A Trove of Salvage Unsalvaged Spawns a Mess of Lawsuits

The New York Observer/May 16, 2004
By Nina Burleigh

When it came crashing down, in late summer of 2000, the fall of the Irreplaceable Artifacts warehouse on Houston was one of the more spectacular building collapses in pre-9/11 New York memory. The four-story 19th-century structure was a downtown landmark, piled to the rafters with monumental friezes, plaster busts, gargoyles and brass doors. The emergency demolition was notable for a spectacular irony: When the building came down, it buried $12 million worth of objects rescued from several decades of New York City building demolitions.

The dust has long settled on the site, but the litigation it spawned continues in Manhattan courtrooms. The various legal fights bring together a motley cast of characters and a bizarre confluence of questions, including these: When, if ever, does a doorknob or a plumbing fixture qualify as art? How does the city divvy up its emergency-demolition contracts? And is the city giving nonprofit status to a cult that uses hypnotized teens as slave labor to enrich the cult's founder, a Palm Beach millionaire with five airplanes? Evan Blum was one of the pioneers in the architectural-salvage business. The Long Island native started Irreplaceable Artifacts in the 1970's, and has since been profiled in Esquire , Smithsonian magazine and The New York Times . He purchased most of the items in his warehouse from wrecking crews in the New York area.

Mr. Blum and his father, Walter Blum, were in the process of renovating their building to make a restaurant on the premises when a wall started caving in. City inspectors arrived and, fearing a disaster-so much so that the F train underneath was shut down and traffic on Houston diverted-asked for and won an emergency-demolition order.

The building was roped off with police tape, and Mr. Blum was allowed just 10 minutes to go inside and bring out what he could carry. He rescued one box of business documents; he left behind his two cats and what he says were millions of dollars' worth of architectural salvage items. One of the cats survived; the other presumably perished along with most of Mr. Blum's salvaged treasures.

Most … but not all.

During his frantic 10 minutes inside before the wrecking ball landed, Mr. Blum was surprised to notice certain large items already missing from the premises. He didn't have time to look for them or verify his suspicion: The building was demolished within 24 hours.

A month later, Mr. Blum visited the Scranton, Penn., warehouse of his main competitor in the architectural salvage business, Olde Good Things. There, Mr. Blum found some of his missing salvage objects, including 20 seven-foot-high embossed-brass elevator doors, a 10-foot-wide zinc frieze and two brass entry doors from the old Paramount Theater.

Olde Good Things is a phenomenally successful salvage and antiques concern operated by the Church of Bible Understanding, a religious organization that has been called a cult by former members. COBU was founded in the 1970's by a former vacuum-cleaner salesman turned Jesus freak named Stewart Traill. Mr. Traill now lives a decidedly non-ascetic life in Palm Beach, where he allegedly owns five airplanes. His cult continues to recruit mostly troubled teens from inner-city areas in Philadelphia, and, according to Mr. Blum's lawyers, these teens provide Mr. Traill with the free labor that makes his business a success.

Mr. Blum filed a police report in Scranton, estimating the value of the goods at over $200,000 and charging grand larceny. Eventually, a New York City building official pleaded guilty to helping divert the items onto the Olde Good Things trucks.

Adding insult to injury, Mr. Blum and his father had been charged with felonies for allowing their building to become a hazard. A jury cleared them of recklessly endangering lives and lying in paperwork about the extent of the renovations that were under way at the time of the July 2000 collapse. They were convicted of lesser charges of recklessly creating a serious risk of injury to their employees and neighbors.

After his building was demolished, Mr. Blum filed his own lawsuit against the city in October 2001, asking $20 million in damages and alleging that the city ordered the emergency demolition "without justification, without an opportunity for [Mr. Blum] to be heard, without procedures for the preservation of evidence and with intentional malice."

Mr. Blum's lawyer, Ray Dowd of Dowd & Marotta, said the city orders around a dozen emergency demolitions every month and that a small club of favored contractors is paid $300,000 to $400,000 for each one, a practice he said explained some of the "large political contributions" to various political figures. Mr. Dowd said the city is required to give owners hearings before demolitions, but that most owners, like Mr. Blum, rarely get their day in court before the wrecking ball strikes.

Mr. Blum's lawsuit is still pending.

