Last month I read a fascinating article in the New York Times by James Barron on the Anonymous Arts Museum in Charlottesville, NY. “A Rural Shrine to New York’s Angels and Gargoyles” is all about salvaging architectural art: rescuing works of art that formerly graced buildings of all sizes and functions in the city.
Ivan Karp, an art dealer who became a “rubble rouser,” founded the museum as an outgrowth of his mission to rescue architectural decoration from buildings erected in previous centuries but scheduled for demolition.
History and Architectural Art
Before the birth of modernism, architects decorated buildings both private and public with friezes, brackets, dentils, string courses, bas reliefs, medallions, and statuary as a matter of course. This decoration was often seen as a measure of either the building’s importance to the community or the status and wealth of the man who paid to have it built.
Some of these decorations were amazing works of art that have withstood the test of time while others were done by carvers who produced workmanlike pieces every day as part of their jobs.
I confess to loving these decorations and find them far more interesting than yet another plain curtain wall or sheet of glass. (But then, I also like Baroque and Rococo art as well as music by Rimsky Korsakov and Rachmaninoff. Minimalism just doesn’t appeal.)
Because cities are living things, however, older buildings often come down before new ones go up and not everyone appreciates the architectural art–or thinks it worth saving. A wrecker’s ball does not discriminate between a solid brick wall and a bas-relief carving. It all ends up as piles of rubble.
To Ivan Karp, this was painful and he has spent years rescuing these pieces whenever possible. His museum of architectural art holds, “angels and sea monsters; griffins and goddesses; smiling cherubs and stern knights in helmets.” Yowza.
The Gargoyle Hunters
Mr. Karp also served as a consultant to John Freeman Gill during the writing of his novel, “The Gargoyle Hunters.” I just finished this wonderful book, which is a coming of age story about a boy whose father has dedicated himself to rescuing as much of New York City’s architectural art as possible. He’s so dedicated, in fact, that love has turned to obsession.
As Griffin Watts learns about his father’s architectural art business, we learn about the “restoration” of the Woolworth Building, the pediment carvings over brownstone front doors, and the demolition of Penn Station. “The Gargoyle Hunters” does not, alas, come with illustrations but I turned to Google more than once to see for myself what Mr. Gill was describing. It’s very well written and I enjoyed every page.
Salvaging Boston’s Architectural Art
I could not read these two pieces without thinking of Boston’s architectural art. Here and there in the city you can find a piece of an older Boston that has been preserved—or at least not thrown out: Some represent big successes in saving works of art.
- Museum of Fine Arts: one terracotta tile from the original museum in Copley Square (demolished 1910)
- Trinity Church cloister: a carved granite rosette from the old church on Summer Street (burned in the Great Fire of 1872)
- Pemberton Square: the capital of an enormous column
- Boston University: the pavilion grandstand of the old Braves Field (closed 1952, destroyed 1955)
- Jamaica Pond Park: the steps from the John Hancock Manor (demolished 1863)
- Exchange Place: the staircase from the old Stock Exchange (partially demolished 1984)
- Elm Bank: Martin Milmore statues of Ceres, Flora, and Pomona from Horticultural Hall (demolished 1901)
- Franklin Park Zoological Garden: Two Daniel Chester French allegorical sculpture groups, “Labor Supporting the Arts and Domestic Life”and “The Forces of Steam and Electricity Subdued and Controlled by Science,” from the old Post Office’s central entry arch (demolished 1929)
Boston’s Missing Architectural Art
It’s simply not possible to preserve every building that ever went up. Had Boston taken this approach, we would have much older, much browner and much smaller buildings and that doesn’t make for growth or a vibrant city.
With our own Ivan Karp, however, we might have retained more of the lost ornaments or even have our own museum of salvaged art. Such a museum might hold:
- The standing lion from the top of the Hotel Kensington (demolished 1967)
- The elephant head from the Franklin Park Zoo’s old elephant house (demolished 1978)
- The clock from the old Union Station (demolished 1927)
- A monumental carved frieze from the original Museum of Fine Arts (demolished 1910)
- The arm-and hammer-pediment over the door of Mechanics Hall (demolished 1959)
- A tourelle from the Masonic Temple (destroyed by fire 1895)
- A carved frieze from the old Parker House hotel (demolished 1926)
And that’s just a small sample. Boston could build a Temple of Karnak from all the granite, marble, and sandstone columns that have fallen to the wrecker’s ball over the years. Where did all these enormous stone drums and cylinders go?
Some pieces of architectural art might have survived—moved elsewhere, stored in a museum collection, turned into a fountain, or incorporated into another structure. If so, I would love to know about it.
It amazes me how recently some of this destruction has occurred but I shouldn’t be surprised. At Northeastern University I lived in Speare Hall, which was built on the site of the old Opera House (demolished 1958).
A friend who lives on West Newton Hill tells me that some of the old homes there, designed by prominent 19th century architects, are being demolished now. These houses incorporate stained glass windows, hand-carved woodwork, plaster rosettes, elaborate newel posts and other elegant features that could never be duplicated today. Nothing is being salvaged as the houses go down.
Boston does have architectural salvage companies—several of them—and visiting one or two is on my To Do list. Who knows, I may find an old friend while I’m wandering around.