Architect Hugh Hardy is standing between Cary Grant’s bathtub and a light fixture from Oscar Hammerstein’s office, and, not surprisingly, his talk turns to eclecticism. “When I was in architecture school at Princeton, the worst thing you could say about someone was that they were eclectic,” he muses. Casting his iron gaze over the rescued chandeliers and urinals crowding Irreplaceable Artifacts, the warehouse showroom that got its start in the mid-seventies (14 Second Avenue; 777-2900), Hardy – the socially adept architect whose firm, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, revived such major sites as Bryant Park and the New Amsterdam Theatre – recalls how treasonous today’s mixing and matching would have been. “Since then, we’ve been able to open up the design vocabulary so that you can put, say, a sawed-off column in a modernist scheme.” And architectural salvage – the reintegration of ornamental details and fixtures from doomed buildings into restoration and new construction projects – might be considered the tail that wags the stone lion.
Clearly relishing the presence of a guest who can keep up with his rapid-fire architectural
trivia, Evan Blum, the owner of Irreplaceable Artifacts, reels off a running annotation of the statuary, mantels, iron gates, doors, sconces, pillars, and cornices we pass. It’s like a walking tour of celebrity homes – only the buildings are in pieces.
“Horn & Hardart … the Biltmore … the Clark Building … the Chinese Theater,” murmurs Blum, also the author, with his sister Leslie, of a handsome coffee-table guide to salvage with a how-to slant, Irreplaceable Artifacts: Decorating the Home With Architectural Ornament (Clarkson Potter; $35), which is in its second printing since its release last fall. Hardy nods indulgently, if somewhat wearily, until he reaches a gorgeous medallion some four feet in diameter – a neoclassical relief of a woman’s head framed by two kissing snakes.
“Yes, marvelous,” he says with genuine fervor. “You can really read her at a distance.” It’s the last of a series of originals saved from 250 Park Avenue; reproductions with a glaze of your choice can be had for $5,800.
Irreplaceable’s real treasures are buried on the lowest of Blum’s seven floors (including a roof, plus a long outdoor yard). All $125,000 of a paneled ceiling, said to be a leftover from San Simeon, hovers overhead in the gloom. An intact bar from one of Gentleman Jim Corbett’s saloons centers on a horseshoe arch – the nineteenth-century heavyweight champ’s lucky symbol, sort of like those TCB lightning bolts were to Elvis. Some of the bar’s mirrors are still painted over, a Prohibition-era precaution to give flashlight-wielding cops less of a tip-off.
Blum points next to a massive fireplace mantel with a replica of a Donatello frieze. (“They tried their best,” says Hardy, who lives for all things Italian, including his wife, Tiziana, also an architect; the two just got back from a Spoleto vacation.) The mantel, brought over from Italy in 1925 at a cost – then – of $40,000, was salvaged from Governor Fuller’s mansion in New Hampshire. The price today: $350,000.
Not everything is so old-world, however. Hardy points to a set of pyramidal Art Deco lamps on the roof, salvaged from the Schmidt’s brewery in Philadelphia ($4,500 for the pair, repolished): “That’s exactly the kind of thing that designers today are getting ideas from.”
Hardy is not without reservations about the uses and abuses of salvage. “Please, don’t use a cornice as a doorstop. At least put it somewhere where people will have to look up at it. Architectural details really ought to be displayed in the same relation to the viewer as they were originally intended,” he says, fiddling now with the pulls of an onyx soda fountain. We’ve moved on to Urban Archaeology, the SoHo emporium just below the Puck Building that has been in business since 1978 (285 Lafayette Street, 431-6969; and now 143 Franklin Street, 431-4646). Produced by the Tufts Company in the 1880s, the fountain’s labels list flavors from claret to sarsp’lla – yours for a paltry $35,000.
The temptation to break architectural rules, Hardy adds, is sort of an urban manifestation of the country urge to “fill a wheelbarrow with dirt, plant flowers in it, and push it out on the front lawn.” He picks up what looks like an unremarkable piece of greenish, ribbed glass, powdered with dust. “Prismatic,” he says appreciatively. “They used this stuff to bend light down into basements in the era before gas lamps.” He points to a row of pedestal sinks with porcelain or glass legs. “Everyone used to want everything built in. Now they’re coming back to this stuff.” That return to free-floating bathroom fixtures can be seen, for instance, in Villeroy & Boch’s recent New Haven line of tubs and sinks mounted away from the wall on wooden pedestals, which recently won one of I.D. magazine’s annual design awards.
But the renewed interest in dusty, chipped, or patinaed remnants of the past isn’t just a stylistic fad; it’s also a nostalgia for craftsmanship. “There was this enormous burst of sculptural creative juice in the nineteenth century,” Hardy says, “and all that stuff is just so decorative. Even in pieces cast from a mold, you get a more sensuous, handmade, individual sense from it.” Hardy hefts a rusty fragment of a cast-iron lintel. “Now, in the 1870s, this was really high-tech,” he says with a grunt. “This was once progress.”
