Kentile Sign, a Place that Matters
March 4th, 2010, 4:55 pm
Place Matters is a joint project of City Lore and MAS.
The Kentile Sign along the Gowanus Canal was nominated to the Census of Places that Matter for serving as a symbol of Gowanus’ industrial heritage and for being a remnant of this former Brooklyn business. Highly visible from the both the Gowanus Expressway and the F train, this 8-story-high sign dominates the Gowanus skyline even though Kentile Floors left Brooklyn in the late 1980s and the sign’s neon purple letters are no longer illuminated.
Founded in 1898 by Arthur Kennedy (hence the name, Kentile), the company had factories in both Queens and Long Island before building a new plant on 2nd Avenue along the Gowanus Canal in 1949. The iconic “Kentile Floors” sign was likely erected at this time. Kentile specialized in vinyl and asphalt floor covering that featured bold colors and patterns.
In the post war period, Kentile’s business boomed as Americans expanded into newly-constructed suburban homes. Ads from the 1950s in national magazines such as Popular Science and Life marketed Kentile flooring to the American suburban housewife and encouraged them to save money by installing their own flooring. In these ads, typical housewives, like “Mrs. Richard Lansing” and “Mrs. William A. Loock, Jr.,” demonstrate how they easily installed Kentile flooring with the help of only the instruction booklet.
The Kentile factory in Gowanus employed over 400 people at its peak in the 1960s. However, many of the company’s floor tiles included asbestos, and this led to the company’s eventual demise. Kentile originally celebrated its vinyl asbestos tiles, bragging that they “won’t scuff” and were “greaseproof” and “a dream to clean.” Growing research on the carcinogenic dangers of asbestos resulted in Kentile phasing out the use of the material by 1986, but this did not stop asbestos lawsuits from financially ruining the company. Kentile filed for bankruptcy in 1992 and ceased all business operations a few years later. Today, the Kentile building is occupied by several different manufacturing businesses, and the sign remains a beloved part of Brooklyn’s industrial heritage.
The Kentile Sign was nominated to the Census of Places that Matter through the History Happened Here conference held in 1996. The enthusiasm generated at this event led City Lore and MAS to jointly establish the Place Matters project in 1998 to explore a variety of ways to promote and advocate for culturally important places.
To read more about the Kentile Sign, log on to Place Matters. Please tell your friends about these places of history, memory, and culture and invite them to join the Place Matters e-mail list. To read MAS’ statement on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund designation of the Gowanus Canal, click here.