He’s preserving an ornate past

LAKE CITY – An unusual collection of architectural artwork is coming to Lake City.

The Wolff Gallery will feature sculptures, gargoyles, keystones and other architectural ornamentation from all over the country. It’s about art history, appreciating the past, and celebrating one man’s passion for collecting priceless ornaments that would have otherwise been lost.

“I want this to be an education thing for the arts. To show people that this is what’s out there, and why we need to preserve old buildings,” Wolff said. “Just because something’s old doesn’t make it worthless.”

Wolff has lived in Lake City for 16 years now, where he works for Dobson Pipe Organ Builders. He hopes to open his museum later this year.

Most of his artifacts were purchased in more recent years, but a few date back to when he first became interested in this hobby at age 13.

The Gargoyle Hunter

“I lived in New York City in my teen years. That’s where I started this,” Wolff said. “I found that one building being demolished with that fire alarm box inside, and that’s what really started the whole thing.”

Wolff still has a small fire box like the one that first piqued his interest and prompted him to start going into condemned buildings looking for interesting items.

He began sneaking into the buildings very early in the morning, since he was technically trespassing.

His parents were very supportive of his hobby, he said.

His father would get rental trucks to help move the heavy items around and sign leases for storage places.

“I had five lofts throughout the city at one point, and I was working five jobs to pay all the rent,” Wolff said.

Once he and a friend went at 2 a.m. into a church that was being demolished and removed gargoyles from the top of the bell tower. He doesn’t know what would have happened to them otherwise.

“Usually in the ’70s and the ’80s they demolished all of it, and all that stone just went to the landfill,” he said. “They didn’t care. Nobody wanted them.”

Wolff and his friend went up the tower with a rock climbing harness and a rope. Wolff stepped out onto a ledge about 4 inches wide, five stories above the sidewalk. He tied another rope around the gargoyle’s head, and broke the statue loose with a sledgehammer.

“I found out later that the guy who tied the rope off had wrapped the other end of my safety line around one of the blocks of stone up there, and it was loose,” Wolff said. “So it was just lucky that I didn’t need to use that rope.”

Most of the time, Wolff went alone.

“I’ve had gang members rough me up, I’ve had floors collapse around me,” he said. “A staircase collapsed under me once.”

One hard-won piece is a glazed terracotta keystone with the face of Columbia, an early female personification of America, that he found in an abandoned theater. He spent days chipping away the hard plaster behind the piece. When it finally was about to come loose, he tied a rope around it to lower it, but it broke the rope and fell onto the metal marquee with a loud crash, right as a police car was going by.

“I thought, I’m done for now,” Wolff said. “I wound up hiding in the basement for several hours.”

Over the next few days he set up a plank to use as a ramp, got a cable come-along, and hoisted the 250- to 300-pound keystone seven feet up into a window, interrupted by police driving by almost every night.

After all that, he sold the keystone with many other pieces when he left New York City.

Starting over

Wolff’s collection had grown large when the city condemned the building where it was stored and he was forced to downsize.

“I sold and disposed of half of what I had, and I moved up to Vermont,” he said.

After Vermont, he lived in Oregon for 10 years, where he became interested in building organs. When he found out pipe organs were still made in the gothic style, he took a class and created a wooded organ facade. Pictures of that posted to an organ builders’ newsgroup eventually impressed the people at Dobson Pipe Organ Builders, and Wolff moved to Lake City 16 years ago to take a job with them.

“With all the things I had in New York, you could have filled this building to waist high,” Wolff said, looking around the little gallery in Lake City.

The building at 103 S. Center St., just south of the city square, is a fitting place for an architectural museum.

It was built around 1910, said Wolff, and still has some of the original design elements. The original tin ceiling is still intact, and after removing the wooden siding from the storefront, Wolff found a high-quality brick facade.

Most of the pieces on display here were purchased at live auctions or online. Perhaps the most striking is a terra cotta eagle from a hotel in Chicago. There’s also a giant copper mask from New York – one he saw but couldn’t reach during his collecting years.

“They had to press the sheet metal, and all these pieces were hand-soldered and riveted,” Wolff said.

One other piece of note: a terra cotta keystone with the face of Colombia, the same one he sold so many years ago.

“Last year I happened to see this on the live auction site in Pennsylvania,” Wolff said. “So I put an absentee bid in and I won it by $100. I was real thrilled to get that back.”

Filling the gallery

A few years ago, Wolff said, he got into modeling ornaments he couldn’t obtain. He took sculpting classes at Iowa Central Community College and later had his work featured at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum.

Those sculptures are now featured on the opposite wall of the gallery. He makes them the same way the originals were made and bases them off photographs and measurements.

“I’ve found a lot of generous people out there who will take photos and measurements for me,” he said.

The Wolff Gallery will have an open house during Western Days in June, but won’t officially open until after that. Then it will be open only one day a week. Wolff will also hold sculpture classes in the back and has four people signed up already.

“It’s a not-for-profit. It’s all coming out of my pocket. I’m not going to be selling in here or anything like that,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy doing.”