Michele Cardella in Building Operations on October 7, 2022
Demolition and renewal. When the new super, John, arrived at my Lower Manhattan co-op eight years ago, he quickly impressed shareholders with his talent and initiative — and with 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.
New York City attracts people who appreciate its history and yet can hardly wait to knock it down and start over. This cycle of demolition and renewal plays out at our co-op, where 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’s past. Because of his interest, 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.
Our own Building Museum. While the shield certainly is the most dazzling of his finds, John has collected enough items from the building’s endless renovations to line a shelf in his office that I call the Building Museum. The most recognizable are two empty beer cans — Budweiser and Schaefer — 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.
In the basement sits the building’s original bank vault — not a safe, but a vault the size of a New York studio apartment. It’s spectacular, 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 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 — so far.
Succumbing to the inevitable. 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 when the drywall crew arrived, my family and the workers gathered in front of the old signatures, Sharpies in hand, and signed our names under theirs. Then all the signatures were covered with a sheet of new drywall. Maybe they’ll be rediscovered during the next gut renovation.
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