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NYC Sites

When an old building is demolished in New York City, it’s debris is sent to all corners of the earth.

Stone and brick is crushed for road fill. American scrap metal is smelted across the globe. Truckloads of C & D (construction and demolition) ‘waste’ is transported to out of state landfills. Used lumber is, or at least can be, preserved in tact – and in the process, a portal to a sites history is salvaged.

The lumber in the exhibit has endured centuries (over half a millennium in some cases), a journey from old growth forest to the hands of a 21st c. designer. The historical research for each of the 12 woods and structures – provided by Sawkill Lumber Co’s Log Log research project – aims to be comprehensive of each historical stage, though what surfaces is often just a snapshot of the past.

The NYC structures span from the Erie Canal era (1832, 211 Pearl St.) to modern times (NY Public School scaffolding planks c. 2005).  Some are rare architectural treasures, others are rarely given a second look – but there wouldn’t be another building like it again.

Every board has a story to tell – whether about a building (862 Washington Ave., NY), a city neighborhood (1099 Leggett Ave., South Bronx), a structural icon (a Park Ave. rooftop water tank), a person associated with the site (Henry David Thoreau School), or the timbers and trees themselves – the natural history, cultural heritage, or logging and construction methods prior to becoming the structural members of a world class city.

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Coney Island Boardwalk, Brooklyn

Replaced: 2010
Wood: Brazilian Ipe (Tabebuia chrysantha), Cumaru (Dipteryx, odorata) and Greenheart (Chlorocardium rodiei)

History: The Coney Island boardwalk was dismantled recently – a three block stretch at the heart of the amusement area that included Nathanʼs Hot Dog stand, Cha Chaʼs Bar & Cafe, and Shoot The Freak. The fabled boardwalk (installed in the early 20th c. and then replaced in WWII), is made from Rainforest hardwoods, has been transformed into benches, decking, flower planters, and now modern furniture.

Coney Island has recently been in the spotlight, with NYC buying back a prime area from Thor Equities. Preservationists are campaigning for the city to incorporate the classic features of the original amusement area into future development.

The Dutch name for the island was Conyne Eylandt, or Rabbit Island, due to the large populations of wild rabbits, which were eventually wiped out. Now environmental activists
charge that animal and wildlife species are still being made extinct, not on Coney Island, but in the distant Rainforest, where the removal of a whole acre of jungle will often yield just a single useable Ipe tree.

For this reason, they are now succeeding in weening NYC away from the use of these exotic lumber products. Seventeen miles of boardwalk line the boroughs, making NYC the largest consumer of tropical Rainforest woods in the U.S. Most NYC boardwalks are now replaced with concrete. The stretch of Coney Island boardwalk, however, will still use Ipe.

Video clip of Coney Island Boardwalk demolition

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58-58 Laurel Hill Blvd, Queens

Disassembled: 2009
Wood: Antique White Oak (Quercus alba) and Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

History: In 1946, two twin brothers, Mario Morpugo and Bruno Morel opened a warehouse in Brooklyn to import brandy and vermouth, with the mission ‘to bring the fruits of Italy’s finest liqueurs, spirits and wines to America’, Bruno built the company up to be a leading importer of quality drinks.. The brothers emigrated from Triste, Italy, shortly before World War II and fought for the United States during the conflict. After opening shop, they worked with the Stock label, known as a premier vermouth distiller throughout Europe. Following the success of their operation, in 1958 they moved to 58-58 Laurel Hill Boulevard in Queens and opened a distillery to make their own alcohol, where there for the rest of their lives.

Stock Distillery Co. itself was founded in 1884 by grant of Austro-Hungarian Empress Maria Theresa, given a charter to sell its beverage as ‘Cognac Medicinal.’ At its height, the Stock operated 18 plants in 15 different countries. In 2007 the company was bought by Oaktree Capital Management, a private equity firm with in excess of $58 billion in assets under management (at June 2008), and consolidated under Heritage Brands, Inc. and then changed to Stock Spirits Group USA, Inc. The distillery in Queens has been converted to largely office space and the casks were removed in 2009.and which was founded a few months earlier to provide strategic mission, vision and direction. 

