part of a collaboration between the developer and the Brooklyn arts council. The residential units look like typical luxury apartments except for the exterior walls, columns and large concrete beams, all of which help retain some of the building's original character. I found the building's wayfinding system to be a little disorienting at first, however in the brief amount of time I spent in the building moving through the space was a pleasant experience. Although it was nice to get to see the new interior of this landmark, I wish that I had been able to see the original interior architecture of the building prior to its renovation.

Rental Unit in Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse
Interior of New Residential Unit
Cass Gilbert (1839-1934), the building's architect, was an influential architect of his time. Gilbert began his architectural career in 1879 in St. Paul Minnesota and eventually rose to prominence for his design of the Minnesota State Capital which was built in 1903. Some of the other notable work in Cass Gilbert's Portfolio include: U.S. Custom House (1907), Woolworth Building (1910-1913), Brooklyn Army Terminal (1919) and the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. (1932-1935).[1] Gilbert was better known for his Gothic Revival and Beaux Arts style structures, although his two most prominent Brooklyn buildings were a departure from those styles. It would have been a little ironic had the Austin, Nichols & Co. Warehouse been torn down to build high rises since Gilbert was a proponent of high rise architecture and designed what had once been the tallest building in the world.

Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse context photo
Austin, Nichols and Co. Waterfront Context
The warehouse was almost destroyed by one developer, the Kestenbaum family, who argued that the building was an eyesore and had no historic value. Both the Landmark's Preservation Commission and the Mayor disagreed but the city council voted to override them, allowing the developer to move forward with their plan to demolish the warehouse or alternatively add more stories to the original structure. Fortunately for the building, as well as the community, the original developer sold the building immediately after the city council's vote to J.M.H. Development. J.M.H. declined to demolish the warehouse or dramatically change the exterior character of the structure and instead renovated the building while turning over preservation responsibilities to the Trust for Architectural Easements.[2] I am not sure if the Austin, Nichols & Company Warehouse was preserved due to political pressure, the economic downturn happening at the time or whether the newer developer had a different vision for the building's future but I am glad J.M.H. decided to preserve building.

1. "Cass Gilbert History - Cass Gilbert Family History" (2001-2012) Online.
2. "At an Old Warehouse, A Reversal of Fortune" (9 Januray 2009) Online. 

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