facade fragment from the 1900's
Photo: Joshua Paul
By 1900, terra-cotta decorations had become more popular because they were mass-produced in molds for half the cost.
Q: Use ornamental building blocks as focal points inside and outside the house

A: In Rome, they let you touch them. The cleaved columns, fractured friezes, and other rocklike ruins of ancient civilizations, I’m talking about. In fact, when visiting the Roman Forum with my husband a few summers ago, I even plopped myself down on what remained of a giant marble archway to rest my sore tourist feet. If I’d done that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my hometown of New York City, they would have carted me off to the gallows.

Lucky for me, though, there are plenty of fascinating fragments—even if they’re of somewhat more recent vintage—within arm’s reach at salvage yards in almost every American city. So when I want to commune with pieces of our nation’s architectural past, and those of my locale in particular, I head for Demolition Depot. The back lot of this Harlem warehouse is filled with the most amazing stuff, mostly from the late 1800s and early 1900s when building styles were more ornate, including a colorful glazed terra-cotta block from the Audubon Ballroom and Theater (top right). In 1927, that’s where residents of Washington Heights—the neighborhood where I live now—likely saw their first talkie: The Jazz Singer, with Al Jolson. It’s also where black nationalist leader Malcolm X was gunned down in 1965, while addressing his followers from the stage.

In the 1990s, all but the front facade of the Audubon was razed, like so many other famous (the original Neoclassical-style Pennsylvania Station, for instance) and not-so-famous (Victorian-era tenements in Hell’s Kitchen) buildings in New York City. Thankfully, when places like these come down, there are sometimes people with the sense to spare exterior stone or terra-cotta corbels, pilasters, and keystones so they can be reused. One such rescuer is Demolition Depot’s owner, Evan Blum. He recently helped me pick out a sturdy section of cornice to serve as the basis for a garden tool rack I wanted to build for a green-thumbed friend (see how, right). The piece was 19 inches long, with an egg-and-dart pattern. The price: $75. I needed only one for the project, but I was tempted to ask Evan whether he’d cut me a deal if I bought the dozen or so matching sections. Sunk in a shallow trench, they would have made ideal pathway edging.

Of course, there are lots of great ways to incorporate facade fragments inside the house, too. I would have loved to buy a terra-cotta panel of an owl perched on a book, which used to hang above the entrance to an elementary school in the Bronx. At $2,500 it was pricier than my whole trip to Rome, but it would have looked great on the wall above my desk. My mom—a woman of more means than I but from whom I inherited my junker gene—did something similar with a pair of Art Nouveau pilasters that she hung in niches flanking either side of her bed.

I could think of a stylish reuse project for almost everything I saw. Four vase-shaped limestone balusters ($100 apiece) could be legs for a glass-top coffee table. A single scrolling keystone could be reinstalled over a front door or, for something different, mounted like a shelf on the wall.

Then there was the pair of 18th-century Istrian marble column capitals from an estate in Rye Brook, New York. Decorated with Corinthian-style acanthus leaves, they reminded me of the fragments I saw at the Forum. And man, they would have made some pretty regal stools on which to sit and survey my not so ancient but no less beloved Washington Heights landscape.

Tip: To clean stone or terra-cotta ornaments, use mild dish soap and water. Small chunks of mortar can be gently tapped off using a hammer and chisel.
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