To the non-New Yorkers (non-Brooklynites, really) reading this, I apologize in advance. This is a location-specific lament and farewell that I don’t expect to resonate with you. I’m writing this for myself, and for my Brooklyn neighbors—past and present.
Yesterday, workers started dismantling the Kentile Floors sign that has risen eight stories above the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus for the past 65 years. The demise of the Kentile company itself in the mid-’90s is its own story, and this isn’t about that. This is about that sign.
Seventeen years ago, I graduated from art school, got a job at a publishing company, and moved to Brooklyn. It was a love affair I tried to shake, but which was eventually rekindled. I love South Brooklyn, and for all the years I’ve lived here, the F has been my subway line—first in Cobble Hill, then in Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, then DUMBO…and then back to Cobble Hill. The F train, for all its problems, is great for me. It stops under my office building (literally—I don’t even have to go outside to get to my desk), and it’s a 7 minute walk from my apartment. It also makes stops in the West Village and on the Lower East Side! It’s my favorite train line.
Just past my stop in Brooklyn, the F train goes above ground as it approaches the Smith & 9th station, the highest point in the entire NYC transit system. It runs above the Gowanus Canal, and, if you stay on it long enough, you’ll eventually wind up in Coney Island. As someone with a tendency to fall asleep on any form of mass transit (except airplanes, annoyingly), being awakened by daylight suddenly flooding my subway car means one thing: I missed my stop. The upside of going a little too far is that I get to see the Kentile Floors sign, which is, if you pardon my many tangents, the subject of this post.
I’ve taken many, many photos of the Kentile sign (including the one at the top of this post) over the years, as has just about everyone else with a camera or phone who’s found themselves in its presence. As hyperbolic as this might sound, it’s a majestic sight. Brooklyn isn’t as tall as Manhattan (though it’s definitely getting taller), and when you look across the industrial landscape that is Gowanus, the Kentile sign lets you know you are in Brooklyn. You’re home! It’s a symbol of place. And yes, it’s beautiful—those huge slab serifs, that extended T, the steel support grid that looks like a line drawing against the sky…
The Kentile Floors sign is going away. The owner of the warehouse beneath the sign believes that doing the work necessary to ensure its stability isn’t worth the the cost, so he’s getting rid of it. The DOB issued a permit, and that was that. Fortunately, the owner has agreed to donate the sign to the Gowanus Alliance, who have pledged to find a new location for it. Fingers crossed that it’s visible from the F train.
There’s a been some talk out there over the past couple of weeks about how the upset over the demise of the Kentile sign is nothing more than some kind of forced, misguided nostalgia for a time when Brooklyn factories made asbestos tiles that killed people. You know what? That’s a bunch of nonsense. There is nostalgia involved, yes, but it’s not about the Kentile company or about a yearning for the past. It’s a very real sadness that an iconic part of the landscape of South Brooklyn is going away, and that our journeys home will never look the same. It’s an aesthetic sadness, too, as we say goodbye to more and more of these giant steel and neon beauties every year. It hurts… and the world becomes a little less beautiful. I love old signs, and I’ve been documenting them for a couple of decades now. They are everyday examples of how design relates to environment. Signage is an enormously important part of the industrial history of this country, yes, but also of the changing aesthetics of commercial design.
Later tonight, my friend Jill and I are heading over to the Smith & 9th station for one last Kentile hurrah. Creative agency Vanderbilt Republic is going to project video onto the sign (what remains of it, at least—could they really not have waited one more day?), making it appear to be illuminated one last time. They did the same thing in the spring, and Barry Yanowitz made this great video.
Goodbye, Kentile Floors sign. Thanks for welcoming me to Brooklyn so many times. I hope I get to see you again someday, even if I have to sleep through my stop to do it.
Something similar is happening along my drive home– the old clocktower of a local car dealership is being dismantled. As a kid, from my vantage point in the backseat, the ‘Ford clock’ was always a marker to show me how close we were to home. It makes me sad when old things go away.