The casks, now 54 years old, were made of white oak and cypress. Though it’s difficult to tell where the wood was coming from during the post-war era, it is likely that they are North America.

White oak is found from southern Quebec west to eastern Minnesota and south to northern Florida and eastern Texas.  The wood is strong, tough, heavy and durable, making it perfect for use as a cask. It is also has a tight cellular structure that makes it water- and rot-resistant, allowing for the curing of fine spirits, including wine, whiskey and vermouth.

Cypress is a very versatile wood, known for its durability. It generates its own preservative oil, cypressene, making it naturally resistant to insects, decay and the elements. It is found all over the world and in a variety of different species.

 – Luke McGeehan

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157 Hudson St., Manhattan

Interior Dismantled: 2006
Wood: Short Leaf Pine / 3 x 12 x 12′+

History: Founded in 1850 in Albany, American Express established a headquarters in Manhattan at Jay and Hudson Streets and essentially had  a monopoly on shipment of express goods in NY State for about two decades. Originally, the United States Army established a cavalry rendezvous local recruiting office around the corner at No. 157 Hudson Street in the 1880s, along with a horse stable. Only three years later, in 1902, the American Express building was enlarged to take over this space, adding a long, narrow extension through the middle of the block to No. 157 Hudson Street where the Cavalry had been headquartered, creating a T-shaped structure.

The days of horses and drays for the American Express Company were numbered, however. In 1913 the parcel post system was established, wielding a significant blow to the express companies. By 1918 American Express was gone and a railroad freight firm, the American Railway Express Company, was using the building. The building was renovated again in 1946 when architect Henry G. Harrington remodeled it for use as the factory of the First Machinery Corporation, manufacturers of plastic and rubber products. Harrington also remodeled the Hudson Street façade by adding stone pilasters and arches framing the entrances.

As TriBeca experienced a renaissance, the old American Express stables saw change. Where horses and then machinery were once housed, No. 157 Hudson was now a hot night spot. Three different nightclubs—Headley, Vinyl and Area—were here. In 1997, despite more than one shooting at Vinyl, the club’s owner Nick DiTomasso said “…they’re just dancing. It’s all about dancing.”

The sometimes eyebrow-raising activities came to a halt when developer Peter Moore bought the building in 2004 for $18 million. Working with architect Kevin Kennon he brought the deteriorating structure back to life. After struggling for awhile with the Landmarks Preservation Commission over a proposed three-story rooftop addition, Moore settled for a compromise of a two-story addition invisible from the street. The resulting multifamily structure had 17 unique loft apartments averaging 3,000 square feet each. Nearly a century and a half after the original stable was built, it serves as a fine example of reuse of an historic property – and it’s interior lumber.

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3251 Broadway, Manhattan

Deconstructed: 2010
Wood: Long Leaf Pine (Pinus palustris) / 3 x 12 x 10-20′ & 12 x 14 x 15′

History: The factory built at 3251 Broadway was constructed of brick, blue stone, and longleaf pine for William Riedell by the architecture firm of Thom & Wilson.  Thom & Wilson was a successful firm noted for prolific production over stylish innovation and flair.  In 2005, the architecture critic Christopher Gray referred to the firm as “architectural contractors.”2 The five-story structure was unassuming and modest and was occupied early by tenants such as Bradley, Currier, and Company who produced window and door sashes and the Empire City Woodworking Company who made cabinets.  In 1915 a listing in The Horseless Age, likely the first automotive magazine ever published, placed the Universal Shock Eliminator Company at 3251 Broadway.  The ambition of the company was apparent and while its prized product was the Shock Eliminator their legacy is undoubtedly the car bumper which the company patented in 1927.

The Horseless Age reported in January 1920 that Demonstrations of the Universal Shock Eliminator, which, its makers claim, gives extra tire miles numbering into the thousands, attracted favorable comment from visitors to this booth.  This device was used on U.S. Army armored battery Cadillac cars for service at the front.  The manufacturers claim to this shock eliminator the advantage that it can be applied to the extreme front of chassis in addition to rear, enabling the four extreme points of the car to be held in flexible suspension.  The makers say of this device:  “It is a well-known fact that every jolt transmitted to the passenger is first received by the tires.  Minimize the jolt by the application of the U.S.E. Shock Eliminators and you will lessen the tire consumption and maintenance cost considerably.

