The fight to preserve Gowanus’ historic buildings and industrial heritage has been going on for many years. But it accelerated in January, when the city unveiled a draft rezoning proposal for the neighborhood that would bring significant residential and commercial developments to the area, not to mention some 20,000 new residents. Pressure mounted for local residents to act fast if they were to protect the history and legacy of their home.
Since then, local activists and community groups have voiced deep concerns about neighborhood rezoning. The Draft Scope of Work details the projected loss of industrial, warehouse, and self-storage spaces in the areas surrounding the Gowanus Canal. Some residents are also troubled by new building height restrictions, which permits certain buildings to top out at 22 and 30 stories. Others argue that the cleanup of the polluted Gowanus Canal should be higher on the priority list, and if not addressed, new development sites would only continue to re-pollute the water.
One of the main concerns, meanwhile, is the preservation of certain historic buildings and sites. And one that seems to garner particular care and affection is what is known as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Rogers Memorial Building at 233 Butler Street.
The century-old building is one of many historic buildings and sites in Gowanus that have been backed for preservation. Back in June, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission formally “calendared” five sites, including the Butler Street building, after a huge push from the newly formed Gowanus Landmarking Coalition and other groups. Calendaring is the first formal step in the designation process, which means that the Commission “makes official its intent to consider a building or district for landmark status by voting to add a public hearing date to its public meeting calendar,” according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. The five were selected among a list of 15 sites that the Coalition had previously proposed for individual landmark designation.
The former ASPCA building has a particularly interesting history. From one of the world’s largest animal shelters to a hi-fi record bar and vegan café, the Butler Street building has served the community and residents of Gowanus for more than 100 years. In many ways, the Neo-Romanesque building — featuring a classical arched brick entrance with limestone trim and an original ASPCA seal above the doorway — is representative of the neighborhood’s rich history, and exemplifies the Gowanus character that the community is working hard to maintain.
Designed by architect firm Renwick, Aspinwall & Tucker and completed in 1913, the building served as the ASPCA headquarters in Brooklyn until 1979. The ASPCA, founded by philanthropist Henry Bergh, was the first animal-welfare organization in the country and second in the world. The organization had been headquartered in New York since 1866, but the large Gowanus building operated as its Brooklyn chapter. Throughout its history, the ASPCA is often credited with leading the anti-animal cruelty movement among Americans. At one point, the building was “hailed as the largest, most complete shelter in the world,” according to the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Largely funded by the philanthropic Schermerhorn and Bowdoin families, a granite horse trough donated by Edith Bowdoin still stands in front of the building today, “one of hundreds installed by anti-cruelty advocates throughout New York City to provide horses and smaller animals with fresh drinking water.”
In the mid-1980s, the building was bought by Steve Uhrik and Larry Trupiano. There, Uhrik owned a guitar shop, RetroFret Vintage Guitras, while Trupiano operated a pipe organ business. The pair was soon joined by John Klauder, who also ran a pipe organ business. Over the years, other tenants ran independent businesses for brief periods in the garage space, too.
Klauder recalls stories of how people would sometimes leave their animals in front of the building. “For years, people brought animals to us,” he said, perhaps because they assumed the ASPCA was still there. “Occasionally we would find animals abandoned at the door.”
He added, “One of the ones we kept was a pit bull that’d been badly injured in a fight, and someone tied it to our door, and it really became a wonderful pet for us.”
Back then, the area surrounding the building was rampant with drug dealing and prostitution. He said, “I came to work one morning, there was someone there, laying in our stoop, with a syringe still in their arm nodding out.”
The sidewalk was often littered with crack vial caps, which prompted Klauder to start a hobby of his own. “The caps were distinctive,” he said. “So I started a collection of crack vial caps that were laying on a sidewalk in front of the building. And then I thought to myself, this might not be the wisest thing to collect. So I gave it up.”
Klauder, along with Uhrik and Trupiano, moved their businesses out of the building two years ago when it was bought for $9.5 million by MacArthur Holdings, a real estate developer. However, he maintains fond memories and an emotional connection to the building, and ultimately hopes that it can be retained. For him, the building represents an impressive endeavor on the ASPCA’s part. “I perceive that as the original origin of the animal rights protection movement right there,” he said.
At the end of the day, he believes there are many historic sites in Gowanus — including the Butler Street building — that are not only worth preserving but should be cherished. “I do think that’s a value that in retaining and having a respect for our history,” he said. “If anything, it should serve as a comfort to people who live there, and to acknowledge that there was a history to glass box buildings, and that there was a history prior to the modern buildings, and this is a most significant building that was an acknowledgement of a significant movement, and still is.”
Currently, the building houses Public Records, a hi-fi record bar, a sound room, and a vegan restaurant that opened in March. The space is open all day, and allows visitors to come in to work or grab a drink. As an ode to its history as an ASPCA building, Public Records only serve vegan cuisine. “The history of the building informs the brand,” said Shane Davis, one of Public Records’ three co-founders.
At the Commission’s public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 24, many long-time residents of Gowanus and representatives of landmark advocacy groups — including the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, the New York Landmark Conservacy, the Historic Districts Council, Park Slope Civic Council, and Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus — spoke in favor of protecting 233 Butler Street, along with four other historic sites that are being considered for designation.
The owners of the building, MacArthur Holdings, say they are supportive of the steps taken by the community, as well as the Commission, to ensure its preservation and potential landmark status. They were represented by attorney Frank Chaney, who specializes in land-use matters and is also a professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. Chaney said that the owners have worked hard to preserve the building’s historic and architectural character while simultaneously modernizing it into a 21st century business.
“MacArthur acquired 233 Butler two years ago, and since then have undertaken a careful and, one might even say, affectionate, rehab of the building,” Chaney said. MacArthur Holdings’ portfolio includes over 80 projects in New York, including the landmarked 90-year-old Beacon Theatre in Manhattan.
Brad Vogel, co-founder of the Gowanus Landmarking Coalition, spoke to the concerns of Gowanus residents who feel the city is not doing enough to protect the neighborhood. “This collection of buildings ensures that Gowanus, even in the face of drastic change, will have at least a few anchors to hint at its past identities,” he said. For Vogel, the five buildings are only a small number of sites in Gowanus that are worth preserving. However, he is heartened by the Commission’s decision to calendar these buildings prior to the rezoning, he said, and believes that it’s a good start.
Andrea Goldman of the New York Landmark Conservancy, however, voiced her disappointment with the Commission for not considering more sites. “We were disappointed that so few buildings were being heard. In an area with hundreds of unprotected sites, five isn’t sufficient. Our staff surveyed the area and found some 16 that we felt merited individual designation,” she said. She hopes the Commission will “go back and consider additional sites.”
Following the public hearing, the Commission will vote at a later date, according to the Commission’s Director of Communications Zodet Negrón. If the majority of Commissioners vote to approve the proposal, landmark designation is effective. After that, the City Council has 120 days to modify or disapprove the designation.