I live in Boerum Hill, so I rarely pass it on the train, but I am going to miss it nonetheless. I weirdly love the uglier, industrial sections of Brooklyn, and this is yet another sign that that’s disappearing :(. It’s always the first thing I see when I go to Red Hook, my favorite thing to do when life gets too anxious and stressful, and it’s going to be really bizarre to see Smith-9th without it.
my sister lived in brooklyn for a time, and there was a summer i stayed with her where i saw the sign every day for five weeks as i caught the subway into the city. yeah, i have those photos too. we are headed back to NYC in september — i haven’t been since 2002 — and i was actually looking forward to seeing kentile again. alas! so there is totally someone on the other side of the world (melbourne) who will miss this beautiful sign.
Though I have never seen this sign before, I am touched by your sentimentality. The city that I live in now is constantly tearing down beautiful buildings only to replace them with ugly static monoliths. I too become attached to these monuments of industries from days past and am very sad when I can no longer pass them when I am driving along on my commute.
A similar thing happened with Melbourne’s ‘Skipping Girl’… http://www.skippinggirl.com.au …but public outcry had her restored and heritage listed…. http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2008/05/07/2238233.htm
But sadly my favourite Sydney sign visible from the train – http://www.simonfieldhouse.com/sydney-architecture/city/sharpies-golf-sign-central-sydney/ – hasn’t returned despite promises it was being refurbished. Sydney values its heritage much less than Melbourne.
Exactly the statement I was going to make – hello fellow Melbournian! 🙂 though I do live in Sydney now, I can say I don’t feel Sydney has that same charm, doesn’t hold onto those little things that gives a place it’s soul.
Paula, it might be like the Nylex sign in Melbourne. It was pulled down for AGES and when the new/ restored version went back up, it was a different sign in many respects. The proportions just aren’t the same. I know because I lived right near there and used to see it from my rooftop almost nightly.
I live in Kensington and so, as for you, the F train (and the underappreciated G – hello, Greenpoint!) is my lifeline to the neighborhoods here and in the city. And every time I take the train, I always sit just so I can see the sign. It’s always given me such comfort and inspiration. I’ve also been enamored of old signs and fonts, and it’s always such a joy to see it rise! Thanks for writing what you did – I’m so sad that I will no longer see it on my train rides, and hopefully it’s going to get resurrected somewhere amazing – where we can all come back to look at it.
Totally agree with your thoughts. I got gentrified out of 2 neighborhoods in Brooklyn many years ago although I live close by and go in at least twice a month. But the Brooklyn I left is totally different from the Brooklyn that exists today. Each time a sign like this gets taken down and old buildings are demolished, a place loses it’s soul and individual memories are erased. The F was my train, too, and I will miss seeing the Kentile sign. You can sign as many petitions as you like but developers always get what they want and the rest of us are all a little bit poorer for it.
Oh. My. GOD! We were just visiting BK last week and admired the sign as usual – next day walked alongside it to the Smith St station and saw it boarded up. We thought they must be repairing it!
Jesus H C. It’s an icon of the area, so shortsighted to take it down.
I hate change, especially when it comes to buildings and spaces. I hold such nostalgia in buildings, even buildings I have never been in. A local factory here in Grand Rapids, was always a favorite of mine to photograph, started on fire a few years ago due to a workers mistake. Although it was awesome to get to photograph it during the blaze, it was so emotional to watch the fires go out and the wrecking crew come in and take what was left.
Thank you for this, Anna–I was heartbroken to read this news in the Times this week. Seventh Avenue was my stop, so for me, seeing the Kentile Floors sign every evening coming home from work meant “it’s time to relax.” It was one of the things I missed most when we moved to Vermont. I’m so sad I won’t have that reminder of Brooklyn’s manufacturing past when next I’m on the F.
