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Columbia Spectator Staff

The words on the disjointed sign blare out the name "DEMOLITION DEPOT," but the gears, planks, and oddments that make up the giant letters show the trade of this establishment: architectural salvage. Standing on the outer rim of 125th Street, this striking brick hulk is the clearing house for much of New York City's past—scores of bits and pieces deemed worth saving from hundreds of demolitions, excavations, disasters, estate sales, and attics. Most of them are quite valuable, a few very sizeable, and some completely unique.

Thomas Koole, the manager, showed me one of the latter amid the gothic jumble of the first floor. "This is the most exotic chamber pot we have," he said, waving toward a large granite figure of a bowing man in a turban, a wooden seat affixed to his bent back. "We found it in the basement of the Cartier mansion—somebody had put it in a crate." Unfortunately, the salad days of such easy acquisition of humanoid chamber pots, or anything else old and valuable for that matter, are apparently over.

"The awareness of its value is increasing," said Koole. "You can't get this stuff for free anymore." When I asked why, he thought for a moment. "People are screaming about losing culture, and the artifacts are a part of that culture. It's the idea of recycling, of reusing ... the more things get torn down, the less there is. It's too late, but it raises consciousness."

To that end, it's difficult to imagine a more effective tool than the building itself, with four floors for fine lighting, stained glass, doors and windows, and plumbing, respectively—although the distinctions don't seem too rigorous. It's hard to see what tandem bicycles and painted Chinese theater backdrops have to do with plumbing, yet both grace the fourth floor in abundance. There's also an overgrown yard in back for objects that are too heavy for the floors inside to support, among them stone dragons and red London phone booths haunted by the store's several cats.

The atmospheric qualities of these pieces are not lost on customers—production companies for film and television are among the store's largest clients. Demolition Depot artifacts have been used by a wide range of movies and shows from Sophie's Choice to Sex and the City, Law & Order to Martha Stewart Living, as well as by many artists, designers, theater companies, hoteliers, architects, photographers, and private clients like Woody Allen and Kevin Costner.

With such clientele and such a collection, Demolition Depot seems the uncontested capital of New York salvage. However, like so many of its artifacts, the store itself is a fragment, a testament to faded glory.

Initially, Demolition Depot was just overflow storage space for owner Evan Blum's main store, Irreplaceable Artifacts, on Second and Houston. But on July 13, 2001, a wall in the historic downtown building partially collapsed during renovations, and the city ordered an immediate emergency demolition. "They took it down with everything still in it," said Koole bitterly, "even the cats."

An estimated $12 million of artifacts saved from scores of previous demolitions met their final end in this one, including several Tiffany's windows valued at $50,000 each. City inspectors had feared a disaster, to the point that the F train below was shut down and traffic on Houston diverted. Blum was allowed 10 minutes inside to grab whatever he could carry, after which he lost the bulk of his collection to the wrecking ball.

The situation was complicated further when some artifacts presumably lost in the building's collapse, including 20 brass elevator doors, later turned up in the suitably random locale of Scranton, Pa. They were housed in the warehouse of Blum's main business rival, Olde Good Things, the salvage company wing of the Church of Bible Understanding—a religious organization that, according to the New York Observer, is alleged by some ex-members to be a cult founded by a vacuum cleaner salesman turned prophet. According to the Observer, a New York City buildings official eventually pled guilty to illegally diverting the goods, but the majority of Blum's life's work was still irretrievably lost in the rubble.

The city subsequently pressed felony charges against Blum for allowing his building to become a hazard, eventually convicting him on lesser charges. He, in turn, sued the city as soon as possible, alleging that the demolition was carried out with unnecessary haste and "intentional malice," and Koole remains convinced that the city acted maliciously. The matter is still being battled out in the courts, though, and probably will be for some time.

What remains, then, is salvage from salvage. Four floors and a garden comprise New York's newer and smaller attic, though it's still large enough for customers or explorers to wander among the various treasures for hours. Because of the massive nature of most of the merchandise, the clerks are fairly unconcerned about unarmed customers damaging them, and thus let visitors gawk untroubled. Among the thousand bathroom mirrors of the fourth floor, the only creature to interrupt my wandering was one of the cats gliding out from behind an antique urinal to investigate my leg. He leapt up onto a flowered chamber pot and considered me, an intruder on the stillness—the last curiosity of the day.

Urban Adventure