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.

Today, Ivan C. Karp is a wry, 83-year-old art dealer best known for the pivotal role he played in the early careers of the pop-art giants Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, identifying both as artists of consequence and helping to bring them to international recognition. But before Karp became a spokesman for Warhol’s work, before a 1966 Newsweek article declared him “the chief salesman of the pop-art movement,” before he helped lead the transformation of SoHo into a lively arts district, he was a young, unemployed Army veteran with a lot of time on his hands.

In the years after his return from a posting to Guam, Karp, a visually inquisitive Flatbush boy, spent much of his time wandering the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan, taking photographs with a 1930s Leica. One day around 1950, as he passed a demolition site, he saw lying on the sidewalk the head of a cherub, cast in terra cotta. It had been discarded by wreckers who were razing a building without any regard for its richly adorned facade.

“I picked up this terra-cotta piece—it weighed about 15 or 20 pounds—and I carried it home,” Karp told me not long ago. “And I stood and stared at it in amazement when I got it there, saying, ‘This must be going on all over the city!’”

Far earlier than just about anyone else, Karp recognized that many of New York’s late-Victorian stone and terra-cotta facade ornaments—keystones, plaques, and friezes, even those that embellished tenements and rowhouses—were artworks in their own right. Spurred to action by their wholesale destruction at a time of galloping development, Karp spent several years scooping up the forsaken fragments by himself, before joining forces with a few friends whom he led on clandestine raids of demolition sites. In homage to the immigrant artisans who had created the unsigned ornaments, Karp named the group the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society.

“I was a rubble rouser,” Karp says.

Armed with crowbars and the occasional hand winch, the group rescued some 1,500 artifacts from around the city. When the scavengers’ backyards became overcrowded with the mythological creatures and deities and grotesques they had saved, Karp approached the director of the Brooklyn Museum, Thomas Buechner, who agreed to let the group store the sculptures behind the museum. Karp and his friends soon dropped off some 400 fragments. About a quarter of the objects were destroyed by the elements in those early years.

Then, in 1966, the museum built the Frieda Schiff Warburg Memorial Sculpture Garden to display roughly 200 pieces of stone carving, terra cotta, and ironwork. It grew, supplemented over the decades by Karp and other donors, and became the public centerpiece of the only major repository of the late-Victorian and Beaux Arts architectural ornaments that had once enlivened the city in such startling numbers and variety. The treasures included a roaring zinc lion from the El Dorado carousel in Coney Island and a languorous allegorical figure of Night, carved of granite, from the iconic Pennsylvania Station complex designed by McKim, Mead & White. I asked Buechner recently why he had thought the ornaments were worthy of a permanent exhibition. “It’s like asking me why I think Rembrandt is a good painter,” he replied.

Today, huddled together in a kind of fenced refugee camp behind the Brooklyn Museum parking lot, most of them on rotting wooden pallets, rest scores of Gotham’s most exotic and least appreciated residents. Griffins and sea monsters, gods and kings, most of the inmates of this forlorn encampment spend their days and nights with their weathered faces turned to the heavens. When it rains, water pools in the vulnerable sandstone eye sockets of some and nourishes the green biological growth that clings to others. In winter, water freezes in the bowl-like terra-cotta medallions, imprisoning in yokes of ice the heads of women and animals that protrude from them. It’s a pretty shabby habitat for creatures once displayed so proudly. Ten years ago, the Brooklyn Museum dismantled the sculpture garden during a reconstruction of its rear entrance. And although a reinstallation in 2004 resulted in a far sparser garden of 62 fine artifacts, 275 relics of New York’s lost streetscape still languish in limbo behind the parking lot of the financially struggling institution. But as they enter the second decade of what Karp bemoans as “perilous and baleful banishment,” many may finally be on the move. Over the past few years, the museum has quietly begun deaccessioning—the genteel art-world euphemism for “getting rid of”—large numbers of its city artifacts. In 2006, it transferred some 1,500 terra-cotta pieces, originally from a 19th-century Romanesque-style Brooklyn church, to a foundation in St. Louis. In 2008, the same group took possession of about 200 limestone fragments from the 1910 Gothic Revival facade of a West 57th Street townhouse. And in January, four circa-1920 cast-iron lawn jockeys, manufactured for the 21 Club, were auctioned off at Sotheby’s Important Americana sale. Such transfers are just the beginning of the museum’s broader effort to dramatically shrink its collection of city architectural ornament. Without notifying Karp, curators have been planning to sell more than a third of the remaining collection through a Harlem salvage dealer.

The fragments in the fenced encampment—maidens and monarchs, lions and steeds—evoke a unique moment in the history of New York, and of American architecture. It was a time when carvers from across Europe were descending on the city and creating public ornamentation of a quantity and eclecticism that has never since been matched, or even imagined. “It was the art we lived with, much more than what was on the walls of the Met or MoMA,” says Barry Lewis, a 64-year-old architectural historian and native New Yorker. “It was the art of the streetscape, and it’s gone, or at least it’s going.”

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.

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.