10 July 2011

City to Secretly Sell Hundreds of Historical Treasures to One Rich Dude

This story in City Room infuriated me as nothing has in months.

So, apparently, there's this warehouse out in Williamsburg that's full of rare, one-of-a-kind artifacts from New York history. A chunk of a famous building here. A sign or piece of furniture from a vanished business there. A section of the facade of the old Helen Hayes Theatre. A block of Indiana limestone marked NYB, from the old New York Butchers on 11th Avenue.

From 1980 to 2000, the Architectural Salvage Warehouse "accepted the remains of demolished structures: shuttered theaters, once-bustling slaughterhouses, even old signs from the post office at Grand Central Terminal." This precious detritus was then put in the Brooklyn building. Where it sat. And sat.

And now the Landmarks Preservation Commission—that completely sensitive and wise body that decides which old buildings can stay and which will go—is going to auction it all off. Auction it ALL off. The whole of it. One lump package. To one person. One entity. ONE!

What the hell?

Why could the stuff not be auctioned off in pieces, or lots? That would afford people who don't have a lot of cash—but possess a lot of interest—the chance to claim some of these treasures. The kind of individual who would step forth to bid on a single item would most likely be an amateur historian or nostalgist (or blogger) who would nurse and lovingly preserve the artifact. Putting the entire warehouse-ful on the block means that only a super-rich party can buy it. And the chances of some millionaire really treasuring these things, or wishing to share them with the public, are next to nil. The bidder will flip the stuff, or sell it for scrap or hoard it in some vault.
Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the CUNY Graduate Center, hit the nail on the head when she said, "The city’s cultural legacy is in that warehouse. It seems a little insidious to be selling everything to the highest bidder."

One commenter on the City Room piece wrote, "LPC's logo should be a bulldozer, for not enough is preserved which impedes "progress" (i.e. luxury condos, preferably waterfront). How sad that all of this history is now only available to the highest bidder. Why not break up the lot & make it accessible to the public and museums or institutions dedicated to true historic preservation?"

The City obviously doesn't know what it has and doesn't care. John Weiss, deputy counsel for the commission, told the Times reporter, dimly, "Whoever buys the entire lot, you can always just buy it from them." Um, yeah, John. Thanks.

Then again, maybe the City knows exactly what its doing. Wrote another commenter: "Again some city hall weasels are looking to help some rich buddies get their hand on the deal of a lifetime. Sealed bids, little if any public announcement to the up coming sale." (Note when the salvage operation was scrapped: the year Bloomberg and his developer friends came into power.)

Sealed bids are due July 21. I don't think Weiss is going to let us know who makes the winning bid. Say Goodbye to history.


Anonymous said...

I had the same reaction to this story. The City would likely get more money by auctioning the items individually and help ensure the items find homes - some private, some for public view.

upstate Johnny G said...

The article says that the people in charge of all of this don't know what they have. They just have to get rid of it all. The original idea was to make this architectural salvage available to the public...especially for people restoring old houses or for history buffs. The article goes on to say that budget and staff cuts closed that operation in 2000. The BIG question, that the NYT didn't ask or report if they did, was WHY DID THE PROGRAM END? "Budget cuts" is just a pat answer. WHO made the decision, and WHY did they make it? It sounds to me as though it was a good program that was poorly administered, so rather than fix the real problem, just declare the program itself a failure, promote the incompetents, and move on. "Lock the doors, walk away, don't think about it, someone else will eventually have to deal with it and by that time we'll all have distanced ourselves from this fiasco and have continued our advancement within City govt."

So all of these treasures have just been sitting there, and now there is a new generation of clueless bureaucrats in charge who don't know and don't want to know what it was all about - they just want to get rid of the "junk" and move on. Institutional alzheimer's!!

Actually, I'm surprised that this trove sat unmolested for 11 years! I would have thought that someone would either have broken in and looted the place, or that some corrupt city officials would have secretly sold everything off and disappeared to some island paradise on profits. But hey, New York City is all about looting these days....and maybe always has been - after all, there is some evidence to suggest that the native americans who sold Manhattan to the Dutch were just passing through while on a journey from their home elsewhere along the coast.

Still, one would think that in nearly 400 years there would be SOME development of morals and ethics! Guess not.

Ken Mac said...

It's all who you know in Bloomberg City.

Perry said...

How sad and stupid is this? More history goes down the drain when it doesn't have to be that way. The rich get the benefits of almost everything.

Mitch Broder said...

It's as if Penn Station never happened. They never learn.

glamma said...

my lord, this is just so incredibly wrong. insidous: the right word. also: inexcusable.
just seems like every single day the bloomberg administration gives a bigger and bigger finger to anyone who is filthy (and i do mean filthy) rich. just despicable. deplorable. BAD.

blue glass said...

non profits used to be able to go there (by appointment) and take stuff. the first file cabinets of GOLES came from there.

the place was full of old dept of health x-ray films (coated in silver), antique keys, desks, chairs, light fixtures, art supplies, etc. it was the late 1970's and i don't remember all the available stuff, but it sure was a treasure trove.

near by was a fancy water side restaurant where commissioner's cars were parked while they had their $6 apple pie after their expensive dessert.

the land is now too expensive and the old warehouse could hold brand new glass hotel or condo.

onemorefoldedsunset said...

This made me sick too. The past means NOTHING to this administration.

JO said...

I went to the lot. Here's my pictures http://www.flickr.com/photos/orlick/sets/72157627181302666/
Not exactly a treasure trove of goodies. Some Big items that might be interesting and should be preserved, but mostly it's architectural "stuff". Owning the place would be a huge responsibility. I wouldn't make the investment on the place.
It would be a great donation to Build It Green.

Neil Bethke said...

In my business I am loathe to break any collection. It would be ideal if the artifacts and objects could remain together in some sort of presentable and educational state. However to break and sell the collection in bits and pieces to be an income stream for a typical bloated American bureaucracy is most inappropriate. Many of these pieces may have come to the city through emminent domain and this could add a new wrinkle to local gov't seizures.

Also breaking it, would practically insure the objects would never be understood in context or accessible for study by the public.

Having said that architectural collections are very difficult to manage and if NYC doesn't have the vision then they should just gift it out to a local institution that does. Gotham may want to look a little harder.

IMBY said...

I used to go there in the mid 90"s looking for old doors. I found the place to be over priced and the quality of the salvage to be not so great compared to other architectural salvage yards in the city. Lots of junk. There were no great bargains.

I see they still have the two enormous stone animal heads. If i remember correctly they wanted ten thousand dollars for the pair. Worth the money to the right buyer.

Ended up buying an over priced 1930's interior office door with a full lite panel just because I didn't want to leave empty handed.

Anonymous said...

Is the buyer a pal of Bloomberg?