Wrecker, Spare That Frieze!


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.