Gil Shapiro: Architectural Savior
Gil Shapiro Urban Archeology in Chicago
He’s spent his life searching through buildings and landmarks facing demolition in the sacred name and path of progress. He’s endured broken bones, escaped grave injury and financial collapse, all in the pursuit of a vision and devotion to the preservation of what once was.
Where others saw junk, Gil Shapiro saw art. “I’ve always been interested in what people seemed to have little or no respect for,” he says, “our history.”
Today, he fills his showrooms at Urban Archaeology with objects that signal a lifetime of discovery: honed Carrara marble bathtubs, two-inch-thick marble sinks, bathroom vignettes of green glass tiles, replicas of Helena Rubinstein’s minimalist medicine cabinet in stainless steel and marble, lights following the form and design of those used in Pullman cars, an original from the famed Roxy Theater. “It’s beautiful,” Shapiro says, “but it doesn’t emit much light, and it wasn’t designed to. Still, look at the form. It’s magnificent.”
He’s dressed in faded blue jeans, a black t-shirt and comfortable shoes. He’s 64, built like a second baseman – sturdy and quick. He’s roaming about his Chicago store, an expansive, bright place on the first floor of the Merchandise Mart where every object, every fitting has its place and space. He has stores in TriBeCa on Franklin Street in Downtown New York, in Midtown, at East 58th, in Long Island and Boston.
Urban Archeology is a high-end salvage-turned-reproduction company whose clientele includes singer/songwriter Paul Simon and actors Richard Gere and Russell Crowe, who may pay more than $50,000 for one of Shapiro’s custom made 80-inch, Carrara bathtubs fashioned after a turn-of-the-century design.
Shapiro doesn’t like to drop names. It’s a matter of dignity and privacy. But one story, he says smiling, is too good not to share. “Richard Gere likes to come to our store when he is in town,” Shapiro says, running a hand through his thick, white hair. “He likes to see what’s new and different, you know, kick the tires. But when you are Richard Gere you can’t hide behind sunglasses and a ball cap.
“As you might expect, ladies always gather and follow him around talking to one another and keeping a proper distance. It’s like they’re mesmerized...So, Richard turns and says, ‘Every time I’m in here the women flock to you, Gil. It’s amazing.’ He has a sense of humor and taste. I appreciate that.”
Gil Shapiro has come a long way since his first salvage project back in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn.
He was a teenager, walking home from school when he noticed a crowd gathered around the neighborhood drug store. He thought there had been a robbery – that, maybe, someone had died. He pushed his way through the crowd and discovered that the drug store was closing and all the contents were being sold at auction.
“I grew up in that store, had my first date there,” he says. “It had these incredible walls, all this intricately carved wood. There were leaded glass urns hanging from dragons’ mouths. I was watching people buy out-of-date cosmetics, seamed nylon stockings…When it came to store fittings, the bidding started at ten thousand dollars. There were no bids, none. They said, ‘Okay, let’s start at a hundred dollars.’ I raised my hand. I had three dollars in my pocket. There were no other bids. I got it – everything.”
The problem, of course, was coming up with the money. Shapiro, an enterprising young man, went home and sold his parents furniture to the building super. When he realized he would need a truck to haul the goods, he sold everything in his brother’s room.
“When they came home that night, their furniture was gone and there was a drugstore,” Shapiro said. “They were crazed. My older brother laughed. He loved it.”
Yetta and Arthur Shapiro, not wealthy people, sent young Gil to a psychiatrist.
“He asked me how I could possibly sell my family’s furniture to the super. I said, ‘Well, there are people with worse taste than my parents.’ It was used, probably fifty years old. There were big plastic covers so the fabric wouldn’t get dirty. If you wore Bermuda shorts in the summer, you needed a skin graft when you got up because it would grab you. It made noises like you ate something wrong. They sent me to that shrink for a while.
“Incidentally, those urns (from the drugstore) sell today for twenty-five thousand dollars apiece. At one point, I had 32 of them.”
Eventually, Yetta and Arthur Shapiro developed an appreciation for their son’s industrious ways. This was, after all, the same boy who spent a summer salvaging lead from Manhattan Beach, left behind from the days when there was a Coast Guard station there and the beach was used for target practice. Shapiro and two friends would fill their red wagons, Radio Flyers, with lead, melt it down and pour it into molds for sinkers. “At 4:30 in the morning we would go down to the boats and sell our sinkers to the fishermen for a penny an ounce less than the fishing store sold them,” he said. “We made twenty-four hundred dollars that summer, me and my two friends…We were nine, maybe ten years old.”
Years later while working in his father’s laundry at Newkirk and 21st Street, Shapiro noticed that customers were dissatisfied with boxed and folded shirts. “They didn’t like the creases in front,” he said. “They wanted the shirts hand-ironed and on hangers. Six blocks away in a poorer neighborhood, there was a Chinese laundry…I cut a deal with them that if I brought them 50 shirts a week, I got a cut rate – like four cents less than they normally charged.
“I added twenty-five cents to the cost of each shirt and my father’s business doubled. I was always into making money. I was always in to – not shortcuts, but long cuts – better ways of doing things, and I was good at it, figuring things out.”
