A Short Film Pays Homage to a Gowanus Landmark
In his 20-minute documentary, filmmaker Max Kutner explores the past, present and future of the Coignet building.
If you've ever driven or biked Third Avenue in Gowanus in recent years, chances are you came across the Coignet building. Standing proud on the corner of Third Avenue and Third Street, the landmarked stone structure is directly adjacent to the lot where Whole Foods is currently building its new Brooklyn location. The historic little building is impossible to miss and guaranteed to stoke curiosity.
Filmmaker Max Kutner tries to sate some of this curiosity with his short documentary, At the Corner of 3rd and 3rd. The doc, which will screen next Friday, Sept. 20, at the Greenpoint Film Festival, is a 20-minute account of the building's history — and its uncertain future. For more details, visit Kutner's site or check out the trailer. In the meantime, read our interview with Kutner about the building.
Do you live in Gowanus?
I don't live in Gowanus, but I interned there in 2009 for a summer. I was living in Greenpoint while making the film, a neighborhood that is similar to Gowanus with its post-industrial character, toxic waterway and recent gentrification. I now live uptown in Morningside Heights.
When did you first come across the Coignet building? What were your first impressions?
I first came across the Coignet building in 2009 when interning for Rooftop Films in the Old American Can Factory across the street. My very first impression was that the area was a dump. I used to walk down Fourth Avenue instead of Third Avenue because Fourth was more populated and felt safer. The Coignet building had advertisements for a demolition company on it and the lot behind it was abandoned and covered in weeds. It was years before I knew what was beyond Third and Third, which felt like the edge of the world.
Why did you decide to make a documentary about the building?
After interning in Gowanus I would come across pictures or articles about the building from time to time and noticed that there seemed to be no consensus about its history. Most people didn't know its name or when it was built. I did some research and learned that it was a historic landmark and had been mostly abandoned since the 1960s. I also learned that Whole Foods was constructing a market on the vacant lot behind it and realized that I had to tell that building's story before it changed dramatically.
Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Coignet? Why was it originally built?
The building was constructed in 1873 at a time when that area of Brooklyn was becoming industrialized. The Gowanus Canal had just been formed out of an existing creek and factories were starting to pop up along its banks. Edwin Litchfield owned the building, as well as much of the neighborhood, and leased it to the New York and Long Island Coignet Stone Company, a concrete manufacturer. The Coignet company used the building as an office and model of what could be done with their product, which they made in adjacent factories and shipped down the canal. The Coignet company went bankrupt after only a few years and Litchfield's real estate firm used the building as their office until the 1960s. By then the canal had become toxic and was no longer used because, thanks to Robert Moses and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, shipping shifted from boats to trucks. The area started to become post-industrial. The building, which is believed to be the oldest existing concrete building in New York City, has mostly been abandoned since the 1960s, except for a few years as the Pippin Radiator Company.
When the lot owner, Richard Kowalski, sold that corner plot to Whole Foods, he didn't include the Coignet Building. Do you know why?
That's a mystery to me. He probably wanted to make as much money out of the deal as he could. So maybe he waited until Whole Foods generated buzz and then put it on sale this past January. Notably, the Landmarks Preservation Commission had to authorize that sale since they had to reduce the historic building's plot.
Do you know if the building is getting much interest from buyers?
The building is still listed on the real estate agent's website, Massey Knakal, and I haven't heard that it's been sold. When the building first went on the market, the real estate agents declined to participate in my film but said that they had already received offers on the property.
What kind of person or business do you hope buys the building?
One resident I interview in the film says she wishes it could be a museum for the neighborhood, paid for by Whole Foods. That would be great, but it's highly improbable. I want to see something there that preserves the industrial and post-industrial character of the neighborhood, which many new businesses have done. I would much rather it become an artists' space or a small independent café than a TD Bank or a Starbucks. Giving one floor of the building to a historical, cultural group and the other floor to independent retail would be great, which is what was done along the Red Hook waterfront.