Plans Aren’t Concrete, But Coignet Building Is Ready For a New Chapter

Gowanus's odd, appealing Coignet building.

Gowanus’s odd, appealing Coignet building.

The Coignet building—a classical structure executed in concrete at 360 Third Avenue in Gowanus—has had a strange allure since the day it was completed in 1873. An elegant mansion in the midst of an industrial zone, it served as both an office building and an advertisement for the material being manufactured in the factory complex behind it, deftly melding disparate elements in a fashion that passerby have long found beguiling.

But the building has languished, empty and deteriorating, for decades. Located on the edge of a vast lot that will soon be occupied by a Whole Foods, it is the lone remnant of the industrial landscape it once anchored. Now, there is a possibility that it may finally be restored and occupied, presiding not just over the neighborhood’s past, but playing a role in its future as well. The building’s owner—Richard Kowalski—has put the mansion on the market with Massey Knakal (a development first spotted by the blog Pardon Me for Asking).

Mr. Kowalski sold the lot to Whole Foods in 2005, but held onto the landmarked building, extracting a promise from Whole Foods to restore the building’s exterior (the interior also needs to be gut renovated). It was a strange compromise. Without it, the structure would more than likely have continued to deteriorate (and Whole Foods has since replaced the roof), but the buffer of approximately five feet on the two non-corner sides mean that the building will be dwarfed by the supermarket. It is also unclear why Whole Foods, given that the company is responsible for expensive exterior work, didn’t buy the building along with the rest of the lot.

The owner is looking to lease or sell the building, but prefers to secure a long-term lease, according to Massey Knakal broker James Singleton, who has the listing with SVP of sales Kenneth Freeman. The lot is zoned light industrial and provides 2,000-square feet above ground as well as a 1,000-square-foot cellar (while cellars are not usually counted in a building’s square footage, Mr. Singleton said that this one has windows and nine-and-a-half foot ceilings and is thus usable space). The tenant and/or owner would be responsible for making all necessary repairs to the building’s interior.

There is no list price, just a request for proposals, and Mr. Singleton suggested that the owner will only sell for a persuasive offer—i.e., more than $3 million. As for leasing, he told The Observer that an offer of $30 a square foot, which included the cellar space, was rejected by the owner. In other words, the owner wants to get more than $7,500 a month for the building.

Mr. Singleton said that he and Mr. Freeman have been fielding calls from interested parties since the listing went live. Located in a the middle of a thoroughfare undergoing a somewhat reluctant renaissance, the neighborhood that was best known as a Superfund site for many years is now attracting twee boutiques, specialty bars and foodies who flock to slurp down oysters at Littleneck Clam Shack.

The Coignet building is made of  Beton Coignet, a type of concrete patented in France during the 1850s. It originally housed the offices of the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company. Building components could be prefabricated using molds, making it much cheaper than carved stone (not unlike Forest City Ratner’s modular towers at Atlantic Yards.) While its exterior was mucked up years ago with faux brickwork, the building maintains a massive, poured-in-place concrete foundation as well as reinforced concrete floors. The property also includes a 750 sq. ft. dock space on the Gowanus Canal next to the 3rd Avenue bridge.

After the stone company left, the building housed the Brooklyn Improvement Company. But even when in use, the building always maintained a romantically forlorn air. As architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote in 1952:  “In the midst of this emptiness, the Brooklyn Improvement Company, whatever that may be, occupies a classic stucco mansion, standing at the corner of Third Street and Third Avenue in ironic solitude – or should we say hopeful anticipation.”

Hopeful anticipation is a good way to describe the building’s current mood. If anyone is willing to pay a price that can please Mr. Kowalski, then 360 Third Avenue will once again have an occupant. In any event, it will soon have a neighbor—Whole Foods is poised to open this fall.

kvelsey@observer.com