“Recognizing what other people don’t recognize”
After school and determining that he didn’t want to pursue law as a profession, he went to work for a steel company in Long Island City. In short order, he figured out a better way to store and retrieve steel beams in the warehouse, vastly increasing inventory and delivery. Two shifts were added and soon, Shapiro was running the company.
He was making money for the first time and spending it on his love for salvaging relevant architecture. He purchased the reclamation rights to a drug store near Bloomingdales. After hours at the steel company, he borrowed a company truck – “without permission” – and hired workers from the warehouse to help him remove the furnishings.
Shapiro was enamored with drug stores. “In the late 1800s, at the turn of the century, before motion pictures, drug stores were the entertainment capitals of the country,” he said. “You went in bought a magazine or a newspaper, listened to a Nickelodeon, bought a sundae or a soda. You spent the day there. It was the gathering point of the neighborhood.”
He took the counters, the grills and back-bars, the cornices, the carved crown moldings and things no one wanted, things that had been setting on counters for decades, things destined for garbage dumps. “Sealed bottles of bitters, stuff sold across the counter like Mrs. Winslow’s Toothache drops: forty grams of codeine, a half gram of Phenobarbital, 50 percent alcohol…How can you have a toothache after that?”
In one drugstore, he found a Leech Jar. “They once used leeches to bleed people,” he said. “Today, they use leeches on burn victims. I sold one of the Leech jars to Parke-Davis (the drug company) for $27,000.”
He began to assemble a library that eventually reached 10,000 volumes, works on architect Louis Henri Sullivan “the father of modernism” and the creator of the modern skyscraper; Frank Lloyd Wright, who studied under Sullivan; designer and architect Eileen Gray; and, Edgar Brandt, the great ferronnier.
“Buying books gave me the knowledge to recognize what other people didn’t recognize,” he said. “When I met my wife (designer Judith Stockman) and we started dating, I wasn’t sure if it was me she liked or my library. I’m still not sure.”
The books gave him an eye for what was enduring and valuable, but no notion of how to safely remove the treasures he discovered. “It was all trial and error,” he says. “I learned if you did it wrong, you almost died. I learned you don’t take a Keystone out for a reason…It’s holding up an arch. I almost got killed a lot of times, but I learned – trial and error – and I taught other people and I was good at it.”
In 1978, as his prizes mounted, he opened his first store on Spring Street in SoHo, and found himself at the blade point of the 1970s-era guerilla preservation movement called the Anonymous Art Reclamation Society – the “Gargoyle Snatchers,” who often donated their most important finds to museums.
Gil Shapiro was a gatherer, a preservationist with a mind for art and a realization for place, time and economics.
“When I had no money or some money and couldn’t afford the things I wanted,” he said, “I bought the next best thing. I bought Tiffany watercolors. At the time, Tiffany windows were three-to-five thousand dollars and his watercolors were three hundred dollars. Eventually, his watercolors were worth ten, fifteen or twenty thousand dollars, and I was able to sell five watercolors and buy a window…
“I like great things. I like really beautiful things. I like really beautiful things around me,” he says, “things that speak of the beauty, the artistry, the craftsmanship of our past – when things were done so wonderfully and so well, so right.”
At Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia, he ripped out a ceiling and discovered a Tiffany dome. It sold at auction in California for over a third of a million dollars. “And it cost me virtually nothing,” he said. “But that’s not the point. The moment we found it, my heart stopped. It was incredibly shocking, like finding a gold mine. But had I not found it, it would have been destroyed. This was history of incredible importance. Destroying something like that would have been a tremendous crime.”
He secured the salvage rights to Le Bon Marché in Paris, generally regarded as the first department store and first commercial atrium in the world, where he gazed upon the works of Gustave Eiffel.
During a trip to Oneonta, New York, to salvage a courthouse, he stumbled upon a bathtub constructed of Vatican marble – discovered it sitting on a lawn. It came from the French Embassy. He bought the tub, restored it and some years later it sold at auction in California for eighty-five thousand dollars.
But it was never really about the money, though the rewards have obviously been substantial. It was, instead, a journey through the standing archives of history, an odyssey in reclamation and restoration. “Saving things, finding things was wonderful,” he says. “I am not a religious man, but I am religious about architecture.”
By the late 1990s, the salvage business had been diluted by contractors and developers devoted to profit rather than preservation. In 1997, Shapiro bought a six-story building in TriBeCa and turned his attention to manufacturing: lighting, bath accessories, bathtubs, washstands, freestanding and wall mounted cabinets and more than 80 lines of American tile. Of his one hundred employees, 35 are craftsmen specializing in ironwork, pattern and mold makers, and finishers.
Everything that reaches the floor at Urban Archaeology is touched by the past and Gil Shapiro’s path.
“You work in buildings taking things apart for so many years, you see how things were made and you see how modern things are made,” he says. “I just didn’t go along with that – the way things are made today – to throw away, like paper underwear.
“I make things the way they were made a hundred years ago. I try to make things that will last forever and are of great quality. I like things to stay the way they are and the only way to do that is the right way.”