Remembering Broken Angel, the Brooklyn Monument That Was Too Weird to Survive
For years, the building was both a family home and one of the most bizarre art projects in New York City. But now that it's been replaced by condos, it has turned into a symbol of gentrification.
Broken Angel House. Except when noted, all images are courtesy of Michael Galinsky and were taken around 2006-07.
While it still stood, the Broken Angel House was the strangest sight in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. It was a monument to nonsense, an absurd remnant of an era that never existed. It looked like an Industrial Age factory that had been fed LSD for years. The four-story building had the colorful glass panels of a Gothic cathedral, the bizarro, false-mirror architecture of a carnival funhouse, and a sort of cartoonish aura hanging about it. Years after its demise, it's still hard to describe it.
The self-taught artist-architect Arthur Wood and his wife, Cynthia, bought the property on 4 Downing Street in 1979 for $2,100, just one of the many details that makes the story of Broken Angel House seem like a myth. The Woods raised their two children there, while turning their home into an attraction that drew visitors from all over the world to a quiet corner on a side street of Brooklyn.
A writer for NPR described the couple as "time travelers from the Age of Aquarius," and that's accurate: They had a hippie sense of freedom, coupled with a New York work ethic that spurred them to make their mark in stone and wood and glass. Over the years, using only materials found in dumpsters or collected by their children on the streets, they turned an abandoned trolley factory into a work of art. (The house's name comes from a tossed cherub statue the couple found on Staten Island.)
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Simply by existing, Broken Angel became a symbol of what the borough of Brooklyn was for decades: spunky and expressive, dirty and ad hoc, but also authentic, removed from the glitz and money of Manhattan. "It's a monument to Brooklyn, my dear," Cynthia told Dave Chappelle in 2004, standing alongside Arthur in front of the house, for footage that would later become Dave Chappelle's Block Party.
Today, 2004 seems like a distant era in Brooklyn. That version of the borough was swept away by a wave of rising real estate prices and hyper-gentrification. The neighborhood surrounding Broken Angel has, like many parts of the borough, gotten whiter and wealthier, part of a city-wide push, driven by powerful real estate forces and consumer demand, to condo-ify everything in sight. Under these conditions, large-scale public art installations not sponsored by a corporation or the city are an endangered species.
Broken Angel was just one building, but its rise and fall demonstrates the tectonic shifts that have transformed New York in the past decade. As the city witnessed with the drawn-out destruction of 5Pointz, the legendary Queens graffiti mecca, you can't beat gentrification any more than you can fight City Hall. Broken Angel was destined to be broken.
From 1979 to the early 2000s, Broken Angel was a work in process. The building the Woods bought was a three-dimensional canvas that the couple built upon, like an outdoor Christmas display that gets bigger and better with every passing year. As filmmaker Margot Niederland described it to me, "Broken Angel was an idea that was constantly continuing, from the ground up. Arthur was always adding, always changing."
Niederland's 15-minute short on the building, 1991's Broken Angel: The Final Chapter, premiered at Sundance and was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In the documentary, Cynthia and Arthur—whom Neiderland had known for years—discuss their castle-cathedral-home over footage of Broken Angel, which back then remained in a state of constant construction. The Woods children are seen hauling in bricks as Arthur and Cynthia hoist up all sorts of knickknacks into their proper places, like a game of Tetris. Up and up Broken Angel rose, slowly acquiring its strange place in the urban landscape.
"I think Brooklyn needs a monument," Arthur says in the final shot. Cynthia then counters, "We're talking about something like the Statue of Liberty." Arthur interjects, before laughing: "What I'm trying to do—it's very simple—is to build the Statue of Liberty single-handedly."
Niederland has lived in Manhattan's Lower East Side for years, where she's been filming the neighborhood, once an enclave of artists, as it's morphed into a real estate hotspot. To her, the destruction of something like Broken Angel is the start of this type of chain reaction—something she says she sees all the time in New York.
"Buildings hold cultural memories of a neighborhood," she told me recently. "So once they're gone, rents go up, and people who aren't protected, usually artists or low-income, have to leave. Then, to service the new neighbors, high-end eateries and places open up, which means mom-and-pop places have to go."
"So once you lose those buildings," she added. "The whole idea, and identity, of a neighborhood disappears."
One of the issues is the new buildings themselves, she said, "rectangles, right angles, perfect and nice." The futurist shiny spaces of cityscape in the 2010s are like the boxes of 1950s suburbia, just taller, sleeker, and more expensive. They all look the same, and that, she said, is the problem. "Human nature and expression is totally lost," Niederland mused. "That organic flow of an artist is destroyed—the spontaneity of it all."
A trailer for Michael Galinsky's documentary about Broken Angel House
"It was this amazing thing to document, this story of an artist who was able to fight the condos," said Michael Galinsky, an independent filmmaker who is working on a documentary about Broken Angel House. "And then, it all fell apart."
Looking for a more affordable and creative environment, Galinsky moved from Manhattan to Clinton Hill in 1999. Almost immediately, he was in awe of his new neighbors. "I was blown away by Broken Angel," he told me. Soon, his camera was rolling: "You have to capture something while it's happening, or else it'll disappear forever."
