Big Deal: Jehovah’s Witnesses List Prime Properties

The New York Times/September 19, 2011

As the Jehovah's Witnesses prepare to move their headquarters out of Brooklyn, where their Watchtower sign has long been a fixture of the cityscape, they are selling two town houses, two brownstones and a carriage house on prime Brooklyn Heights blocks.

The five properties, with combined asking prices of $18.8 million, are going on the market this weekend. They join three that went up for sale a few weeks ago, and are also among 35 borough properties that have housed staff members and hosted out-of-town guests for more than a century. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the legal and publishing entity of the Jehovah's Witnesses, has bought a 250-acre forested plot in Warwick, N.Y., a small town on the New Jersey border, and is moving ahead with plans to build a self-contained campus there.

The group is still awaiting final approval and permits for its plans in Warwick. But it has been selling properties scattered around Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo.

After an initial wave of sales — including 360 Furman Street, now the luxury waterfront condo One Brooklyn Bridge Park — the group waited out the market tumult before listing the eight properties, according to Richard Devine, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses who handles property management.

The Jehovah's Witnesses opened their world headquarters in Brooklyn in 1909, after moving from Allegheny, Pa. They chose the borough because of its proximity to both the shipping hub of the country and the New York publishing industry, where they would produce and distribute their Watchtower magazine and Bible-based literature.

"Brooklyn was known as the city of churches," Mr. Devine said. "It was a center for progressive religious thought, and it seemed the right location. It did serve us well for a long, long time, but we've grown."

In 2004, before putting the residential properties on the market, the denomination moved its printing plant out of the city to Wallkill, N.Y., to reduce costs; Mr. Devine said group members believed they could operate much more efficiently with a headquarters in one campus.

The five residences going on the market this weekend are listed with the Corcoran Group. One of them, a carriage house built in the late 1800s on Columbia Heights, is currently configured as two apartments and has a four-car garage. It has an asking price of $4.5 million. The town houses are on Willow and Orange Streets, and the brownstones on Remsen and Willow Streets. Ellen Newman of Corcoran, who is a co-broker on the listings with Lisa Detwiler, said it was highly unusual to see a portfolio of so many properties in Brooklyn Heights go on the market all at once.

The other three properties, also in Brooklyn Heights, are listed with Massey Knakal Realty Services. Two are on Columbia Heights: a 13-unit apartment building with an asking price of $7.65 million, and a seven-unit building with an asking price of $3.45 million. The third, a 20-unit building on Orange Street, has an asking price of $7.35 million.

Brokers from both firms said they were struck by the pristine condition of the buildings, many of them dating to the mid-1800s and early 1900s.

"Their properties compared to others I've seen are meticulously maintained," said Robert A. Knakal, the chairman of Massey Knakal. "They are very effective managers and pay great attention to detail."

Mr. Devine said it was still too early to say when the move would be complete — and when or if the Watchtower sign that comes into view as one crosses the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan might come down.

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