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Ghosts of Buildings Past

Museum or Mausoleum of Brooklyn's architectural past
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There are two possible explanations when you see dragons flying through the air. Either you’ve imbibed too many gin-and-tonics, or you’ve been strolling in the Brooklyn Museum’s architectural sculpture garden. (Mine was the latter case – I swear!) On the day in question, the flying dragon was one of the pieces of architectural sculpture being relocated as part of a museum renovation project.

The museum’s architectural sculpture garden always thrills me because it’s a physical reminder of a wonderful – but now vanished -- tradition. The elements, which range from small terra-cotta moldings to monumental carved stone figures, are the legacy of a forgotten army of skilled craftsmen who labored more than 100 years ago. These nameless carvers and sculptors fulfilled John Ruskin’s dream of architectural work that displayed “the hand of the craftsman.” Though extremely skilled, these anonymous artisans didn’t have the hubris to declare themselves “artists,” yet their work demonstrates a level of technical accomplishment that most of today’s sculptor/artists can only envy.

Saving & salvaging sculpture

Brooklyn’s architectural sculpture garden got its start during the 1960s, when there was wholesale demolition of “old-fashioned” buildings in favor of sleek Modernist towers. A small group of dedicated preservationists, led by Ivan Karp, started the informal Anonymous Arts Recovery Society (AARS), which visited demolition sites (mostly at night) and hauled off especially fine examples of architectural ornament before it could be consigned to a landfill. Many of the pieces collected by AARS were eventually donated to the Brooklyn Museum and became the foundation of its architectural sculpture garden. Brooklyn was the first museum to install a garden of architectural sculpture, and the collection remains today the preeminent assemblage of salvaged terra cotta, stone and metal architectural ornament.

The pieces in the sculpture garden are the ghostly remains of the ornamental tradition that flourished in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ornament, and especially sculpture, were considered integral components of building design – a refinement that turned mere construction into architecture. The ornamental tradition waned in the 20th century as industrial processes and Modernism dictated the design and construction of stripped-down edifices. The griffins, lions, horses, sibyls, grape clusters, oak leaves, cornucopias, cherubs, masks and other carved and cast ornament live on in the sculpture garden to remind us of a time when there was literally art in “the building arts.”

You can read more about the flying dragon on the Brooklyn Museum blog, for May 27, where Jakki Godfrey of the museum’s Conservation Department describes some of the work currently being done with the architectural sculpture collection.

To me, the architectural sculpture garden is a well-deserved memorial to the artisans who toiled in obscurity to enrich a bygone era that truly valued beauty.

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