One man's ceiling is another man's bird sanctuary

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Act now! Buy the facade of the Chicago Stock Exchange and be the envy of your block. It's fun. It's historic. It's large. Put it on the front of your house and impress the neighbors. Guaranteed not to fade, peel, or warp.

Or perhaps you'd prefer something smaller than this remnant of architect Louis Sullivan's famous 1894 building. A modest object, like a 12-foot-tall baronial fireplace. What about a paneled room previously owned by Benny Goodman?

And for that blank wall over the sofa: a three-foot copper clown face from the cornice of New York's Commodore Hotel. Only $700, with crate. Freight extra.

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Evan Blum sells all these things, and more. From a cramped, gargoyle-littered garage on East 80th Street in New York, he runs Irreplaceable Artifacts, the nation's largest dealership in architectural art and bits of old buildings.

Blum's your man if you're trying to outfit a restaurant with old brass rails, stained-glass windows, and yards of Victorian paneling. A specialist in hodgepodge nostalgia, he peddles stairways, statues, and ecclesiastical artifacts the way other people push term insurance. some dealers sell antiques, but none move on a scale as vast as this: He once sent 200 wrought-iron elevator doors to Santo Domingo, and his latest newsletter reports the sale of rights to salvage a monastery in Wheeling, W.Va. It was bought by a Californian, who will move the whole thing to his West Coast estate for use as a bird sanctuary.

"Or something like that," Blum says, turning vague. "We try to protect our clients' privacy."

Most of his clients aren't eccentric, anyway. Irreplaceable Artifacts is primarily a wholesale business, selling to architects, designers, builders, and corporations such as Sheraton Corporation and Resorts International Inc. His few retail customers are super-rich, the sort of people who think "recession" is a dance step and not a state of the economy.

Blum is a young man, a native New Yorker with pale features and sweeping black hair. Wandering through his showroom, he stops between an art deco wall relief and some carved stone gargoyles.

"We're the largest wholesaler and No. 1 finder of this type of merchandise in the country. Basically, we're the backbone of the industry." He looks at an old Victrola and smiles. "Some people send us their want lists, too. They're building a new house, and they want a unique set of driveway gates or a fountain. They're looking for their dream. We make those dreams come true."

A Victrola was the beginning of Blum's own dream. Enamored of antique phonographs, he began collecting them when he was only 12. Within a year, he had so many something had to be done.

"At the age of 13, to have 60 phonograph horns sticking out around the house! You'd have to be insane, deranged, or completely eccentric. So I started a business. I got to be well known all over the country for buying and selling phonographs."

In his early 20s he decided to expand his range of operations. His father was an architect, and young Blum had long been interested in bits of old buildings, the salvage left when a historic structure was demolished. He rented a shop on Long Island, dusted off his personal assortment of statues, keystones, and capitals, and found the right market at the right time.

So many interior designers wanted the drama of exotic antiques that he moved to the swanky Upper East Side. There are choice bits in the showroom, but the oversize pieces he likes to work with -- fireplaces fit for a ski lodge, counters long as a fire engine, 20-foot neo-Greek statues -- are kept in warehouses around the country. And then there is the Chicago Stock Exchange facade, so large it is stored on five acres of farmland.

Demolition companies that know his name and reputation alert him to most of his raw material. "I had to spend a lot of money to get my name around," he says ruefully.

Many things he sees only in photographs. He will buy the salvage rights to a doomed building and then resell them to a decorator or collector without ever touching the building himself, much like a dealer in pork belly futures.

Historic preservationists say they have no qualms about services such as Blum's, though they wish the buildings were left intact in the first place.

"We don't encourage demolition for the sake of salvage," says Tom Donia, a spokesman for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "But if a building, for reasons apart from its artifacts, is being demolished, then saving those pieces makes perfect sense."

One of the items he now has in stock is the right to salvage a Victorian New York City brownstone. for one price, the bargain-minded buyer will receive a complete vestibule, parlor doors, two large mirrors, 25 panel doors, three marble fireplaces, a walnut fireplace, and a carved newel post.