Despite a promising start the Universal Shock Eliminator Company vanished from the motor trade magazines by the late 1920s.  In 1934 the company’s owner was listed as Inglis M. Uppercu who owned the Uppercu Cadillac Corporation, which sold and assembled Cadillac automobiles.  Uppercu later started the first international airline called Aeromarine Airways that, among other feats, took passengers in boat planes during the Prohibition Era to the Caribbean for “liquor tourism.”

– Mitchell Hulse

Photos: (l)Cadillac Armored Vehicle with U.S.E. technology.  Dual cylinder shocks mounted on single-bar bumper are the shock eliminators. Photo from http://www.landships.freeservers.com/Davidson-Cadillac_trigsby.htm (r) Sawkill Lumber Co.

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862 Washington St., Manhattan

Dismantled: 2012 
Wood: Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) / 3 x 12 x 18-21′

History: 862 Washington St. is just south of 14th St. on the western frontier of Manhattan. The building was, until December 2011, adjacent to the new High Line elevated park. The Meat-Packing district got its name for a reason.  Companies like New York Dressed Poultry, Inc. under its president Dennis P. Kennedy sprung up around the new elevated rail line that went from 34th Street to St. John’s Park Freight Terminal along Tenth Avenue.  This moved freight trains off grade.  The track was opened in 1934, the same year that the storage and office building was built for the Poultry company by architect Henry Schneider.   A previous design by Fellheimer and Wagner was never erected but appeared in a New York Times articles. Atlas Meats occupied the structure in the 1980’s, and a series of meatpacking establishments prior, but little more is known about the structure at the moment.

As for it’s neighborhood, today known as the Meatpacking District, which runs roughly from West 14th Street south to Gansevoort Street, and from the Hudson River east to Hudson Street, it has experienced the many transformations that NYC neighborhoods have seen through the eras.

In the mid-19th Century, before becoming part of Greenwich Village, today’s Meatpacking District was a vacation spot for New-York residents. Rowhouses began going up around 1840 and by mid-century, freight yards and heavy industry mixed with the residential.

After the Civil War, industrialization increased – an elevated railroad line went up and two new markets started – fresh produce and meat. By1900, 250 slaughterhouses! The High Line elevated freight line began construction in 1929.
The area’s decline began around the 1960s, but meatpacking continued to be the major activity in the neighborhood through the 1970s. At that time. a new “industry”, nightclubs catering to a gay clientele began to spring up. It also became a center for drug dealing and prostitution, many under the direct control of the Mafia and NYPD protection rackets.

Beginning in the late 1990s, the Meatpacking District began a transformation. High-end boutiques catering to young professionals and hipsters opened, and by 2004, New York magazine called the Meatpacking District “New York’s most fashionable neighborhood”. In September 2003, after three years of lobbying by preservation groups, the city established the Gansevoort Market Historic District. In 2009, the High Line opened to great reviews. The Whitney Museum of American Art announced it would build a Renzo Piano-designed home in the Meatpacking District.

– Emily Sinitski

(l) NYC Municipal Archives (r) Sawkill Lumber Co.

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603 Dean Street, Brooklyn

Dismantled: 2011

Wood: Long leaf Pine (Pinus palustrus) / 3 x 11-12″ x 11-22′

History: In Brooklyn, 603 Dean Street was no stranger to controversy and social justice issues. The building was constructed in 1928 and used during World War II for crucial wartime manufacturing.  Less than a year after the war ended, the garage was sold, likely unable to stay afloat with post-war economic downturn. 

In 2003, the building was being secretly developed to mask its true adaptation into a homeless hotel.  The city was not required to tell the citizens because it is a privately owned hotel that is rented out exclusively to the homeless population.  The local councilmen only need to be informed 72 hours in advance of a hotel being opened.  The need for homeless shelters in New York is dire because of a court order stating that any homeless person is entitled to shelter on the day they request it.  Even upon its demolition for Atlantic Yards, tension rose again from those in support of the homeless hotel and against the large demolition of the block.

