When my husband and I decided to sell our Park Slope co-op apartment and look for a townhouse, my one regret was leaving our beautiful original woodwork. I was especially attached to the elaborately carved fretwork screen, supported on carved columns, that divided the living room from the dining room. The adjoining mirror framed by floor-to-ceiling carved wood columns with mantels above and below, was another special attraction.
It had been love at first sight, and I worried I would never feel the same way about another home. But we were committed to making the move, and when we left, I assumed I would never see it again.
So it came as a shock when we walked into Big Reuse warehouse in Gowanus and saw the dismantled fretwork leaning against a wall.
“That’s funny,” I said to my husband. “That looks a lot like our woodwork.”
He gave me a strange look. “I think it is our woodwork.”
We walked closer, and sure enough, there was a photo attached to the carved pieces, showing them in their full glory in our old apartment. It still seemed impossible, so I asked an employee if it had come from our former address. He confirmed that indeed it had; in fact the fretwork had just been picked up and unloaded from the truck a half an hour earlier.
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The timing was uncanny. We weren’t regular customers at Big Reuse; we’d only been there a few times. But of all the furniture stores in all the neighborhoods in all the city, we walked into this one.
I’d been wondering what happened to our woodwork. I didn’t think that anyone else could love it the way I did and I was concerned, because the last two sales in our co-op building resulted in gut renovations that ripped out all the original details.
I found this inexplicable. To me, the carvings that graced all the apartments in this turn-of-the-century brownstone were the heart and soul of the building. Each apartment had different carved designs. When we bought ours, an appraiser told us about the skilled immigrant workers who added distinctive flourishes. These artisans seemed to be still alive in the house through their handiwork, which also inspired other kinds of creative endeavors. Our daughters—one was a toddler and the other was about to be born when we moved into the house—spent their early years inventing and performing elaborate shows in front of the enormous carved mirror.
Part of me had hoped that our buyers would appreciate these details as we did, but another part of me hoped that they wouldn’t. Maybe they would want a modern renovation like other recent buyers, and that might mean we could take our woodwork with us?
As soon as we had an offer, we began asking the buyers—first through our broker, then directly—whether we could buy the woodwork back from them. We loved it, we explained, and if there was any chance that they might end up removing it in the course of renovating, we would be very happy to pay, and to arrange for its removal. They were noncommittal—their plans weren’t clear, and if they decided to get rid of it, they would let us know. Months passed. We gave up. Then we happened to walk into Big Reuse.
My first reaction to seeing our lost woodwork was shock. I had already said goodbye; our renovation was almost done; it was too late. Then another person walked into the store, made a beeline for the woodwork, and started snapping photos on his phone.
“This is amazing!” he said to me. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to find something like this? And in this condition?”
I quickly came to my senses and realized I had to act fast. I told the enthusiast that I did have some idea, since we used to own this woodwork, and he backed off. Then I asked the man working there, Vinnie, if he could help me measure it. When I got home, I found that the width of our new living room was an exact match: 127 and three-quarter inches. This seemed to me to be a sign. I got on my bike and told my husband I was going back to Big Reuse to buy our woodwork back.
A happy reunion
Everyone was thrilled about the woodwork: Our daughters, my mother, our friends, anyone I ran into on the street. Vinnie at Big Reuse was happy too; he appreciated the unlikely serendipity of the reunion, and helped me with logistics, including putting me in touch with a van driver called Sal, who helped with packing and moving.
But having gotten this far, I couldn’t help but wonder about the mirror. If our buyers were getting rid of one piece, would the other follow? I sent them an e-mail, choosing my words carefully: We were surprised and delighted to come across the fretwork, and wondered whether they might also be parting with the mirror? Their reply was swift, cordial, and businesslike: Our interest had slipped their mind, and an appraisal had yielded a very generous tax deduction for donating to Big Reuse. The mirror had already been dismantled, but hadn’t fit on the truck that morning, and would be picked on Monday.
So I got back on the phone with Vinnie, who was eager to help. Our story had already buzzed around the warehouse, and everyone was on board with reserving the mirror for us. I worried that it would somehow slip through the cracks and get snapped up, but they were vigilant, and kept it on the truck until we could come in to claim it. They even gave us a discount.
As the name suggests, Big Reuse is a charity with an environmental focus. I like to think that they treated us especially well because our woodwork romance fit their focus on giving new life to old materials, but maybe the people who work there are just very nice. Either way, when I go past the warehouse now, I feel a surge of gratitude.
Tell buyers what you want to keep
Our reunion with our beloved woodwork hinged especially on random luck—the decision to stop by Big Reuse, the timing, and the helpfulness of the people involved. But there were also some things that I wish we had done differently, and some things that we did get right. I realize now that it’s important for sellers to be clear about preferences. The answer might be no, but if it’s maybe, there’s no harm in following up.
We’d asked our buyers if we could buy the woodwork, but after their demurrals we’d let it drop, terrified of jinxing the sale. In retrospect, whether or not it was rational to worry about annoying them before the closing, there was no good reason not to follow up afterwards, when we’d signed the papers, cashed their check, and had nothing to lose. The worst they could do was say no.
Keep your temper in check
Of course, simply being nice helps too. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s also more likely to earn goodwill and cooperation. When I realized that our buyers had given away our woodwork without letting us know, my first instinct was outrage, but I recognized that firing off an irritable e-mail was not going to help me get our mirror back. I also knew that our buyers had been undergoing their own real estate drama—buying and renovating their first apartment while having their first baby.
Strange though it might seem, it was possible that my feelings for the woodwork weren’t their top priority at the time. As my husband would confirm, I don’t always succeed at pausing to think things through and act diplomatically, but in this case I was able to write a friendly e-mail that got a quick and informative reply.
Appreciate your team
As New Yorkers, we kvetch, loudly and frequently when things go randomly wrong, which happens frequently with NYC real estate—but we don’t always remember to notice the things that go randomly right. I’m as guilty as anyone of overindulging in complaints, but in this case, I didn’t have to be reminded to appreciate the positive. Repeatedly expressing our gratitude to Vinnie, the Big Reuse team, and Sal came naturally because they were just so nice, and these warm personal interactions contributed to what I now think of as the Miracle of the Woodwork.
It’s easy to see New York City real estate as a battleground, but this experience has reminded me that it can be something more. A home is an intimate space, invested with emotions, memories, and possibilities. Finding one that fits is hard but satisfying work. I thought I would never love another home as much as our last one, but I was wrong. Even without the woodwork, this one was also love at first sight. Now that we’ve merged the best of our last home with our new space, it’s even better.