Volume 16 • Issue 19 | October 07 - 13, 2003

Madonna, Britney attracted to Downtown wood

By Elizabeth O’Brien

Downtown Express photo by Ramin Talaie

Alan Solomon, who worked to save 211 Pearl St., now helps sell the coveted Eastern white pine beams that were saved before the building’s interior was demolished.

At 211 Pearl St., only a silver remains of the historic Greek revival building that had stood there since the early 1830s. But elsewhere in the city, parts of the demolished interior have found new life, in a restaurant on the Upper West Side, in a tree guard on E. Fourth St., and possibly even on a music video set for Madonna and Britney Spears.

Preservationists worked for months to rescue 211 Pearl St. from demolition by Rockrose Development Corp. Their efforts succeeded in saving a narrow slice of the building’s facade, but the rest was demolished in the spring to make room for a rear entrance for a 650-unit residential development the company is constructing west of Pearl St., on Gold St. between Platt St. and Maiden Lane.

M. Fine Lumber Co., Inc. in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, bought all of the building’s pine ceiling beams, roughly 350 of them. Through the company, some of the Pearl St. pine has already made its way to artists throughout New York City. This brings some comfort to Alan Solomon, an independent researcher who led the efforts to preserve the building and now works part-time in research and marketing for M. Fine Lumber Co.

“It’s trying to salvage something from the historic loss and to pay tribute to the building, a symbol of growth and innovation,” Solomon said.

Downtown Express photo by Jessica Mintz

Only the facade is left of 211 Pearl St., which survived Downtown’s Great Fire in 1835. Rockrose Development Corp. is constructing a residential building at the site.

The wood taken from 211 Pearl St. is Eastern white pine, a soft wood found mostly in New England and Great Lakes states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin. This kind of wood isn’t often on the market. The federal government regulates logging in its forests, and naturally growing Eastern white pine would not likely be cut down under normal circumstances. It is similarly uncommon for a historic building like 211 Pearl St., built about 75 years before the federal government began its timber regulations, to be demolished.

Naturally grown wood can fetch up to five times the price of wood grown in managed forests, according to Louis Fine, the third-generation president of M. Fine Lumber Co. Fine said he paid $150 for each of the 211 Pearl beams, which measure four inches thick, 14 inches wide, and 24 feet long. Eastern white pine is not rare, but it is the least common of 10 lumber types in the eastern U.S. tracked by the U.S. Forest Service, according to statistics on the service’s Web site.

“That is some very valuable wood,” said John Vissage, a research forester for the U.S. Forest Service based in St. Paul, Minnesota. “I’m glad to hear that they were able to recycle those beams.”

The Pearl St. pine has a pedigree worthy of its original owner, William Colgate, the founder of Colgate-Palmolive. Colgate built the five-story building at 211 Pearl St. in the early 1830s and used it as a warehouse at a time when Pearl St. bustled as a hub for trading in dry goods. The building was one of only a handful of Greek revival buildings that survived into the 21st century after weathering the great fire of 1835. The pine used in its ceiling beams came to New York from New England and is hundreds of years old, Solomon said.

New York City artists have already discovered the rich, tight-grained character of the Eastern white pine. The soft quality of the wood makes it less suitable for floors than its southern cousin, the yellow pine, but it works well for furniture and architectural detailing, Fine said.

Rachel Sugiharto, an East Villager interior designer, used some of the Pearl St. pine when she was working on Vicino, a restaurant on the Upper West Side. She used the wood to construct an outdoor frame for flowering vines.

“The wood has this amazing character,” Sugiharto said. “There’s no way you could get something like that with new wood.”

Sugiharto found out about the pine after she told a colleague that she was looking for reclaimed wood, and he referred her to Alan Solomon. After spending more than six months trying to save 211 Pearl St. from demolition, Solomon now works part-time promoting its beams at M. Fine Lumber Co. Solomon heard from the demolition crew working on 211 Pearl St. that M. Fine was buying the beams. When Solomon contacted the company to tell workers about the building’s history, Louis Fine offered him a job in research and marketing.

M. Fine maintains an office and warehouse in an industrial swath on the Brooklyn-Queens border. Last Thursday, a set designer poked among the stacks of lumber in the spacious yard. The designer looked at the Pearl St. pine, although he declined to say where it might be used. Solomon said later that the wood was being considered for a music video by Madonna and Britney Spears, although he didn’t know what song the two pop queens, who recently locked lips at the MTV music awards, would be singing.

The recycled uses of 211 Pearl St. may be exciting, but preservationists agree that it would have been better if the building had remained intact. Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council in New York City, said that architectural salvage is a “band-aid” on the issue of threatened historic buildings. Bankoff said he would have preferred it if the developer could have incorporated 211 Pearl St. into its construction plans, especially since the building was sandwiched between two similar historic buildings on either side.

“It’s good that someone found use for the building,” Bankoff acknowledged, adding, “It’s too bad Rockrose couldn’t.”



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