They are the mysterious tokens of a lost city, lurking between scraps of metal and concrete in a moldering warehouse in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Against one wall, dust collects atop four burgundy seats from the old Audubon Ballroom, the site of Malcolm X’s assassination.
Against another, black soot fills the flared nostrils of a stone cow’s head that once greeted workers at the Sheffield Farms milk plant in the Bronx.
And in a back corner, two wooden crates with Pan-Am baggage tags rest on a counter, with a sender’s address from the Hotel Honduras Maya in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The intended recipient: Mayor Edward I. Koch, whose name still adorns a sign on the warehouse’s building front.
This is the Architectural Salvage Warehouse, once a city-operated holding space — and, occasionally, a marketplace — for fragments and ornaments from demolished landmarks and other buildings.
And later this month, in a sealed-bid auction organized by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, the entire lot will be sold to the highest bidder.
“It’s not Sotheby’s,” said John Weiss, deputy counsel for the commission, wading through the building’s dust and rust on Thursday.
In the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, tucked between a bar, a junkyard and two small apartment buildings, the warehouse on Berry Street was once home to the commission’s architectural salvage program. From 1980 to 2000, the program accepted the remains of demolished structures: shuttered theaters, once-bustling slaughterhouses, even old signs from the post office at Grand Central Terminal.
“The city’s cultural legacy is in that warehouse,” said Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for New York City History at the CUNY Graduate Center. “It seems a little insidious to be selling everything to the highest bidder.”
Once empty, the space will be turned over to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Mr. Weiss said, for possible renovation into affordable housing. In an effort to hasten the sale, the city has reached out to hundreds of salvage companies it thought might be capable of processing the many tons of material. Next week, according to Mr. Weiss, at least four potential buyers will survey the premises.
The auction has scarcely been publicized otherwise, save for a small advertisement in the City Record (Sales Proposal #11030) that omits the Landmarks Preservation Commission and leaves no hint of the treasures locked within.
With warehouse contents barely touched since 2000, the origins of many items are unknown to the city. Even during the salvage program’s two-decade run, bookkeeping was often inconsistent.
Consequently, some historians are concerned the city fails to recognize the cultural significance of what it is auctioning. Ms. Wasserman, who lobbied Kate Daly, the commission’s executive director, for a visit to the warehouse last week, said she had to explain to Ms. Daly that the “NYB” chiseled into a massive block of Indiana limestone stood for New York Butchers on 11th Avenue, one of the city’s longest-surviving slaughterhouses. Four stone steer heads (bovine busts were apparently a popular way to announce the presence of a beef or dairy business back in the day) were also recovered from the structure, which was razed in 1991. Ms. Wasserman offered to buy the heads separately, she said, but the commission refused.
“Whoever buys the entire lot, you can always just buy it from them,” Mr. Weiss said, noting that several museums and historical societies in the city had declined to accept individual pieces.
Though most remain mysterious, some items do leave traces of a bygone era. On a blue door from 148 Waverly Place, stacked among a row of home structures near a collection of sinks and toilets, a note is attached from the Department of Buildings: “Not more than 2 adults permitted to sleep in this room.”
Other trinkets entered the collection without any clear relationship to a demolished landmark: a dented red canister for Roberts Brand Beef Fat in Brooklyn, two boxes of cobweb-draped Voltaire works, a seven-light menorah dedicated to a woman named Minnie Small.
The commission says it will not include any items of religious significance in the auction, nor a piece of the facade it acquired from the Helen Hayes Theater — which, the original donor stipulated, could be reused only at a building in the Times Square area.
Of greater concern, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University, is the lost opportunity for local residents to rehabilitate their own homes.
At the peak of the salvage program, during which Mr. Dolkart served as a researcher for the commission, the warehouse held regular hours for visitors to purchase architectural elements at affordable prices.
“The idea was to collect these things for the public good, not for some dealer to make a significant profit,” he said. “The mandate was to help the people of New York.”