When the new super, John, arrived at my Lower Manhattan co-op eight years ago, he quickly impressed shareholders with his talent, thriftiness and initiative — and the red, white and blue Captain America shield that suddenly appeared on his office floor. Until John uncovered it, this 20-inch iron disk with a star in the middle had been hiding in plain sight under layers of gray paint applied at least since 1979, when the Depression-era bank storage building was converted to residential lofts.
Unlike the rest of us in my co-op, John has an appreciation for old stuff. Longtime shareholders who are moving out have been ditching antiques, commonly dismissed as “brown furniture” by their children. New residents — who swore during their interview with the co-op board that they love the authentic oldness of the building and plan to live in their apartments for a while before considering even a few minor tweaks — often step over the threshold not with a moving van but with a demolition plan.
New York City attracts people who appreciate its history and beauty and yet can hardly wait to knock it down and start over. This cycle of demolition and renewal plays out at our co-op. Shareholders appreciate the beauty and history of the building’s exterior, yet inside our apartments we remove any hint that something existed before us. The exception is John, who enjoys seeking out and restoring items that hold memories of our building. Because of his interest in the past, we now know that the Captain America shield in his office is actually an iron hatch that once allowed for deliveries to the coal room under the floor.
Pieces of History
While the shield certainly is the most dazzling of his finds, John has collected enough items from the building’s endless and ongoing renovations to line a shelf in his office that I call the Building Museum. The most recognizable are two empty beer cans circa 1960 that were discovered inside a demolished apartment wall, their obsolete pop tops and contents long gone. Next to them is an iron chisel embedded in a piece of stone and cement from the building’s original entry steps that were tossed out during our 2016 lobby renovation. Hanging above the shelf is a beautiful shiny copper orb. John retrieved it and two other leveling floats when we replaced the building’s original wooden water tank in 2019. When John finds the time to restore all three floats to their original luster, perhaps the trio could hang in our lobby as a gleaming industrial version of a Calder mobile.
The Building Museum is bookended on one side by a set of heavy old copper and iron doorknobs polished to a sheen after John replaced them with a self-locking mechanism on an elevator door in the basement. Also in the basement is the building’s original bank vault — not a safe, but a vault the size of a New York studio apartment. It’s a spectacular piece with thick steel doors and locking rods the width of foam exercise rollers. Unfortunately, it’s in our commercial tenant’s space, and thus out of John’s reach. And yet. When a new standpipe needed to be installed in the basement, two small metal rods had to be removed from the vault door to make room. They’re not much to look at, but they’re the only pieces of the vault John could get for the museum.
Bookending the other side of the shelf is a shiny heavy object discarded during another apartment renovation: an original radiator valve made of brass and copper with an iron core. John shined it up, revealing patent numbers and the name of the Chicago manufacturer, Direct Control Valve Co. While the device works, John has no plans to use it. To him, the pieces in the Building Museum are worth preserving simply because they did their job and are part of our history.
While I admire John’s appreciation of things past, I, too, eventually chose modernization over preservation. After more than two decades, my husband and I realized that our memory-filled apartment had devolved into a storage space for unused stuff, well-worn furniture and unreliable old appliances. When the children moved out, we started a gut renovation.
Although he was not our super at the time, John would have been pleased that our demolition revealed an artifact not to be appreciated and removed but rather appreciated and left in place. On the perimeter wall behind the Sheetrock were the faded signatures of those who had come before us, including, I hoped, the original builders from 80 years earlier.
My husband and I considered altering our designer’s drawings so as to expose the old signatures in our new living room. But we learned that just as New Yorkers have to knock it down, builders have to build it up. So, before our discovery was re-covered by the new drywall, my family and the construction crew gathered in front of the old signatures, Sharpies in hand, and signed our names under theirs.