One of the biggest pieces of outsider art in New York City, the Broken Angel, is confronting the latest stage of its gradual decline, from a 10-story distorted jumble of wood and glass, to a now more subdued house that still retains the creative energy of its builder, Arthur Wood. Wood’s son Christopher recently launched a Kickstarter project, with supporters paying for their original art to adorn the facade, the ultimate goal being to turn the building into a museum.
However, with only about 4 percent of the $50,000 goal raised and about a week left with the project — and more problematically the Broken Angel under bank control after foreclosure — it seems unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, the house has long had people ringing its death bell and yet it has survived, even if its current state is a shattered version of its former self.
The building, the former headquarters of Brooklyn Trolley, was acquired by Arthur Wood and his late wife Cynthia in the 1970s for $2,000. Located at 4 Downing Street in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, not far from Pratt Institute, it has transformed into an architectural wonder, precariously rising higher in their three decades of ownership. Its collage of wood floors and scaffolding can be seen as a DIY version of the Winchester Mystery House’s many rooms (though not haunted, unlike that Northern California landmark) or the never-ending organic architecture of the Sagrada Familia. The many whimsical touches include a pipe in the kitchen that looks out to the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower’s clock, while stained glass windows constructed from glass found in their backyard or salvaged from car crashes look somewhat grotesque from the exterior, but refract with lovely angles inside the home. It has even enjoyed some national attention as the subject of the 1991 documentary “Broken Angel,” and the backdrop for the 2005 concert documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.”
A fire in October 2006 set off a devastating series of events for the Broken Angel, bringing the city to investigate code violations, with the Department of Buildings ordering Woods to alter its structure and make costly repairs. The difference between its pre-fire height and that after the code violations adjustments is shocking, and a mire of lawsuits followed the fire related to loans for its repairs, the foreclosure, and eviction notices.
One plan to save the Broken Angel was Wood partnering with developer Shahn Anderson to convert it and the adjacent lot into artsy condos with a $4 million loan taken out in 2007 with Madison Realty Capital. The plans were not realized and the two parted ways, Woods defaulting on the loan when they were unable to sell the property in 2009. In May of this year, after no one else bid at the April 19 foreclosure auction, the building fell under the ownership of Madison Realty Capital.
The future of the Broken Angel remains uncertain, and it appears to be only a matter of time before it is lost and Wood is evicted. However, that is the way it has seemed for the past six years and its 80-year-old creator still lives in his ramshackle art fortress, which stands as the only monument to the life’s work of this self-taught artist and architect.
— Allison Meier