Galinsky first began filming Arthur and Cynthia in 2006, after a fire broke out in the upper levels of the house. That accident would mark the beginning of the end for the Woods' architectural brainchild: Shortly thereafter, the city discovered that the house didn't have proper construction permits or meet safety codes. "This building had numerous building-code violations that made it unfit to occupy," a spokesperson for the city's Department of Buildings said at the time.
City inspectors deemed the Broken Angel House uninhabitable for humans, and so, after 27 years of habitation, the Woods were forced to vacate, begrudgingly. ("These are Nazi tactics," Woods told the New York Times then.) After getting forcibly removed in handcuffs from the premises by police officers, the Woods parked a Volkswagen camper on an adjacent plot of empty land that Arthur also owned. From there, the eclectic family launched a years-long battle to preserve their masterpiece—or at least, what could be saved of it.
After his arrest, local elected officials and activists took Arthur's side, demanding a deal with the city in a last-ditch effort to save the neighborhood relic (Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz called it a "Rubik's Cube of a spaceship" that had to be saved). The Department of Buildings agreed to let the Woods' back in, on the condition that they take down the upper floors of the house where the fire had started. The family obliged.
Lacking the money for those repairs, Arthur entered a partnership with a developer named Shahn Christian Andersen to construct condos at the site while leaving enough space for a studio for the artist. It seemed as if Broken Angel could potentially coexist with the new version of Clinton Hill. "I'd be very happy to do [work with Andersen]," Wood said at the time. "We're both pretty tired of what the building industry has been doing to New York, with the same old architecture."
Yet this dream didn't last long: For complex legal reasons related to loans, the relationship soured, but not until work had already begun on taking apart the Woods' home. Mired in litigation, Arthur lost his home to foreclosure, in 2010, not long after he lost Cynthia to cancer. He was permanently evicted in 2013, and moved up to Beacon, New York, with his son, Christopher. (The Woods' were contacted for this story, but did not comment.)
It was around this time that Galinsky, who directed the 2011 Atlantic Yards documentary Battle for Brooklyn, stopped filming the fight for Broken Angel; he said that Arthur "didn't want [him] involved," as "things were really falling apart." Now he has hours of footage, and is seeking funds to edit it all.
Galinsky, who now splits time between North Carolina and Brooklyn, hasn't spoken to Arthur in years. When I asked if his decision to relocate had to do with what happened to the borough, he said no—but he did admit that it isn't the place he remembers.
"It got less interesting, and that's integral to its allure," he said. "It lost a lot of its history, and what makes it so exciting when you're young to go out and enjoy the city."
He continued: "It lost me."
Today, the only remnant of Broken Angel is a line of stained glass panels on the roof of a condo, an homage to the landmark it once was. As I stared up from the sidewalk on a recent afternoon, it was hard for me to envision what had stood here just a year or so before—partly because I couldn't hear myself think over the jack-hammering going on next door, on the formerly abandoned lot where Arthur's RV once rested. (That lot, too, will become a condo.)
Alex Barrett, the developer who bought the property for $4.1 million in 2014, specializes in preserving historical buildings; the seven-person staff at Barrett Design consists solely of architects. The roof installation was done by a well-known glass artist named Tom Fruin, who, following Wood's lead, has used found metal objects to create a guardrail of sorts for his work. A mural on the scaffold outside was donated to a nearby charter school after construction wrapped up.
"It was a real challenge for us because there is a lot of history here," Barrett told the real estate blog Brownstoner when the condos first went on the market. "We didn't want to whitewash that but we wanted to do something new."
But whatever efforts were made to keep the building from seeming like a carbon copy of the neighborhood's other new million-dollar condos, something was obviously lost when Broken Angel came down.
As recently as this past May, Arthur has leveled accusations against Barrett for stealing his artwork and using it as interior design. According to DNAInfo, Woods said that he didn't have enough time to remove certain pieces of art after his eviction. Two concrete angel faces that Arthur and his son created greet residents when they walk in, and another terra cotta piece he made is now adorning someone's living room. (Barrett did not respond to voice messages I left him.)
"To me," Arthur told DNAInfo, "that is like chopping of the head of the Mona Lisa and using it in a Starbucks ad." After years of unsuccessful court battles, he has no plans to take legal measures against Barrett in a last-ditch effort to pry out the sculptures from the walls. He has said before that he believes he will one day win back Broken Angel. But all of the building's nine units have been sold—the cheapest for about $1.2 million—and if the history of New York City real estate has taught us anything, it's that once condos come in, you can't get them out.
On a recent trip to 4 Downing, I sat against the wall of the enormous Salvation Army across the street and watched the construction going on down the block. An older resident walked by with his dog, and didn't seem to flinch at the loud bangs and booms, as if he was used to it by now. He told me he has lived around the block for years, and I asked what he remembered of Arthur and Cynthia Woods.
"They were like tour guides here," he told me. "They'd bring people in and show them what they created. People would be in awe." And Broken Angel House? "You just couldn't believe it was on your block."
Did he miss it?
"Of course," he said, "That was the old neighborhood."
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