The Kentile Floors sign stands at the center of Brooklyn’s latest face-off between the forces of development and nostalgia, but the factory it commemorates manufactured death for decades.
The Kentile Floors factory at Ninth Street and Second Avenue started operations in 1898 and cranked out tiles containing the deadly carcinogen asbestos as early as 1949, according to the Mesothelioma Center website asbestos.com. Tile sales took off in the post-World-War-II boom years as Kentile advertised widely and developed a tile new homeowners could install themselves, according to the Center. The operation employed more than 400 workers at the company’s peak in the 1960s, according to preservationists at the Municipal Arts Society.
But asbestos, which constituted as much as a quarter of the material that went into certain tiles, came back to bite company bosses when it became synonymous with poison. Faced with a rising tide of consumer lawsuits, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and idled its machines several years later, leaving its sign as a landmark for drivers and straphangers and a muse to local artists.