Midwood’s Vitagraph Smokestack, Part Of Historic Movie Studio Complex, Could Be Torn Down After $20 Million Sale

Scaffolding went up last week. (Source: Lisanne Anderson)
Scaffolding went up last week. (Source: Lisanne Anderson)

Neighbors are raising the alarm over potential plans to tear down a symbol of Midwood’s movie-making history, the 107-year-old Vitagraph smokestack near East 14th Street and Avenue M.

Scaffolding now surrounds the smokestack, which still has the historic silent film company’s name on it, though no plans have been filed to indicate its fate. The appearance of scaffolding has some worried that new owners plan to demolish the structure.

Brooklyn Eagle reports:

The smokestack, at East 15th Street and Locust Avenue, is an artifact from the historic Vitagraph Studios, a silent film company founded by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith in 1897. It is now shrouded in scaffolding after permits were filed to erect a heavy duty sidewalk shed and pipe scaffold at the location.
“It is 110+ years old, and an important part of Brooklyn and film making history,” [neighbor Ellen] Levitt added. “I don’t think this is landmarked, which is a shame.”
Despite the age, passersby could clearly see the Vitagraph name embedded in the brickwork before scaffolding was erected. (Source: Lisanne Anderson)
Despite the age, passersby could clearly see the Vitagraph name embedded in the brickwork before scaffolding was erected. (Source: Lisanne Anderson)

The smokestack is part of the larger property at 1277 East 14th Street, which was most recently the site of Shulamith School for Girls. The complex became part of Warner Brothers after Vitagraph was sold in 1925.

The Encyclopedia of New York City has this on Vitagraph Studios (via Forgotten NY):

An open-air, rooftop motion picture studio, opened in 1898 by American Vitagraph in the Morse Building at 140 Nassau Street [Manhattan]. The film Burglar On The Roof was produced in the studio during its first year. In 1890 the company moved its offices to 110-16 Nassau Street and then opened a glass-enclosed studio in 1906 at 15th Street and Locust Avenue in Flatbush…
…Warner Brothers purchased American Vitagraph in 1925 and used the studio for many of its Vitaphone short subjects before closing it in 1939; it continued to produce film there even after the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) bought the studio in 1952 and began using it for color television broadcasts.

Though a portion of the sprawling complex continued to operate as a studio into the 21st Century, the more historic facility at 1277 East 14th Street was repurposed by Yeshiva University in 1967.

Attempts to landmark the smokestack itself have failed to win approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

A new petition by neighbor Melissa Friedling is making the rounds to save the smokestack.

“Prodigious and proud, the smokestack stands beautifully emblazoned with inlaid brickwork spelling out Vitagraph (visible from the Q train as you approach the Avenue M subway station),” the petition states. “We would like to make a plea for preserving it as a landmark for the the borough of Brooklyn and for cinema posterity.”

The property sold in July 2014 for $20 million. Despite using an anonymous LLC moniker, Sheepshead Bites has learned that the new owner is Hampshire Properties, a Midwood-based manager and developer of residential and commercial properties across the nation. They manage several properties in Midwood, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, among others.

Though Hampshire Properties has confirmed ownership, they did not return requests for comment on the plans.

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