Skyline shocker! No sign can replace ‘Watchtower,’ because it was illegal all along, officials claim

Sign of change: Rendering shows new letters atop old Watchtower building in Bklyn Heights
Columbia Heights Associates

The new owners of the former Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters in Brooklyn Heights can not hang another sign atop the building where the iconic Watchtower letters once floated — and must remove the flashing time and temperature display that still remains — because the signage was never legal for the decades it hovered above the borough, according to some city officials.

Department of Buildings bigwigs denied developer conglomerate Columbia Heights Associates’s application to erect a new sign on the still-standing framework on top of the 30 Columbia Heights complex, which the builders bought in 2016, because they claimed honchos at E.R. Squibb and Sons, the original occupant, failed to obtain the proper permits for the Squibb sign they hung there in 1961, and that the Witnesses followed suit, illegally installing their Watchtower
characters in 1970.

“When the sign was erected in 1961, Squibb, the owner of the property at that time, did not obtain the necessary permits, so the signs have never been legal,” said an agency spokeswoman.

And even if the signs of the past were permitted, changes to the area’s zoning regulations made the same year Squibb brass erected their moniker now forbid such structures from crowning buildings in the neighborhood, the spokeswoman said.

Workers tore the Witnesses’ 15-foot neon-red letters from the framework last December, months after Columbia Heights Associates — now a two-firm partnership between builders Livwrk and CIM Group after President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his family’s Kushner Companies divested their stakes in June — filed an application in March 2017 to replace the Watchtower sign with its own “30 CH” moniker.

The Buildings Department rejected that application because it was incomplete, according to a spokeswoman, but the developer conglomerate earlier this year suggested it hadn’t given up its desire to make a mark on the neighborhood’s skyline when it debuted a website for the swanky office-and-retail complex it is constructing inside the religious group’s former headquarters — which it rechristened as “Panorama” — that featured a rendering depicting neon-red letters spelling that name atop the structure.

And Columbia Heights Associates leaders are fighting the agency’s ruling with the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals, before which their attorney argued that it’s plausible an original occupant acquired a permit for the first Squibb sign that the department may have lost because its records were not kept as meticulously then as they are now — especially since some documents suggest the earlier owners asked for permission to put up the signage.

“Fifty-six years after its installation, the Department of Buildings has made the extraordinary determination that the sign has been illegal for that entire period,” lawyer David Karnovsky said during the Aug. 7 hearing. “A reasonable and logical inference can be drawn that a permit was issued at that time — especially dating back to 1961, for which there are unlikely to be complete records.”

Plus, zoning laws aside, the fact that the Watchtower sign and its predecessor stood for so long that they became synonymous with the Brooklyn Heights skyline should be reason enough to allow a third to take their place, Karnovsky told the board.

“For decades, this sign in a highly visible location, adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge, was an iconic presence in the skyline,” he said. “It was one of the city’s most-prominent and recognizable displays.”

The board is reviewing the appeal, and will reconvene to continue the hearing on Oct. 23, according to a spokesman.

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Gone: The old Watchtower letters.
Photo by Paul Martinka