- Historic Sites
Wrecker, Spare That Frieze!
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.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
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.