Architecture
3:46 pm
Fri March 29, 2013

Self-Taught Architect Behind Brooklyn's 'Broken Angel' Faces Eviction

Originally published on Fri March 29, 2013 6:55 pm

A New York landmark of sorts is in danger of being wiped off the map. The building now known as Broken Angel was an ordinary 19th-century brick structure until self-taught artist and sculptor Arthur Wood started building on top of it in the late 1970s. Now Wood faces eviction from his own masterpiece — a towering structure that looks like a cathedral built out of salvaged junk.

The building was featured in the film Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which follows the comedian as he puts together a free hip-hop concert in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn in 2004. "It's a monument to Brooklyn, my dear," Cynthia Wood, Arthur's wife, explains to Chappelle.

Chappelle is invited in by the couple, who look like time travelers from the Age of Aquarius. They named their home after a figurine they discovered broken and scattered in the street. Arthur put the pieces back together.

The Woods bought the property in 1979 for $2,100 in cash. They gradually transformed the 19th-century brick building into what's been hailed as a work of 21st-century art.

"He took a tenement and he transformed it with a lot of materials people have classified as discards and tossed away into dumps," says Carl Zimring, who teaches at the renowned Pratt Institute art school a few blocks away. "And turned that into a coherent form of art — a folk art, an art that very much relied on the materials that Brooklyn had to offer."

In its heyday, Broken Angel towered nine stories over the street. Arthur took out most of the floors, creating a soaring open space with stained glass windows.

"This is all made from stuff collected from automobile accidents, and broken glass, and whatever," Arthur says. "These are very pretty when the light hits, and it spreads all around."

Not much of Wood's original work is left now. Shortly after the Chappelle film was released, a fire broke out in the tower, which had been built without permits or plans. After that, the New York City Department of Buildings cracked down, hard.

"They were threatening complete demolition of the building," says son Chris Wood, who grew up in his parents' creation. "And they were saying things like, 'We would need cranes because the structure's unsafe, we can't put people in there.' You know, it was a lot of b.s."

The buildings department did not return a call for comment. Hoping to avoid demolition, Arthur struck a deal with a local developer six years ago to turn Broken Angel into condos. The five-story tower was dismantled. But Chris Wood says the developer never held up his end of the bargain, and the bank foreclosed. Cynthia Wood died of cancer in 2010. Now Arthur is facing eviction.

"This scares me. It's losing a landmark," says Angelique DeShields, who grew up next-door to Broken Angel. Back when the neighborhood was ravaged by drugs and crime, she says, the Wood family was an inspiration.

"People come here from all four corners of the earth," DeShields says. "People wait, literally wait outside ... for hours waiting for Arthur to show up just to talk to him. That's what you're taking. You're taking a bit of history and very much of our future right away from us."

Like a lot of Brooklyn, the neighborhood around Broken Angel is gentrifying. The property is on the market for $4.5 million. Yet Arthur could walk away with nothing after living in the building for most of the past 34 years.

"I'm damn mad at America," he says. "I don't support any political party. I just support what's right. And what's happened to me is wrong, OK?"

Wood has managed to avoid eviction before. But this time, it may take divine intervention to keep him from losing Broken Angel.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A New York landmark is in danger of being wiped off the map. It's called Broken Angel. It was an ordinary 19th century brick structure until Arthur Wood started building on top of it. The result was featured in the film "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." But now Wood faces eviction, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The documentary "Block Party" follows comedian Dave Chappelle as he put together a free hip-hop concert in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn in 2004. At one end of the block is a towering structure that looks like a cathedral built out of salvaged junk. That is Broken Angel.

(SOUNDBITE OF "BLOCK PARTY")

DAVE CHAPPELLE: Now, you guys built this house yourselves?

CYNTHIA WOOD: We did. We built the - what you see that's unusual.

CHAPPELLE: It is quite the unusual home.

WOOD: It's a monument to Brooklyn, my dear.

ROSE: Chappelle is invited in by Cynthia and Arthur Wood, who look like time travelers from the Age of Aquarius. Arthur Wood is a self-taught artist and sculptor, and Broken Angel is his masterpiece. It's named after a figure that Cynthia and Arthur discovered broken and scattered in the street. Arthur wood put the pieces back together.

ARTHUR WOOD: So then when I got the building, wrecked and vandalized like it is now, lying in the street and I'm going to put it back together again better than it was. So that's the Broken Angel story.

ROSE: Cynthia and Arthur Wood bought the property in 1979 for $2,100 in cash. They gradually transformed the 19th century brick building into what's been hailed as a work of 21st century art. Carl Zimring teaches at the Pratt Institute, a renowned art school a few blocks away from Broken Angel.

CARL ZIMRING: He took a tenement and he transformed it with a lot of the materials people have classified as discards and tossed away into dumps and turned that into a coherent form of art, of folk art. An art that very much relied on the materials that Brooklyn had to offer.

ROSE: In its heyday, Broken Angel towered nine stories over the street. Arthur Wood took out most of the floors, creating a soaring open space with stained glass windows.

WOOD: This is all made from stuff collected from automobile accidents and broken glass and whatever. These are very pretty when the light hits it and just spreads all around.

ROSE: Not much of Wood's original work is left now. Shortly after the Chappelle film was released, a fire broke out in the tower which had been built without permits or plans. After that, the New York City Department of Buildings cracked down hard. Chris Wood grew up in his parent's creation.

CHRIS WOOD: They were threatening complete demolition of the building and they were saying things like we would need cranes because the structure's unsafe. We can't put people in there. And, you know, there was a lot of B.S.

ROSE: The Buildings Department did not return a call for comment. Hoping to avoid demolition, Arthur Wood struck a deal with a local developer six years ago to turn Broken Angel into condos. The five-story tower was dismantled, but Chris Wood says the developer never held up his end of the bargain and the bank foreclosed. Cynthia Wood died of cancer in 2010. Now, Arthur Wood is facing eviction.

ANGELIQUE DESHIELDS: This scares me. It's losing a landmark.

ROSE: Angelique DeShields grew up next door to Broken Angel back when the neighborhood was ravaged by drugs and crime. She says the Wood family was an inspiration.

DESHIELDS: People come here from all four corners of the earth. People wait, literally wait, outside for hours waiting for Arthur to show up just to talk to him. That's what you're taking. You're taking a bit of history and very much of our future right away from us.

ROSE: Like a lot of Brooklyn, the neighborhood around Broken Angel is gentrifying. The property is on the market for $4.5 million, yet Arthur Wood could walk away with nothing after living in the building for most of the last 34 years.

WOOD: I'm damn mad at America. I don't support any political party. I just support what's right. And what's happened to me is wrong, OK?

ROSE: Arthur Wood has managed to avoid eviction before, but this time it may take divine intervention to keep him from losing Broken Angel. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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