The Coney Island Boardwalk in 1948 and today, reclaimed as flooring at the Barnes Foundation art museum in Philadelphia. more photos
The wood has a story to tell, of an odyssey that began by the ocean.
When the New York City parks department started using concrete and synthetic lumber three years ago to replace sections of the Coney Island Boardwalk — that symbol of summer, receptacle of dropped ice cream cones and witness to roller coaster romance — the move prompted outrage from preservationists.
Unintentionally, the city had begun an engaging tale of reinvention.
Discarded wood from the boardwalk, reclaimed from trash bins and salvage yards, has spread from the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the Pacific, emerging in places like museums and hideaways in Southern California.
The wood has quietly appeared in New York, too: in a rooftop farm in Queens, at a public pool in Brooklyn, in a coffee bar in Greenwich Village.
Perhaps the grandest Eliza Doolittle transformation, though, has been in Philadelphia, at the sleek new home for the art galleries of the Barnes Foundation.
In Coney Island, the boardwalk once offered the working class a cheap escape from the heat and a glimpse of carnival freaks; at the Barnes, it offers an exclusive entrance to Matisse and Picasso and their brethren in a billion-dollar collection of masterpieces.
In lieu of a plaque, museum officials often walk around and tell patrons the story of the wood. “We get all sorts of comments,” Andrew Stewart, a museum spokesman, said. “People ask, ‘Can we have a hot dog on it?’ ”
Reclaimed lumber has become an increasingly popular design material for the recycling age, especially in the case of highly durable tropical hardwoods like ipe, used on Coney Island, which comes from endangered Brazilian rain forests.
Also, using salvaged materials enhances a building’s LEED rating, an environmental distinction architects covet.
The parks department says it tries to reuse what it can but then allows contractors to sell, discard or give away the rest. (The city makes no money from it.) That is how an architectural salvage company in Philadelphia came to haul away 20 trailer loads of Coney Island wood in 2010.
It supplied the Barnes Foundation with about 6,000 feet of flooring — milled in Pennsylvania Amish country — from the thicker support beams beneath the boardwalk.
Scott Lash, a partner at the company, Provenance Mill Works, said Coney Island wood offered “a unique opportunity” to use an endangered material and yet feel good about it.
At the Barnes, the wood is in the elevator and staircases, and a border to the oak floors in the 23 galleries, but is most striking in the Light Court, the soaring entrance hall. Arranged in a herringbone pattern 28 feet wide and 155 feet long, the refashioned boardwalk forms a tapestry of caramel, red and chocolate hues — the original colors revealed by stripping the wood’s gray skin.
“Green” products have seemed synonymous with California, and in Venice, Calif., a star chef has embraced the ethos of reclaimed wood. Travis Lett, 33, of Gjelina there, originally went to Provenance’s yard to buy Pennsylvania bluestone with his designer, Sam Marshall.
They saw the wood and were intrigued, especially since Mr. Lett grew up in Morristown, N.J., and recalled going to Coney Island as a child. They had it trucked cross-country, then laid it on the floors, shower and deck of Mr. Lett’s renovated 1,500-square-foot home blocks from the beach.
“Combining these resources from the East Coast and reusing them in this way is very California,” Mr. Lett said. “I love being connected to the source.”
The source could not have been any closer for Michael Sarrel, the owner of Ruby’s Bar and Grill on the Coney Island Boardwalk. For two years, a new landlord threatened to oust his and other longtime boardwalk establishments, and only after tense negotiations could he sign a long-term lease in December — provided he would renovate the bar.
When he saw boardwalk planks in garbage bins on Stillwell Avenue and 15th Street, 100 feet from his restaurant, he got the demolition crews to give him 10,000 feet without charge, Mr. Sarrel said. But using the wood ended up costing him well over $10,000, he said, and posing unforeseen challenges: extracting the beams from the joists, and taking out all the nails and screws.
Carpenters cut through the wood as hard as stone to form tables, walls, the ceiling and the bar.
“We want to keep the place looking old, but looking new,” Mr. Sarrel said. “We want it to look clean, but look dirty.”