I haven’t seen this sign before, but it is disappointing to read that this sign isn’t going to be there. I liked how you mentioned that it ‘welcomed’ you. I get the same feeling when I’m taking my usual route to work and always pass a silly Italian store sign. It’s a great reminder to stay present.
As a fellow F train rider is that I’m sad to see it go. I took her for granted for so long – its hard to imagine she won’t be there anymore. I know its horribly cliche to personify a sign but it feels like a friendly neighbor who i didn’t really know but always said hello to has moved away.
very well said. totally agree.
Thanks for this post. I love to read your tangents.
I grew up in park slope and I used the F starting in 5th grade to go to school. I have always loved that sign. It definitely signaled “home” for me, and it still reminds me of a very different time in NY, when Brooklyn was most definitely not cool. I agree – I think the nostalgia for the sign has nothing at all to do with some long gone manufacturing past. It has to do with our own memories of a place and how it’s changed. I haven’t lived in NY for five years, so this news makes me especially sad.
In an urban setting, large skyline defining signs are as iconic as a distinct mountain silhouette or a coastline outcropping in more rural settings. The Citgo Sign lighting up Kenmore Square in Boston defined my childhood, and the Western Auto Sign in Kansas City and The Sante Fe railroad sign (now gone) overlooking Grant Park in Chicago hold places in my adult memory. They were markers that told me, day or night, that I was close to home. The loss of these as a visual touch point in life are worth mourning.
I only just visited New York for the first time in May, we decided to stay in Brooklyn due to having read your blog for years and feeling like if there was one place in New York I wanted to see it was Brooklyn.
We found and rented a lovely place in Carroll Gardens and it just so happens that on our first evening walk in the area this sign was one of the first things we saw. I am sad to see it’s going, its part of our fond memories from that trip and was a reminder every night we were there that we were close to (our temporary) home.
Your sentiments are echoing many others who have the same appreciation for things of classic beauty in design….love the statement about the role industrial history plays in our society through the ages. America played a huge role in the Industrial Revolution and the Kentile Floor sign is an iconic symbol that should be preserved…..along with many other examples of design in neon signs. I will be looking forward to seeing a future home for this beauty.
Sister to the one in Brooklyn, this 90’ tall, 80,000 lb. structure dominated the south side skyline for over 50 years at 4532 S. Kolin, and was owned by the Kentile Company, a popular manufacturer of floor tile.
A thing of the past, these neon monuments were littered throughout the country when times were economically different. Now the sign, as of February 27th, 2013, has become a memorable part of Chicago history. At exactly 9:06 AM the first part of the sign came loose by the hand of a welder’s torch, and descended, never to return to the Chicago skyline. Two days later, the sign wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Now the only remnant is the “K” in storage.
Anyone interested in the “K” can contact me at my email address.
Was so sad when I heard about this. =(
Just thought you should know this exists: http://www.boundlessbrooklyn.com/products/kentile-floors-model-kit
PS Just moved to NYC and it’s posts like this that get me the most excited about discovering this city. Thank you for the smile.
Hi Jessica, I actually bought one a few weeks ago:
This is David from Boundless Brooklyn (we make the Kentile Floors model kit). Wanted to thank you for the amazing Instagram pic of you holding the kit, and for this thoughtful ode. (And thanks to Jessica, from the previous post, for letting you know about our kit).
Couldn’t agree with you more about the sadness associated with losing this icon. The reality is, Kentile was a Brooklyn based and Brooklyn run. We’ve gotten a lot of thoughtful, plaintive emails from people who can’t believe that a bit of their childhood was removed as if it were an annoyance. These sentiments made us think about the great care governments take to honor and maintain numerous buildings deemed “historic,” yet removing a 50-year-old sign that held great importance to many people was brushed — and rushed — aside.
With any luck, Paul Basile and the Gowanus Alliance will have the sign erected again soon, and a beautiful, elegant piece of our history will be restored.