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For Sale: Pieces of New York's Architectural History, Rescued From Ruin

By DNAinfo Staff on January 20, 2012 2:11pm

ASTORIA — For decades, bits and pieces of dismantled New York landmarks have been collected inside a dusty Brooklyn warehouse, offering a secret stash of city history.

The remains ranged from the historic — remnants of the old Helen Hayes Theater and the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was killed — to more prosaic items, like courtroom benches and decorative doors.

All were collected by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which planned to sell them off but never did.

Now, for the first time, the items are again seeing the light of day, and much of the collection has become available to anyone with a checkbook.

Last week, truckloads of the architectural leftovers began arriving at salvage yards run by Build It Green NYC, one of a small handful of bidders who purchased pieces of the collection at a city-run auction late last year. Ten truckloads have arrived so far at Build It Green's yards in Astoria, Queens, and Gowanus, Brooklyn — and there are several more to come.

Among the load, contained in a section at the Astoria yard marked by a handmade sign that reads “Landmarks Preservation Commission Treasure,” are a $650 set of brass grills from the teller windows of a post office that once occupied the basement of Grand Central Terminal, an ancient candy machine priced at $350, intact wood columns selling for $200 apiece, carved slate mantels for up to $500, a $200 green park bench and a $350 wooden pew.

Elsewhere are Arts and Crafts-style fireplaces, five-foot-tall metal chandeliers from the 1950s, mahogany wall paneling, dozens of doors, bathtubs and sinks.

There was also a set of leather doors, but someone has already bought them.

“All of these materials are a really important part of New York City’s history,” said Justin Green, director of the non-profit salvage yard.

He specializes in collecting construction and demolition debris that would otherwise end up in landfills, and selling it for reuse at locations in Astoria and Gowanus. But he also considers himself a rescuer of the city’s past.

“Part of what makes New York City so special is the architecture,” Green said. “What makes Brooklyn interesting, what makes Greenwich Village interesting, is the architecture, and we’ve lost a lot of that history.

"In New York, it’s a constant battle to preserve that history against the economic interests of tearing it down and making things bigger.”

The Landmark Preservation Commission’s warehouse was once home to its architectural salvage program, which collected castoffs of demolished government buildings and other historic structures and took donations from private individuals who didn’t want to see their old homes end up in the trash.

But record keeping was sketchy, so the provenance of most of the items remains unclear.

The original plan was for the LPC to sell the salvage to people and businesses for use in decorating their homes and offices. That lasted until 2000, when the program was shut down due to low sales and budget constraints.

"That's the same thing we do now,” Green said. His customers also include people who build sets for the stage and film.

Last year, the LPC decided to sell its remaining collection and "focus our resources on our primary function of protecting the city’s landmarks and historic districts," a spokeswoman said.

It made arragements to sell the whole lot to the single highest bidder.

That bidder was Evan Blum, owner of Demolition Depot in Harlem who had "deconstructed" many of the city's abandoned landmarks. But the city decided not to accept his bid, and elected instead to break the collection into lots, giving potential bidders an opportunity to select smaller parts. It held open houses at the Brooklyn warehouse, and spread the word.

Blum did not return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the commission donated some of its artifacts to various city institutions.

Stone steer heads from the New York Butcher’s Dressed Meat Company went to the Hudson River Park Trust and to the Clinton Housing Development Corporation. Parts of the Audubon Ballroom went to the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center and the New York Historical Society.

Pieces of the Helen Hayes Theater were donated to the National Building Museum, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Neustadt Collection at the Queens Museum.

In the Nov. 1 auction, which brought in about $20,000, Demolition Depot bought parts of Helen Hayes Theater and Audubon Ballroom. Build It Green got just about everything else — things more likely to be used by everyday builders and homeowners.

“That's our mission," Green said. "But this one was special because it was a large amount of historical items for sale at one time. And the money goes back to the city. And we support the work of the LPC."