'Broken Angel' has its wings clipped

Times Staff Writer

Turn down a side street in the Clinton Hill neighborhood and a strange structure rises above the skyline. It is wooden, and handmade, and -- depending on your angle of approach -- it can resemble a 15th century flying machine, or a warped Gothic cathedral, or a pile of sharecroppers' shacks poised deliriously over Brooklyn.

The building is the work of Arthur Wood, a slight man of 75. For 27 years, Wood's neighbors have watched him climb to the top of his building to begin work on its next level. Wood builds without exterior scaffolding or a harness, and often with no assistance except for his wife, Cynthia. The structure has risen to 108 feet. Wood says it is about one-third finished.

"Broken Angel," as Wood and his wife named the building, is loved by many in Brooklyn, and recently it was the backdrop for the documentary "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." But on Oct. 10, Wood's solitary work ran into trouble when a fire broke out on an upper story. The fire triggered an inspection by the city Department of Buildings, which declared the building "highly cannibalized" and a "deathtrap." When Wood would not vacate the premises, the department ordered his arrest.

Wood's predicament has resonated with other artists, who say that there is less and less space for them in this ever-more-prosperous city. In 1979, when Arthur and Cynthia bought the brick office building at 4 Downing St., it was such a poor neighborhood that "people didn't care what happened there," said Margot Niederland, who made a film about Broken Angel that screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991.

Broken Angel embodies "the ability for artists in a city to create something that goes way beyond these rectangles that we live in," Niederland said. "The only other person I can think of who produced such extraordinary architecture was [Antoni] Gaudi."

Arthur Wood, she said, is "a crazy New York Gaudi."

Life at 4 Downing St. was dominated by Arthur Wood's obsession, said his son, Christopher, 33, who now works as a stone carver. The building was open to the elements, and in the winter, Wood's wife would leave a glass of water on the counter as a weather gauge. As soon as it froze, the kids would go stay with friends, said Christopher, who was 5 when the family moved in. At the same time, he loved the building, which was "sort of like a big playground."

"I always thought my friends were weird because they lived in apartments," he said.

Arthur Wood, who served as an Army engineer during the Korean War, had profound questions about conventional houses and apartments. For example, he questioned whether people should live on the bottom of "a cube of space," he said in an interview. Wasn't it possible, he wondered, "to exist diagonally throughout the cube?"

Ideas rushed at him. On the roof, he built a structure shaped like an aircraft, built on a mirrored platform so that it appeared to be floating above the clouds. At the pinnacle of the building he installed a camera obscura, a device fashionable in the 19th century, which uses mirrors and a lens to project an image of the city's rooftops into a room below.

Inside the building, he lavished attention on the smallest of details: He set brilliantly colored bottles into masonry to make intricate stained-glass windows. He inserted lengths of tubing into two walls so that a person positioned correctly can peer through them to see the clock on the Williamsburg Savings Bank, which is three miles away.

Although Wood worked ceaselessly on plans for the building, Niederland began to wonder whether he would ever finish it. When she asked him, he said he wasn't sure.

"The point wasn't to finish it," she said. The building was "wedged about a third of the way between the dream and the reality," as Wood puts it, when the fire broke out.

City inspectors had long wished to inspect the Broken Angel building but were legally unable to enter the building without Wood's permission, said Jennifer Givner, a building department spokeswoman.

The inspector's report, submitted two days later, was scathing: It compared the Woods with the Collyer brothers, who notoriously hoarded newspapers and books in their Harlem brownstone, where they were found dead in 1947. The inspector described the building as "gutted, opened, illegally extended in both the frontyard and skyward," with floors that "are haphazardly attached or nonexistent."

The report recommended two options: Level the building, or bring it into compliance with building codes. Christopher Wood estimated that bringing it to code would cost $3 million.

Arthur Wood has sued the city of New York, charging authorities searched the house and arrested him without a warrant. He is representing himself in court.

He was still furious about the arrest, and said that his Jack Russell terrier had been included in his mug shot. ("My dog did not commit any crime," he said. "My dog is legally licensed.") Banned from the premises of Broken Angel, he said that he and his wife have been sleeping in a Volkswagen camper, and that they were suffering terribly from the cold.

A New York architecture firm, Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture, has offered help, saying Broken Angel should be preserved as folk art just as the Watts Towers were in Los Angeles. Fundraisers are planned. Still, Wood has been facing the possibility that the building may be torn down -- and with it 27 years of his labor.

With property values in the neighborhood rising, he is getting handsome offers for the building from developers interested in building condominiums.

Wood keeps his spirits up by planning to move to another city, file plans for the identical building, and start over. This is not crazy, he says; his great-grandmother lived to the age of 108.

"So I've got plenty of time," he said.


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