"If the developer had given me more time, we would have just picked up the whole building and moved it. It's a shame to take apart an 1882 brownstone. People don't think you can move a town house, but my company can."

Other irreplaceable artifacts currently on the block include:

* The film titan's fireplace -- This spectacular piece, 12 feet tall by 12 feet wide, once belonged to Jack Warner, one of the Warner Brothers. It allegedly made a cameo appearance in Alfred Hitchcock's movie "Rebecca." Floridly baronial, it would make even the meekest millionaire want to oppress some peasants.

* Stanford White's balcony -- From the Fifth Avenue office building owned and designed by Stanford White, a famous turn-of-the-century architect, this terra-cotta balcony was removed by an owner who didn't want to make expensive repairs. Shaped like scallop shells and flanked by acanthus leaves, it would look great edging a patio.

* A stairway fit for the Met -- The Metropolitan Museum of Art's new American wing features stairs rescued from Sullivan's Chicago Stock Exchange, demolished in the early '70s. The Met has two flights; Blum has four. Although a little wide for the average two-story Colonial, they'd make any restaurant distinguished.

* David Brenner's stained-glass Victoria -- An antique phonograph mounted in a blue stained-glass cabinet. Blum originally sold it to comedian David Brenner , whose decorator decreed it clashed with the room plan. Irreplaceable Artifacts has taken it back on consignment. Will sell only to a good home.

Corporations in search of panache for the board room might like a stained-glass cupola from a St. Louis bank. If you're renovating a town house, Brooklyn's first private residential elevator is available.

And for that new business in search of distinctive wall decorations: New York state seal medallions, from the West Side Highway. Slightly used.

Blum's business also deals, discreetly, in the buying and selling of old church artifacts. As neighborhoods change, places of worship often lose their congregations and close for lack of support. Irreplaceable Artifacts, Blum claims, is one of the few companies that buys ecclesiastical salvage rights.

"We'll go all over the United States looking at churches. We'll appraise their items; remove, store, and ship them; and re-erect them at another location."

At his current project, a doomed church building tilting on its spongy foundation, paintings lie flat on jumbled pews. Plaster bits scar the walls where statues once hung, and a work crew strains to remove the last of the tower bells.

"Very few people will do rigging [the removal of heavy bells from steeples] nowadays." Blum walks down the center aisle, past neat piles of molding. Most of the building's ornament is gone, and it feels bare as any empty apartment.

The items from this church will be sold to Irreplaceable Artifacts' special ecclesiastical customers: new congregations, expanding ones, and church architects interested in the scarce material.

Blum stops and looks at the high rose window, still to be removed. "I feel good these things are being saved. I've seen stained-glass windows smashed. We're turning them into money for these people. Before, they were just throwing them away."

He regards all his merchandise with the same paternal air. Back in the showroom, he says, "people don't know where to go to do something with this stuff," gesturing at the statuary and old doors. "They know they're going to level a movie theater for a parking lot, but they don't know what to do with the salvage. So it just gets leveled. The best thing to do is send us photographs. We have a market for virtually anything that's good."

Pausing, he runs his hand along one of the giant copper faces that hang from the wall -- clowns frozen in a painful grimace -- as if they had just sat on a tack.

"These are hand-formed, made in sections with a drop hammer. As with all architectural ornament, there's a mystique created when you see them at eye level. You're used to seeing them 20 stories high, if you notice them at all. Close up, they produce a unique feeling, reflect a certain type of richness brought by the artisans who came from Europe before the turn of the century."

Most of the people who buy them turn the faces into garden planters or hang them on the living room wall. Artists and architects, he says, are particularly intrigued.

For a person of imagination turned loose in Irreplaceable Artifacts, these faces are just one of the possibilities. Elevator doors could become room dividers, or railroad station benches transform into sofas, or art deco chandeliers change into very large desk lamps.

And who knows? The Chicago Stock Exchange might make a wonderful bird sanctuary.

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