The downtown Brooklyn site is planned for the new Atlantic Yards project, a mixed commercial and residential development project by Forest City Ratner.  It’s main hub is the Barclays Center, the new home of the New Jersey Nets, owned by Russia’s second richest person Mikhail Prokhorov, an avid basketball fan. The Huffington Post called Atlantic Yards  “a corrupt land grab,” “a taxpayer ripoff,” and “a complete failure of democracy.” The most vocal opposition group is a nonprofit named Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, which has been joined by several neighborhood and civic groups in lawsuits. Supporters of the project include Governors George Pataki and Eliot Spitzer, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others. The project also received support from affordable-housing advocates, because at least 30% of the residential units would be reserved for low-, moderate- or middle-income tenants.[4] Construction workers have been another group of strong support.

(l) brownstoner.com (m) sawkill lumber co. (r) curatedmag.com

park-avenue

Park Avenue, Manhattan

Dismantled: 2010
Wood: Old growth Redwood (Sequoiadendron)

History: New York City’s skyline is dotted with wooden water towers that are easy to mistake for vanishing relics of the bygone eras of seltzer bottles and street gas lamps – but the towers are hardly antiques — in fact, people drink and bathe from the water stored in them every day. Even new tanks look old because they are made of wood (most often Yellow Cedar and occasionally Cypress or Redwood) that isn’t painted or chemically treated (so as not to taint drinking water). With the higher moisture content in the wood, the tank creates a tight seal to retain water. A tank can last 30-35 years depending on exposure to the elements. Most buildings in the city taller than six stories need some sort of water tower and pumping system to provide water pressure to tenants. It takes 2-3 hours to fill the average 10,000-gallon tank. Though the technology has become more efficient, the concept of gravity delivering water from a wood tank hasn’t changed in decades. And while steel tanks are an option, they are more expensive, don’t provide as much insulation, require more maintenance and take longer to construct. The average wood tank holds 10,000 gallons of water and costs around $30,000. A steel tank of similar size could cost up to $120,000. But different buildings have their own specific needs.

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1090 Leggett Ave., Bronx

Dismantled: 2010
Wood: Western Pine (Pinus resinosa)

History: 1099 Leggett Ave. is located in Hunts Point, a peninsula in the South Bronx in New York City. The address at the corner of Leggett Ave. and Barry St. was recently home to the Modern Suppliers Inc., a large hardware company that recently moved across the street, and was replaced by a scaffolding supply company at the site. In the 1940′s, the location was occupied by a large lumber company. Further research is currently in process.

The area is home to 50,000 residents; Hispanic (one of the highest concentrations in NYC), Black, White, Asian, American Indian, Alaskan Native (close to 100) and over 300 people of two or more races. More than half live below the poverty line, which has created at least two one problem- two prisons with a third planned. Over 800 industrial businesses are on the peninsula. The New York City Terminal Market, one of the largest food distribution facilities in the world, moves fresh fruit and vegetables from almost every American state and 55 foreign countries.

Going way back, Europeans settled Hunt’s Point in 1663, buying it from the Wekkguasegeeck tribe. The land was later given to Thomas Hunt Jr. George Fox (1624–1691), founder of the Quakers is said to have preached in the area in 1672, hardly imagining the parade of prostitutes, drug dealers, gangs, mobsters, arsonists and others on the same site 300 years later. In the 19th century, New Yorkers were attracted to Hunt’s Point as a luxury destination. Tiffany (of jewelery fame) had land here. This came to an end after World War I when a train line was built nearby, and apartment buildings replaced mansions, streets replaced meadows and Hunt’s Point.

There are a number of non profits operating in this section of the South Bronx providing the area with hope – Per Scholas, Inc., Sustainable South Bronx (SSBx), Rocking the Boat, and many others.

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P.S. 17: The Henry David Thoreau School

Discarded: 2012
Wood: Antique and Vintage Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and other native softwoods.

