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.

But the museum has not been idle. Unbeknownst to Karp, the museum’s top American-art curator, Teresa Carbone, began discussions in December 2008 with Evan Blum, a Harlem salvage dealer, about the museum’s intention to cull its hoard of ornaments into a more “teachable” group of the best pieces. Last year, the museum and Blum agreed to develop the idea of holding public auctions. Blum, a sort of scavenger to the stars who moves with equal ease among demolition contractors and Hollywood clients, hopes to leverage the trove of deaccessioned museum pieces to help launch an ongoing auction business. At the same time, he says, he wants to help the Brooklyn Museum. “It would be too easy to take advantage of them, but I don’t want to do that,” he told me. “They don’t know what they’re doing. People will just take them for the money, then move on to the next deal, then the next deal.”

Shortly before Christmas last year, a FedEx box arrived at Blum’s salvage emporium, sent by Carbone. Blum opened the box with a razor blade, and out slid a two-inch-thick binder containing photos and descriptions of about 225 ornaments the museum was considering for auction. More than 90 were given either through Karp’s group or by Karp and his wife.

Blum flipped past an evocative sandstone carving of a child and a pelican, then admired a griffin plaque. “Ooh, that’s a nice one,” he said. “It says terra cotta, but it’s wrong; it’s a slab of sandstone.” He thought a moment, then added, “Maybe I should do a lecture, have Ivan do a lecture.”

When he finished examining the images, Blum pronounced his verdict: 20 to 30 percent of the artifacts were outstanding, and the same percentage were nice decorative pieces. “There’s never been an auction like this,” he said.

A month later, Karp greeted me at his OK Harris gallery in SoHo by showing me a passage from Don DeLillo’s period New York novel Underworld:

She stood at parapets and wondered who had worked the stones, shaped these details of the suavest nuance, chevrons and rosettes … and she thought they must have been immigrants, Italian stone carvers probably, unremembered, artists anonymous of the early century, buried in the sky.

When I told him that the Brooklyn Museum was planning to auction off so many ornaments through Blum, Karp was astonished. “If they’re deaccessioning to sell, that’s very discomfiting,” he exclaimed. “They should have offered them to me first to buy!” As it happened, Karp had phoned Blum, whom he’d known and liked for decades, just the day before. Blum had told him that he was consulting with the museum about the expansion of the sculpture garden, but he did not mention anything about auctions.

Shaking a little, Karp began to leaf through a copy of the binder the museum had sent Blum, which I had brought to the gallery. “Good grief!” he cried at the sight of a carved brownstone tenement plaque of Abraham Lincoln, which had once been a centerpiece in the sculpture garden. “That’s one of the most valuable pieces they have! It’s an historic American figure—how many like that have ever been carved by an anonymous person in homage to Lincoln? This is heartbreaking.” A moment later, after peering at a majestic red terra-cotta boy, he said, “They’re making serious blunders in many cases.”

As he inspected the images, Karp shrank into his chair, until at last, looking very old and defeated, he announced he simply couldn’t look anymore. “I’m going to write a very innocent letter,” he said quietly, “not indicating that you’ve shown me anything.” He would ask Lehman if the museum had any specific plans for an improved sculpture garden. At press time, Karp had received no response.

When Brooklyn Museum employees come through the staff entrance, they pass beneath the Coney Island zinc lion, from which an “astounding and disgusting” quantity of corrosive pigeon guano was removed last summer, according to a museum conservator. In February, I went there to visit Carbone and Kevin Stayton, the chief curator, for an update on the collection. The museum still planned to install another 200 or so ornaments, they said. But they acknowledged that the concept remained vague, and that their most ambitious time frame was to find a funding source within two years.

“What we’re focusing on now is learning a little more about the scope of the collection,” Carbone said. A documentation project was being conducted by Margaret Stenz, a part-time associate with expertise in historical American painting.

Stayton, a polite, tweedy man, explained: “There’s a growing realization that collections can be cared for better and appreciated more if the correct things become the core.” He said the earliest the curators could present their deaccession plan to the museum’s collections committee was sometime this spring. If the plan cleared the committee, and if the board of trustees approved it, Blum could hold an auction in the fall.

In 2005, the New York Public Library accepted about $35 million from the Walmart heiress Alice L. Walton for its most famous painting, Kindred Spirits. The painting, which depicts the poet-journalist William Cullen Bryant and the painter Thomas Cole atop a rocky ledge in an idealized landscape, is widely seen as symbolic of New York as an artistic and literary center. If Cole and Bryant stood at the lofty peak of the 19th-century New York art world, then the anonymous immigrants represented in the Brooklyn Museum’s fragment collection were artists of the stoop, transforming middle- and working-class neighborhoods into vibrant public art galleries. And as the museum makes plans to scatter their creations around the world, it is the vernacular city that is being lost.

For David Garrard Lowe, the author of Stanford White’s New York, the planned dispersal of the twice-forsaken sculptures is a warning signal of a world capital in slow, certain decline. When they regard the richly detailed sculptures in the museum’s collection, New Yorkers “must look back on a golden age of our city,” he said, just as they should see surviving Victorian and Beaux Arts edifices in the same light that Venetians see the palaces on the Grand Canal. And unlike when the ornaments were torn from their homes in the 1950s, Lowe said, much of the city’s optimism is now gone, replaced by a gnawing sense that New York’s days of primacy—in finance, in menswear, in publishing—are over. “So you keep nibbling away at your past like this, whether you deaccession something from a museum or you let people tear down a good building,” he said.

And one day, you look up and realize it really isn’t going to come back.

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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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