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

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1980

New York

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.

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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.

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.