History: There are approx. 300 public schools in New York City, with each requiring some type of exterior maintainance or repair work at some point. Scaffolding, the ubiquitous exoskeletons that rise up the facades of buildings, are erected, utilizing a framework of steel pipe with wood planks (6/4 x 9 x 8-12’). The planks in time reach the end of their useful life, no longer meeting OSHA safety standards and are most often discarded, chipped into mulch or burned. The exhibition has used the material for modern furniture, and Build-It-Green has initiated an extensive program to re-use the lumber for raised flower beds.

Every year, New York City public schools require maintenance to ensure safe and clean spaces for children’s intellectual and social growth.  Façade maintenance requires the use of scaffolding.  The reclaimed planks used for 12×12 designs were originally used on a number of school buildings, including P.S. 17 the Henry David Thoreau school in Queens.  In recent years, scaffolding has become a controversial use of city funds. In several city projects the expensive construction of the pipe frame remains standing and accruing costs when the funds for the actual repairs are not available.  The money used for the scaffolding takes away from aiding the buildings that need the most help. 

The woods used are a mix of species (listed below) from the deep south, Northwest, Northeast and Canada. Most are untreated solid lumber, and occasionally the boards are engineered or treated for fire resistance.

Photos: (l) Sawkill Lumber Co. (r) newyorkcitypreschools.us

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131-137 Emerson Place, Brooklyn

Demolished: 2008

Wood: Antique Long Leaf Pine timber / 12 x 14″ x 14′

History: Landmarks, or those buildings being considered for designation, generally have a well documented history. But most barely leave a trace. The exhibit includes these vernacular and landmark structures, each with their own allure. The historical record at 131-137 Emerson is minimal – at least at the moment. Scraps of information surface – a new staircase installed in 1964; an ‘ordinary cellar’ identified by the Department of Buildings in the same year; the 3rd floor occupied by a ‘caretaker’s apartment’; a ‘small machine shop’ with no further description on the same floor, it’s size: 50’ front 69’6” deep, 3 stories at 38’ high, a ‘tool, die and pattern making shop on the floor below’, the ground level functioning as a garage; in the early 1960‘s, an alteration performed by a Mr. Harry Rantillo. At that time, the building was owned by Car-Sal Associates, Inc., named for it’s president, Pat J. Cara, Pres. and VP, Salvatore Persico, VP.
It’s the picture of small scale industry mixed with residential brownstones that still characterizes many immigrant and working class neighborhoods in the city. The changes also reflect common transitions, with the site occupied by M.H. Renken Co. – “conducting a milk dairy in these premises”, later becoming a machine shop after refrigerated trucks allowed milk to be transported long distance. Change also represents the lumber used by Tri-lox for the 12 x 12 exhibit, utilizing woods that replaced lumber from the National Cold Storage buildings (made unavailable) at 100 Front St. Tri-Lox, like Emerson words, rolls with change,  “The whole world is the flux of matter over the wires of thought to the poles or points where it would build.” (I:Fate).
Emerson Pl. is located at the heart of Fort Greene, a Brooklyn neighborhood named after an American Revolutionary era fort (1776), built under General Nathanael Greene. Fort Greene Park is Brooklyn’s first, redesigned in 1864 by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the architects of Central Park.
About 800 A.D., some of the 13 tribes of the Algonquin Nation moved into the neighborhood. In 1637, Joris Jansen Rapelje purchased the land down to the Brooklyn Navy Yard (1801). Ferry service linked Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1814. By 1850, Brooklyn’s population exploded from 4,000 to nearly 100,000. Fort Greene over time was known as The Hill, home to a small farms and a commuter population, including Walt Whitman, who lived just a couple of blocks away from 131-137 Emerson Place.
New York outlawed slavery in 1827 and 20 years later “Coloured School No. 1,” opened at the site of the Walt Whitman House.  In the 1850s, The Hill went upscale, with streets taking on the name of exclusive London Terraces (Portland, Oxford, Cumberland, Carlton, and Adelphi). The poor and rich eventually made Fort Greene their home. But Myrtle Avenue became a shanty town (Walt Whitman responded by advocating for a park). “The poverty stricken condition of the inhabitants residing in the Fort Green/Clinton Hill district of Brooklyn render it almost an unknown land,”(NY Times, 1858).

