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Wrecker, Spare That Frieze!

July 2024
7min read

As featureless new buildings replace the old, the faces of our cities are going blank. But evocative relics of an earlier, ornate age are being rescued, to stand once more in a unique garden in Brooklyn.

The desk sergeant at New York City’s twenty-fifth precinct was skeptical. He looked again at the six men and women before him, their work clothes covered with the dust of demolition. Then he turned to the arresting officer. “You say these people were stealing from a construction site at Eighty-sixth and Second Avenue?”
“Yes. sir.”

“What were they stealing?”

The patrolman shifted his feet nervously. “They were stealing rubble, Sergeant.”

The officer hastened to explain that his prisoners weren’t taking just any old rubble—only that which was covered with designs and sometimes faces. But it was too late; his case had been wrecked, and moments later the blue-ribbon salvage party—an art dealer, a violinist, two painters, a sculptor, and an art historian—of the Anonymous Arts Recovery Society walked out of the station into the free, polluted air of Fun City.

“That was our closest brush with the law,” the group’s president, Ivan C. Karp, remembered later. The occasion was the formal dedication last year of the Frieda Schiff Warburg Memorial Sculpture Garden behind the Brooklyn Museum, a serendipitous collection of brownstone, granite, and limestone “marbles” that would delight any latter-day Lord Elgin.

The garden is a gift of the late Walter Rothschild in memory of his mother-in-law. But its existence is peculiarly the result of efforts by Karp and his fellow enthusiasts in the A.A.R.S., who devote their time and limited funds to saving hundreds of examples of nineteenth-century American ornamenti—keystones, friezes, corbels, lintels, cartouches, plaques, capitals, caryatids, and atlantes—from the insensitive blows of the wreckers’ hammers.

“We are not so rich in history that we can afford to grind it to dust arbitrarily,” Karp insists. In this sense, of course, the principal outlines of architectural history are written in stone. New York’s early colonists built their buildings of common rock; in the more affluent seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they used imported brick, carried as ballast aboard merchant ships. With the advent of extensive sandstone and limestone quarrying in the nineteenth century and the resurgence of interest in Gothic architecture in the 1830s, the buildings became more ornate even as New York’s complexion was turning brown.

Brownstone, a reddish type of sandstone that is composed of grains of quartzose sand cemented by silica or lime, proved extremely popular; it was inexpensive and, when fresh from the quarry, it is easily carved. By the 1880s, as immigrants surged into the city, the brownstone tenement swiftly spread across the face of New York, replete with all the ornamental flourishes demanded by the public tastes of the period. These tastes survive in a fragmented stone record as anonymous as the men who carved it.

According to art historian Frederick Fried, there were in 1890 some 320 stonemasons at work in this country, 140 of whom were employed on a single New York building, one of the Vanderbilt mansions. These highly skilled men had emigrated, in the main, from the British Isles; they were all members of a father-and-son guild dating back to medieval times; and they died relatively young from silicosis, a vocational hazard then called “galloping consumption.”

One exception to that fatal rule was Fred Thomas Sutton, who reached Philadelphia in 1884 at the age of fourteen. His career as a mason had begun three years earlier, when he started carrying breakfast to his father at the stoneworks in London. The workday began at 6:30, with a customary thirty-minute breakfast. A potman arrived at 10 A.M. with beer, probably a medicinal necessity for the dust-clogged mason, and at noon there was another half hour for lunch. As the eldest son of the son of a mason, Sutton had been accepted into the guild on his twelfth birthday as an apprentice, for which he received seven shillings a week, plus an extra bob for heating the bottles of tea the men brought from home.

In 1948, shortly before his death, Sutton described what it was like to be a mason in the previous century: The Stone Cutter of old was very proud of his calling. He wore a special cap and apron. He kept the cap on his head going and coming from work. He did not take his apron off but simply rolled it up around his waist. He was an individual, drunk or sober. He was a nomad, and went from job to job, which is another way of saying from town to town. He carried a “traveling card” from his Society (Union) which enabled him on arriving at a job to go to a certain Union Pub, and obtain a night’s lodging, supper and breakfast.

The stone was usually cut right on the job and each man had his own banker mark, which he chopped on his stone. They did not paint numbers or letters, but took the stone from the banker [bench] to the wall. Now as Mark Twain says there is a lot of people in the world and they are all different. Everyone’s handwriting is different, and so each man’s finish of his Stone was such.

Sutton probably came to this country to take advantage of the higher wages, then running between three and four dollars a day for a skilled carver. But the changes that were to make his specialty obsolete were already under way. Mechanical processes for finishing stone were increasingly evident after the Civil War; the widespread use of terra cotta (”cooked” earth) and poured cement gradually eliminated the need for skilled stonecutters; and the transition in this century to unadorned modern architecture completed the job.

