Architecture June 2010

Ghosts of New York

At the turn of the last century, New York City was home to a remarkable flowering of architectural creativity. All across the city, immigrant craftsmen, mostly anonymous, created exuberant works of art out of terra cotta and the humble stone of tenements and rowhouses—art that ennobled the public and enlivened the streets in a vibrant new way. Now, as a very different era dawns in New York, the only major public collection of this work is about to be scattered to private bidders around the world.

The heart of the Brooklyn Museum’s architectural-sculpture collection dates roughly from 1880 to 1910—an era when New York, proclaiming its ascension as the nation’s preeminent city, could scarcely contain the architectural expression of its economic might. As Henry James wrote of a 1905 visit:

The real appeal, unmistakably, is in that note of vehemence in the local life … for it is the appeal of a particular type of dauntless power. The aspect the power wears then is indescribable; it is the power of the most extravagant of cities, rejoicing, as with the voice of the morning, in its might, its fortune, its unsurpassable conditions.

Although the city displayed what James called “the candor of its avidity” most spectacularly in its skyscrapers, mansions, and civic palaces, its restless energy was evident too in the construction of more-common buildings, like the countless tenements built to meet the surge of immigrants. In the late 1870s, the Third and Ninth Avenue elevated train lines were extended to northern Manhattan, initiating a building boom. In keeping with the Victorian passion for adornment, new brownstone rowhouses and tenements were typically decorated with carvings or castings, giving a surface sumptuousness even to homes with humble interiors.

The architects who designed facade ornamentation often relied on popular handbooks for traditional styles, like the classical or Gothic. But many architects simply wrote the word carving in their plans where embellishment was required. Consequently, as the art historian Frederick Fried observed, “the fancies of the carver, sometimes influenced by the liquid he had taken, went wild.”

The carvers were English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants, joined by Germans and Italians. Given license to express themselves, they sculpted eccentric keystone portraits—workers with comically bandaged faces, poets, a man thumbing his nose at his neighbors—and fanciful grotesques. Karp surmises that the carvers based their art on each other, on their sweethearts, and on other New York characters. Their work amounted to a distinctly American artistic expression.

But incising one’s imagination into stone took time, and New York has always been a city in a hurry. By about 1917, advances in mechanical stone-cutting and sleeker building designs brought this brief flowering of American stone-carving to an end.

By the time the wrecking ball began leveling block after block of postwar New York, serendipitously depositing the angel’s head at Karp’s feet, the city’s architectural aesthetic had changed. The boldly corporate, man-in-the-gray-flannel-suit New York of the 1950s and early ’60s adhered to the “less is more” approach advanced by Modernists like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and popularized by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson in their hugely influential book, The International Style—an entire chapter of which was devoted to “the avoidance of applied decoration.”

As New York adopted European Modernism’s functional aesthetic, the city came to be dominated by sleek glass-and-steel International Style office buildings. For residential buildings, too, applied ornament was rejected. High-rise boxes, typically clad in glazed white brick, were the order of the day. As Buechner put it when the sculpture garden was inaugurated: “Unlike the disappearing city represented in this Garden, our city is being extruded, rolled out and poured into blank-faced forms. The imprint of the individual has been eliminated and the chances are that no architectural ornament from 1966 will come to rest here because nobody is making any … We live in a time of the clean line, the metaphysical proportion, the very, very empty space.”

Over the past half century, Ivan Karp has fretted over the carvings and castings behind the Brooklyn Museum. When the Warburg sculpture garden was disassembled in 2000, he was blindsided. It was “a serious jolt,” Karp told me last July when I visited him at his summer home in Charlotteville, New York. “All my passionate convictions and all the strength and energy that I put into doing this was basically so that there would be a repository for future generations.”

Largely out of concern for the unsheltered objects in the museum’s original garden, Karp, in 1985, founded the Anonymous Arts Museum, in Charlotteville. It’s a jewel box of about 150 artifacts, the density of the installation providing a far more powerful experience for the visitor than does the sparser display in Brooklyn.

Shuffling among his museum’s keystones, Karp, a stooped, intense man whose weathered head is ornamented with a fringe of gray hair, seemed to swell with vigor and pride. “She looks Persian,” he said of a regal visage carved into a brownstone frieze garlanded with leaves and birds. “She’s absolutely beautiful, and she’s absolutely a queen.” Poking the bushy brownstone mustache of another with his cane, he declared, “This guy is Gallic. He could be someone that Caesar came in conflict with.” And stopping at a third, whose eyes seemed to pop from their sockets, he observed that the carver had sculpted lumps in the pupils to make them more expressive. “The bridge of time is very poignant,” he told me. “I think about the immigrants who came over and did this carving work, and I meet them across time.”

By 2007, Karp had become so frustrated with the way many of the Brooklyn Museum’s ornaments were being treated that he wrote to the director, Arnold Lehman, offering to transport them to his own museum. Lehman explained that the Brooklyn Museum had selected close to 200 more artifacts to install in the sculpture garden, and was determining which of these had been donated by Karp and his wife or by Karp’s group. “We would be willing to consider the opportunity to return any of the objects that are not among this chosen group,” Lehman wrote. That letter, dated October 31, 2007, is the last Karp has heard from the museum.

Presented by

John Freeman Gill has written often about historic preservation for The New York Times. He is at work on a novel about architectural salvage in 1970s Manhattan.

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