Despite heightened public awareness and increased preservationist clout, new bugbears will invariably crop up to partially overshadow the specter of the lost Penn Station. (In recent memory, some point to the sculptures from the façade of Bonwit Teller that were demolished by Donald Trump.)
Though Blum likes to quote a preservationist who noted that the enemies of architecture are “water and stupidity,” private intervention can occasionally still overcome both. Hardy likes to tell about the day he was walking by the demolition site of 60 Wall Street, a building he’d often admired in passing. Spotting an acroterion – a large ornamental endpiece from one of the pediments – still standing amid the ruins of No. 60, he made his move: “I found a knitting-machine company that could handle moving it and got them to haul it up to my place in the Berkshires.” What did he pay to get it away from the demolition crew? A case of beer.
More salvage yards and specialists
“Ah – so you’re looking for happy-ending stories,” says Richard Brotherton, when asked about orphaned architectural elements that have found new homes through the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s salvage warehouse (337 Berry Street, between South 4th and South 5th Streets; 487-6782). Roughly one Friday a month (but mostly by appointment), Brotherton opens the warehouse, which operates on the same commercial basis as Irreplaceable Artifacts or Urban Archaeology, only at a more glacial pace.
“It’s like shopping at Loehmann’s here,” jokes executive director Ronda Wist, standing next to one of four Babe the Blue Ox?size cement steer’s heads, salvaged from the New York Butcher’s and Dressed Meat Company Building at 39th Street and Eleventh Avenue. “You have to keep coming back. Sometimes we’re packed with stuff; sometimes it’s empty.”
As for those happy-ending stories, the warehouse has had several of late. Beyer Blinder Belle is slowly integrating cherubs, tiles, and other elements of the lost Helen Hayes Theatre into Common Ground’s Times Square Hotel. And the elaborate, nautical-themed tile murals by Frederick Dana Marsh from the old Marine Grill in the McAlpin building on Herald Square will be incorporated into the redone Broadway-Nassau subway station. Though it’s first-come-first served at the yard, “whenever possible, we like to reincorporate salvaged details into city projects,” says commission chairman Jennifer Raap.
Countless other city businesses focus on narrower niches of the salvage market. Remains, a second-story shop (19 West 24th Street; 675-8051) run by 27-year-old Columbia grad David Calligeros, specializes in mantels, high-end lighting, and bathroom fixtures. A huge copper Prairie-style chandelier with milk-white glass from the teens or twenties will set you back $12,500. Browsers shouldn’t stay away, though – Calligeros also does a good trade in small items like $25 doorknobs and $10 tiles.
A block west of Remains, the Manhattan location of Olde Good Things (124 West 24th Street, 989-8401; and 400 Atlantic Avenue; 718-935-9742) is in an un-air-conditioned basement but has the advantage of staying open until midnight on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Devotees of the Chelsea flea market may remember the Olde Good Things staff from three years ago, when their open-air success allowed them to move indoors. (They’re all members of the controversial Church of Bible Understanding.) While rich in door handles and other small hardware, OGT also has a good deal of stained glass, and pricier items like a tall hand-pounded iron church gate from Scranton, Pennsylvania, with an upside-down-eagle motif ($8,500).
In an even darker burrow at 36 West 17th Street, Barry Supply Company (242-5200) houses a mother lode of discontinued hardware for windows, doors, and closets, including sweep latches, awning roto-operators, shower-door rollers, and the like, stock that Barry Wein’s family has been laying down for nearly 85 years. Though it’s mostly new, not secondhand, it serves much the same purpose as salvage. Bring in some broken crank for a window made decades ago, and Barry will root around in the back for a while and most likely return with a match.
Cleverly located on the well-traveled route between Urban Archaeology and Irreplaceable Artifacts is Manhattan Castles and Props (76 East Houston Street; 505-8699). It’s that yard full of old sinks and subway signs that invariably turns your head as you walk on Houston Street. Stock here tends to straddle the border between salvage and antiques. Six-foot-long signs from Esso, Texaco, and Tidal gas stations are $850 apiece. A pair of cast-iron statues of Bacchus, from a mansion on Long Island, are $10,000 each.
Farther off that beaten path, and billed as the largest salvage warehouse in the city, The Demolition Depot (214 East 125th Street; 860-1138) plans to open its 30,000 square feet to the public around Labor Day. It’s in Harlem’s Empowerment Zone, amid all the rebuilding of 125th Street, and will focus on slightly lower-end items than the more established Irreplaceable Artifacts (both businesses are run by the same people). Call ahead to secure an advance appointment before the grand opening.