Before they disappeared, however, the stonemasons carved a monumental assortment of artistic mementos: griffins, sibyls, grapes, oak leaves, cornucopias, cherubs, masks, and grotesqueries of all varieties. It is Ivan Karp’s contention—and at least part of his motivation—that the carving during this period represents the last personal application of the classic tradition of architectural ornamentation. It is, therefore, “a physical memory link with the past, a valuable stone record of a classical impulse operating in an alien context.”

To illustrate his point, Karp cites the ethnic characteristics of the faces on many bas-relief cartouches, which often enough were those of popular heroes but more frequently were portraits in stone of fellow workers, friends, or sweethearts in all manner of poses and situations. The architect indicated where the ornamentation was to go, and there were many manuals, such as Franz Sales Meyer’s Handbook of Ornament or John Henry Parker’s A Glossary of Terms, for the carver to copy from. But apparently many stoneworkers, influenced perhaps by the 10 A.M. ration of beer, departed from form and used their imaginations freely.

The Anonymous Arts Recovery Society was formed in 1958, six years after Karp, a Manhattan art dealer and novelist, began picking up artistic fragments from demolition sites around New York City. As more and more old buildings were destroyed to make room for glass-and-steel offices and apartment houses (or simply for parking lots), the salvage job got heavier and Karp was forced to enlist more of his friends for what he calls “moments of high adventure and hazard.”

There was nothing systematic about the search. Someone would spot a particularly desirable item on a building marked for demolition, and the workmen or watchman would be approached. “Often a few dollars would accomplish our purpose,” said Karp, “but as our activities became known, the price soon escalated beyond our limited means. Then we would have to come back later, often at night, and steal—I mean, save—it.” A.A.R.S. raiding parties frequently used sophisticated logistical strategy and tactics. The loveliest feminine recruit, for example, was designated as “Rubble Queen”; her task was to distract the watchman long enough for the raiders to do their work.

There were, needless to say, numerous legal problems risked in trespassing. The threat of police intervention, like that which Karp and company experienced at Eighty-sixth Street and Second Avenue, was constant. Then in 1963 the A.A.R.S. was designated by the federal government as a tax-exempt organization; the society thus added to its arsenal of money and artifice the power to offer demolition firms tax credits for the donation of items of artistic merit. Karp candidly admits that the tax credits have worked wonders with the larger firms; that was the technique used with the Lipsett, Inc., demolition company to retrieve the Night portion of the clock statuary from Pennsylvania Station. “But the small firms,” he laments, “still operate on the assumption that a buck in hand is worth two on the books.”

Fortunately, Karp had twenty dollars in his pocket one afternoon when, driving through Chicago on his way to give a lecture, he spotted the marvelously grotesque keystone over the front door of Al Capone’s old speak-easy and brothel, the Four Deuces Club. “It was quite literally a case of shouting, ‘Hold that hammer!' ” he recalls. “It cost another three hundred dollars to ship it back to the Brooklyn Museum, but it was worth every penny.”

When cash fails, the ardent collector sometimes relies on guile. Frederick Fried, who has been salvaging fragments for more than two decades, remembers one incident when money wasn’t enough to save four atlantes from a Fifth Avenue mansion that was coming down. In desperation, he guessed at the foreman’s ancestry and announced, “Don’t you realize that those atlantes are the work of that great Sicilian sculptor, Di Napoli, who will put a curse on your house if you destroy them?” It worked, saving for the Museum four more examples of Irish craftsmanship.

Karp’s approach to competitors (“The main one we haven’t neutralized so far is an unidentified young man with a beard and a pickup truck, who collects for certain antique dealers”) is to accost them on the site, establish the mutuality of their quests, and enlist them as members of the A.A.R.S. This technique once led to the recruitment of one of the society’s most valuable members, Stanley Poler, the current vice president. “I didn’t know who Poler was,” Karp explains, “but I was getting annoyed night after night to sneak onto some site and find that somebody had beaten me to a piece I’d marked for confiscation that very afternoon. I finally spotted him one Saturday, and when I learned that he was a licensed engineer, we had a new member and considerably expanded technical capabilities.”

The A.A.R.S. soon found that it was running out of storage space. Apartments, basements, garages were all crammed to the bursting point; even Poler’s mother had begun grumbling about not being able to walk in her backyard in the Bronx. Then, in 1961, Karp, who had lots of sculpture but no room, went to a party and met Thomas S. Buechner, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, who had lots of room but no outdoor sculpture to furnish it with. Buechner also shared the concern of the A.A.R.S. for preserving the line and texture of the past. “Unlike the disappearing city represented in this Garden, our city is being extruded, rolled out, and poured into blank-faced forms,” he says. “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; in spite of having more hands and more time and more knowledge than ever before in the history of the world, we live in a time of the clean line, the metaphysical proportion, the very, very empty space.”

Which is, perhaps, the real justification for the Brooklyn sculpture garden, where the public has an opportunity to understand what Clemenceau had in mind when, having toured a new and very modern building project, he observed: “It’s all very nice, but what sort of ruins will it make?”

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