In New York: Salvaged Pieces

by J.D. Reed

Time magazine
Monday, Dec. 21, 1987

Something decidedly odd is going on at the old mansion. The crackle of splintering wood emanates from the broken windows. A bathroom sink of heroic proportions has been plunked down on the overgrown lawn, and a man is chipping at a graffiti-painted wall with hammer and chisel. "Alllll right! " he says with a smile. "This stone is so wet it's going to come right off with a jackhammer."

To suspicious New York City residents, the activity in Far Rockaway, a seaside community of modest homes near the city's John F. Kennedy Airport, may look like a felony in progress. But no need to call the police: the disheveled mansion is scheduled for authorized demolition. Before the bulldozers are due to arrive, Stephen Israel, an ex-hippie entrepreneur with a Grateful Dead- style beard and twinkling brown eyes that focus on the minutiae of history, has come to salvage pieces of the past: window frames, carved moldings, gargoyles and anything else of architectural interest that can be pried loose and sold.

Built around 1907, the Tudor-Gothic mansion was a fine example of careful stonework and superbly finished interiors, set down on a luxuriant plot of waterfront lawn on Jamaica Bay. It began as a residence for Henry Heinschiemer, an eccentric New York banker whose security system included a sign that read, GENTLE STRANGER TURN BACK. When the age of grand living had passed it by, the big home became a hospital for joint diseases, then a private school for retarded children and later a rabbinical school. Now it is a bag lady of a building. A fire has destroyed much of the roof; plants grow in piles of rubble; the bones of rodents lie in corners. Vandals have smashed windows and sprayed the walls with graffiti. Nearby, airliners thunder in to land at J.F.K.

After the mansion is razed, the property will become a municipal park. Says Israel, waving his chisel to emphasize the point: "The preservationists get upset when old places like this are plowed under. We come in and save what we can. All of this stuff will have a new life. It'll be reused in restaurants, offices and private homes."

Once, historical-architecture buffs had to prowl in the rubbish of demolition companies to rescue radiators and doors to gentrify their old buildings. But Israel, 40, founder and president of a neat little business called the Great American Salvage Co., has made junk sorting obsolete. His firm, based in Montpelier, Vt., scouts the Eastern states for grand old homes, hotels, theaters and churches that are being modernized or are coming down completely. After negotiating a salvage contract with the buildings' owners, his band of gung-ho reclamation experts carefully removes architectural details. These are spiffed up and sold -- primarily to post-modern architects, cutting-edge decorators and well-heeled homeowners -- in the firm's huge showrooms in New York City and Montpelier and at four East Coast franchises.

The Manhattan store boasts some 10,000 items, ranging from $10 wooden stairway spindles to the interior of an art-deco jewelry store for $135,000, complete with display cases and teller's cage. There are hundreds of marble fireplace mantels, pedestal sinks, lighting fixtures, wrought-iron gates and granite gargoyles. There are bigger chunks of history: a 5-ft.-tall, $3,500 brass-and-crystal chandelier found in a crate in Gimbel Bros.' basement, and a 9-ft.-high, 77-ft.-wide chestnut-paneled music room from a turn-of-the-century house in Southampton, N.Y. Cost: $30,000. Antique porcelain bathtubs, which can fetch $1,500 each, are the most popular items. Daniel Kasle, 34, the company's affable chief operating officer, who gave up a lucrative career as a foreign-exchange trader to indulge his passion for old sidewalk grates and theater seats, gives the stuff an uptown moniker. He calls it "high-end architecturals for adaptive reuse."

On this morning in Far Rockaway, the architecturals are still firmly attached to history. In the rubble-strewn grand hall that smells of ashes and mildew, Israel carefully pries at a piece of mahogany doorway molding. "You can't just come in and say, 'Hey, let's rip it down.' You have to get a feel for the construction," he says. "You have to ask if the craftsmen used nails, glue or screws."

This job is all nails and glue. Israel and his seven-man crew will remove all the doors and windows, complete with jambs and frames, from the spacious room, as well as the thick sheets of mahogany paneling on the walls. They use specially designed tools to do so. "Nobody makes tools to go backward in construction," says Israel. "We have to make our own pry bars and nail cutters to get behind paneling and under plumbing fixtures."

On the second floor, Brian Tyrol, 34, a youthful former cabinetmaker in horn-rimmed glasses, is digging at an oak floor in an attempt to dislodge the hardware of a pair of carved swinging doors. "I can't remember if the spring- controlled hinge would have been on the top or the bottom in 1907," he says, scratching his head. But he does know that the doors, decorated with carved vines, leaves and grapes, will bring a buck in the showroom. "In New York City, art deco was last year," he says. "Now the decorators all want Louis XV Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous sort of stuff."

A few feet away, in a bathroom large enough for championship table tennis, Steve Tillotson, a burly Vermont deconstruction expert who has been with the company since it started, and another worker pry loose a 6-ft.-long china bathtub with lion-claw feet. They flip it onto a mover's pallet and study the maker's mark on its bottom, as if they had unearthed an Egyptian artifact. "Ideal 3806," reads Tillotson with a sigh of respect. "It was made by Ideal on March 8, 1906." They trundle the fixture down a listing hallway to join half a dozen others at the top of the stairs. "You have to be careful doing this kind of work," observes Tillotson. "If you drop a 500-lb. tub on your foot, it can take the fun right out of it."

Fun was the foundation of the Great American Salvage Co. In 1970 Israel, the son of a Manhattan attorney, left law school for flower power in Woodstock, N.Y. There he learned alternative life-styles, the necessity of making a living, and carpentry. He later settled on a hardscrabble cow farm in East Corinth, Vt., to raise what he calls "organic beef." But he could never pilot his vintage motorcycle past a pile of old junk without stopping. "I'd always been a collector," he says, "but never had enough money to collect the stuff everybody else was collecting. Nobody else wanted salvage then. This stuff was made by craftsmen who worked 40 years just making shelf brackets or paneling, and bulldozers were plowing it into the ground. To me, it was art."

Soon, Israel's rickety barn was stuffed with salvage. One spring day, his lovesick bull crashed through the barn wall and trampled over months of careful collecting. Says Israel: "So it was goodbye cows, hello salvage." Since 1979, the firm has grown beyond Israel's wildest dreams, allowing him other expensive sidelines. He recently opened a motorcycle shop that reconditions and sells vintage Harley-Davidsons. But fan-shaped stained-glass windows and ornate heat registers remain his central passions and his righteous mission. "If the Rockefellers or the Hearsts saw a library in England they liked, they bought it and brought it over here," he says. "I'm just doing the same thing for the average guy."

In Far Rockaway, as the afternoon sun slants through the broken windows, a workman emerges from the basement and yells, "Look what I found!" Israel and the others gather around an old, 10-gal., green-glass water jug. There is a bit of water in the bottom. For a moment it almost seems that these salvage men, so thirsty for the details of the past, might take a sip of vintage 1907. But a 747 rumbles overhead, and the mood is broken. "Should we take the jug?" someone asks. "Sure," says Israel. "Somebody might want it." They pick up their tools and wander back to work.