Today, Fort Greene is considered one of the best examples of a truly racially and economically diverse neighborhood. The New York Times referred to it’s “prevailing sense of racial amity that intrigues sociologists and attracts middle-class residents from other parts of the city.” GQ describes it in this way: “one of the rare racial mucous membranes in the five boroughs — it’s getting white-ified but isn’t there yet, and so is temporarily integrated.”

(l) Sawkill Lumber Co. (r) www.nationalcenter.org

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211 Pearl Street, Manhattan

Interior Gutted: 2007

Wood: Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus) / 4 x 12-14″ x 18-20′

History: 1832 Greek Revival commercial warehouse. Pearl Street formed the original border of New Amsterdam, where pearl shells washed in from the sea and were used to pave the road.

The neo-Classical business buildings at 211 Pearl Street (built for the soap maker William Colgate) was a last remnant of the Pearl Street dry goods district of the early 19th century, and a valuable relic of New York and the nations early commercial history.

With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, New York City would ‘become like a funnel through which the wealth of the Western World would now have to pass.’  The surge of commerce created a remarkable surge in growth ‘…as the narrow lanes of the old city were transformed into the first district in the world devoted exclusively to commerce.’  Fifty years after the American Revolution, these same Greek Revival styled warehouses began to rise block after block along Pearl St., and by 1835, 70% of the nations trade passed through New York City.

 The ‘New Counting-House’ architecture in the Greek revival style was inspired by a number of converging factors; America’s fifty-year Jubilee celebration, a renewed appreciation of democracy’s origins in Greek antiquity, support for Greek independence from Ottoman rule in the 1820′s, as well as the popular trend for ancient Greece in England.

The American historian Paul E. Johnson provides the following Squib History of the Pearl Street mercantile district.

The Pearl Street merchants were not ship owners and importers (Those merchants were on Front Street). Pearl Street bough specialized goods (hardware, wine, finished cloth, and lots of other things) from the saltwater merchants and wholesaled them to storekeepers all over the country. They got their start after the War of 1812, when the British “dumped” cheap imported goods at New York. But they got their biggest boost when the Erie Canal connected them with towns and commercial farms in the huge region drained by the Great Lakes. The canal and the New York market commercialized agriculture in a large part of the northern United States. Wheat and other farm products came over the canal, into New York, and out to national and international markets. The boats going the other way were filled with consumer goods: not just necessities but carpets, wallpaper, upholstered furniture, mirrors, finished cloth for curtains, tablecloths, soap, and napkins, sets of dishes and flatware, and on and on. The farmers and villagers in that region created a unique rural middle-class culture – largely out of tastes and goods that they procured from Pearl Street. Storekeepers from that region made yearly trips to Pearl Street (it became known as an outpost of Ohio) to buy the stuff that was “civilizing” western New York and the Old Northwest – with the result that a huge portion of the profits from northern commercial agriculture stayed in New York City. Thus establishments like that at 211 Pearl Street conducted the trade that linked the commerce of the seaport with the commerce of the American interior. New York didn’t just move goods on the ocean. The city sold a very large portion of what commercializing Americans bought. The combination of overseas commerce and burgeoning domestic trade established New York as the commercial capitol (not just the biggest seaport) of the United States after 1815, and Pearl Street was the center of that trade.

In colonial times, the American patriot tailor Hercules Mulligan lived at 218 Pearl Street. Mulligan specialized in uniforms for high ranking Brittish officers and was a member of the Sons of Liberty during the Brittish occupation. He was said to have saved the life of General Washington on two occassions. A very young Alexander Hamilton also boarded with the Mulligan Family while attending Kings College.

By 1920, the once “Famous Old District” became known as ‘The Swamp’. New York School artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns occupied loft space at 278 Pearl Street in the early 1950′s.

New Yorker feature on 211 Pearl

9-17 2nd Ave., Manhattan

Demolished: 2012

Wood: Antique Spruce (Picea glauca) and mixed softwoods / 3 x 9 x 4-6′ & 3/4 x 2 1/2″

History: Most recently home to the Mars Bar. Historical summary to follow.

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