Urban Archaeology Excavated

An emerald green glazed white terra cotta train station clock.

This Reed & Stern train station clock once kept time in the Union Depot in Troy, New York.

It’s been snowing hard this morning (For once the weathercasters got it right!) and the cityscape below me is whitening, the flakes muting the normal cacophony I hear when I’m at my desk. But I haven’t been in New York City for the past few hours. I’ve been in Paris and the Amish country of Pennsylvania and a New York of another era, the Gilded Age. This is quite a feat since I haven’t left my Brooklyn apartment; I’ve traveled with the assistance of a catalog highlighting the offerings to be sold when Guernsey’s auctions off a treasure trove of architectural salvage collected by Urban Archaeology during the past four and a half decades it has been in business, the stockpile amounting to thousands of items.

Auditorium seats by Marcel Breuer

A row of auditorium seats designed by Bauhaus architect Marcel Breuer.

And the cache to be sold on March 27th and 28th is no mere flotsam and jetsam. To drop a few names for the design and architectural crowd, works by Samuel Yellin, Louis Sullivan, Stanford White, Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Edgar Brandt are on the roster. A row of auditorium seats designed by Bauhaus member Marcel Breuer (circa 1920) thought to be removed from the Fulkwang Museum in Essen, Germany, will be for sale, as will a post office cubby designed by renowned French architect/metal-maestro Jean Prouvé (his prefab houses are on view at Gagosian in Chelsea as we speak).


A mermaid once part of the fountain at the Place de la Concorde

Place de la Concorde Mermaid designed by Jacques Ignace Hittorff.

For history buffs, there are a number of opportunities to own a piece of the past’s narrative. Art Deco staircase railings, made of brass with a doré (gold wash) finish, that once flanked the central stairway at Paris’ iconic department store Le Bon Marché, crafted by Edgar Brandt under the direction of Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, are in the mix; as are balcony railings attributed to Ruhlmann and ceiling panels made by Brandt for the store. With a designated starting price of $125,000 to $150,000 each, Merpeople (a mermaid and two mermen) that once spouted water into the fountains at the Place de la Concorde in Paris are being offered. Designed by Jacques Ignace Hittorff, the cast iron statues sculpted by Jean-Jacques (Carle) Elshoecht, Louis-Parfait Merlieux and Antonin-Marie Moine were a century old when they were removed from the French plaza. Imagine the bloody exits of the French monarchy these magnificent works of art saw before being replaced by replicas during a renovation in the early twentieth-century!

Things associated with American royalty include a copper library table within which William Randolph Hearst displayed his personal collections at Hearst Castle; friezes from The Palace Theatre in New York City where innumerable stars took to the stage and Judy Garland gave her final performance in 1969; a grand Arts & Crafts style staircase, designed by Samuel Yellin for Bayberry Land—the Southampton country estate of the wealthy banker Charles H. Sabin—of wrought iron; and a wall-cum-entryway created by Yellin for the advertising offices of J. Walter Thompson in 1927 when it was well into its meteoric reign as the world’s largest ad agency. Given they were a Madison Avenue institution by then, this extravagance represents a foreshadowing of Mad Men madness.

Samuel Yellin's grand staircase for Bayberry Land.

A grand staircase designed by Samuel Yellin for the Southampton Sabin country estate.

A bronze outdoor newel post that lived in the rarified air surrounding the Astor House will be for sale; as will a pair of brass doors from Helena Rubinstein’s home at 625 Park Avenue, circa 1910. A Gothic wrought iron gate that once fortified the northeast corner of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 51st Street and Madison Avenue is on the list, the entry to the original baptistery created by Kenneth Lynch a whimsical design festooned with vines and blossoms, and topped with quatrefoil.

Items from The Plaza and St. Regis hotels, as well as from the Yale University Library are included in the sale, as are a significant number of architectural elements from around New York City and beyond. The variation of styles spans from Neoclassical and Beaux Arts to French Art Deco and Art Nouveau, as well as Gothic Revival and Bauhaus to Arts & Crafts, Mid-century Modern, Vintage Americana and American Art Deco. I was impressed by the selection of lighting that included torchières, table lamps, chandeliers and pendants; and came across a nice array of unique finds that spanned from ornate wrought iron garden chairs, and varied styles of benches, case goods, mirrors and tables. After an entire morning spent combing the 68-page catalog, my head is spinning. The New York Times says the auction is the result of a change in focus for Urban Archaeology and its 70-year-old founder Gil Shapiro, who has made a career of saving historic architectural elements from destruction. The company will now be turning its attention to producing reproductions.

Aged bronze outdoor newel post from Urban Archaeology

A bronze outdoor newel post once an ornamental architectural element at the Astor House.

The auction will begin at 1pm on Friday, March 27, and Saturday, March 28, at Urban Archaeology, which is located at 143 Franklin Street in Tribeca. Public previewing will take place on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, March 24 through 26, from 10am to 7pm at the same location. Internet bidding will be held on liveauctioneers.com. The catalog will be available for $22 in person, or can be shipped domestically for $32 or internationally for $50. To order the book, for advice as to telephone bidding, to arrange for an advance preview, or for any additional questions, Guernsey’s contact information is on their web site.

Text of Urban Archaeology Excavated © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. Saxon is also the co-founder of Sharktooth Press. She also produces The Diary of an Improvateur and is a columnist on Architizer.