A year after Mr. Blum filed suit against the city, a New York Consumer Affairs inspector walked into his other place of business, Demolition Depot on 125th Street in Harlem, and, pretending to be a consumer, innocently inquired about a non-working stand-up hand-dryer. Told she could have the item, the inspector revealed her identity and cited Mr. Blum for operating as a dealer in secondhand goods without a city license.

Mr. Blum was immediately suspicious about why the inspector visited his store in the first place. His lawyers filed a FOIA motion to find out exactly what inspired the undercover inspection of Demolition Depot on that day. They have received nothing. "I think it was the city's response to his lawsuit," says Mr. Dowd.

Mr. Blum doesn't want to file for a secondhand-dealer license. He says such a filing would require him to perform a Herculean feat of bureaucratic documentation on each and every item in his vast and dusty warehouse.

Mr. Blum is also reluctant to file for a license because his conviction in the downtown building collapse could be reason for the city to deny the license.

But his main argument against licensing, which continues to this day, is that he is not selling secondhand goods but art objects. Mr. Blum claims that he is not just a secondhand-goods dealer, but a purveyor of "sculpture" to Hollywood and some of the city's finest homes.

Among the scores of fabulous who have purchased brass friezes, gargoyles and other monumental tchotchkes from Mr. Blum are Pierre Cardin, Jane Pauley, the Banana Republic stores, Keith McNally, downtown restaurant Il Buco, Woody Allen and Kevin Costner.

With a client list like that, Mr. Blum differentiates himself from other "dealers in secondhand goods" such as one finds behind tables at the Sixth Avenue flea markets. Mr. Blum contends his things are art, worthy of First Amendment protection and by no means liable to city regulation, as are other thrift and antique stores.

In the first hearing on the licensing, the following exchange between Mr. Blum's lawyers and the city's licensing inspector set the tone.

Ray Dowd (Mr. Blum's lawyer): "Did you see objects of art on the premises?"

Administrative law judge Kirk Miller: "Do you understand what he means by 'objects of art'?"

Inspector Vickie Cabble: "Such as this? The, the …. "

Judge Miller: "Why don't we define our terms here?"

Mr. Dowd: "If you went to Home Depot, would you see gates like that?"

During the same hearing, Mr. Blum's wife Leslie, an architect, testified as to how she and her husband transform salvaged objects-functional tools like radiator grills-into works of art.

"We take a look at it and say, 'This is a lovely piece of ornamental grillwork. People don't need grills like this anymore; what can we do with them?' … [A]nd we try to see, in this case, the idea of passing light through it, putting a diffuser behind it and having light come through … because you get to set the tracery of the metalwork."

The Blums have published a lavishly photographed coffee-table book on the many decorative uses for architectural-salvage pieces.

Mr. Blum argued through his lawyers that with his decorative imagination, he has a "transformative" effect on everyday old things like doorknobs, bathtubs and grillwork. In fact, Mr. Blum also sends the original artifacts overseas to craftsmen in Belgium who mold and cast from the originals, making new things that look old, which are then sold to New York's high-end decorators.

The city's response is that in no way are doorknobs and plumbing fixtures-no matter how old or beautiful, and no matter whether they've been transformed into decorative objects-worthy of First Amendment protection against city licensing requirements.

"To suggest that the sale of a plumbing fixture or doorknob, which would otherwise be unprotected by the First Amendment, becomes so protected with the addition of decoration (which in and of itself is not expressive) and thus becomes 'sculpture' is contrary to both common sense and the inherent purpose of the First Amendment," the city's lawyers wrote in a recent brief.

"In any event the analysis … is completely irrelevant to the instant proceeding where [Mr. Blum] offers for sale items previously sold, including doorknobs, mirrors, light fixtures, plumbing fixtures and bathtubs. Clearly such items are not entitled to First Amendment protection regardless of any efforts on behalf of petitioner to restore or refurbish such items."

A judge is expected to rule within a matter of days on the licensing issue, putting to rest-for the moment at least-the question of whether radiator grills can morph into high art. If Mr. Blum is forced to file for a license and is denied one, he's certain to file another lawsuit. As for the $20 million lawsuit Mr. Blum filed against the city in October 2001, it's unlikely to be resolved for years.

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