Bits of an Old Theatre Slip Through a Salvager’s Grasp



When the developer John Portman demolished the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1982, the city contracted Evan Blum to salvage as much of the old building’s architectural detail as possible. For decades afterward, the giant terra cotta panels that made up its façade sat with pieces of other old buildings in a city warehouse in Brooklyn, in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge.

Over the past few months, nearly 30 years after he first rescued the remnants of the Helen Hayes on West 46th Street, Blum looked forward to winning them back at an auction held on Tuesday.

It all started this summer, Blum said, when the city announced it was selling off its trove of old bits of architecture to replace the warehouse, on Berry Street in Brooklyn, with affordable housing. (The city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission had scrapped its salvage program, which had contracted Blum for the Helen Hayes project, in 2000, due to budget concerns.)

The city donated various elements from the warehouse to organizations like the National Building Museum and the New-York Historical Society, including a few pieces from the Helen Hayes. In July, Blum said, the City auctioned off the rest of the warehouse’s contents.

“In the first go-around, I was the only bidder,” said Blum, who owns Demolition Depot, an architectural salvage business on East 125th Street in Harlem. “I won it fair and square.”

But the city felt otherwise. It exercised its right not to accept Blum’s bid, and instead decided to hold another auction, with the warehouse contents divided into lots. “We wanted potential buyers to have the option of purchasing separate lots,” Lisi de Bourbon, a spokeswoman for the Landmarks Preservation Commission wrote in an email, “rather than just one lot.”

Blum was displeased. “Isn’t it ironic,” he said, that three decades after he salvaged the Helen Hayes pieces, he couldn’t buy them back. “Just like the city,” he added. “They have to win.”

The Landmarks Preservation Commission advertised more widely for the second auction, said Justin Green, the program director for Build It Green! NYC, a non-profit salvage operation in Astoria, Queens that’s dedicated to keeping old building materials out of landfills. Green hadn’t heard about the auction the first time around, but his organization decided to bid in the second one.

To solicit bids, the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a series of open houses at the warehouse in Brooklyn in mid-October, which drew about 70 people.

Some of them came from the companies and non-profits that make up New York’s architectural salvage industry, like Demolition Depot and Build It Green! NYC. Others, like Nikos Papagapitos, 26, a self-described architectural history nerd, were drawn by The New York Times’ article about the Helen Hayes Theatre, which mentioned the auction.

The Helen Hayes’s remains, Lot 27, took up most of the back of the warehouse. Thick terra cotta tiles from the façade sat stacked four feet high on wooden pallets. Turquoise and mint-colored sections of mosaic were piled on top of sheets of brass, and two signs with “Helen Hayes” in gold script sat peeling on the floor. The arrangement didn’t impress everyone.

“It’s despicable,” said Gil Shapiro, who owns Urban Archaeology, a salvage and furnishings company with two Manhattan locations, referring to the condition of the items. He couldn’t see many of them, he said, and what he could see was broken. “I’ve been doing this since the 60s,” he added. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Visitors interested in the 30 lots — three of which were later removed from the sale and donated to a community group — submitted bids by mail, which were opened on Tuesday at the Manhattan Municipal Building downtown. Only two people showed up to hear the bids: Randal Dawkins, a buyer for Demolition Depot, and Justin Green of Build It Green! NYC.

Demolition Depot had made bids on several lots, including a $4,000 offer for the remnants of the Helen Hayes, but Blum was outbid — with a twist. Build It Green! NYC bid $15,000 for the entire contents of the warehouse — exactly the kind of winner-take-all scenario the City had tried to avoid this time.

The Landmarks Preservation Commission must still approve Green’s bid, which de Bourbon said it would do by the week’s end. But at this point, it appears Blum may lose the terra cotta tiles brass fittings he salvaged from the Helen Hayes in 1982.

For his part, Green said that Build It Green! NYC is set to open a new location near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, and could use the material. The organization, like most salvage companies, helps to outfit bars, restaurants and other companies looking for vintage architectural elements. A web company may buy some of the materials from the auction if Build It Green! NYC’s bid is approved, Green said.

“We’re opening up this whole new store,” he said, “so if we do win the whole warehouse, we can fill it, which would be great.”