Guitars Made from the Bones of New York

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Turning demolition debris into iconic instruments

When the Chelsea Hotel closed for renovations last month, it was bemoaned as the latest victim of a changing downtown scene. The famed hotel on 23rd Street saw its fair share of notable writers, artists and musicians roam its halls during its 127-year existence. History buffs and that batch of New Yorkers who constantly harken back to the good old days were left wondering what would become of the iconic building.

But amidst the loud groans and cries of protest was one longtime music lover and New York City history aficionado who couldn't wait for the construction to begin-Rick Kelly.

That's because for the past three years, Kelly, 61, has been repurposing the pine from which all 19th century New York City buildings were constructed into a series of limited edition "Bowery Guitars" in his West Village shop, Carmine Street Guitars, on Carmine Street.

"This stuff is garbage to a lot of people," said Kelly, pointing to a six-foot piece of timber leaning against his shop wall, "but to me it's something more."

The series began after director/actor Jim Jarmusch, the neighbor of a friend of Kelly's, renovated his Bowery apartment and gave the wood to Kelly to see if he could use it in his guitar shop.

That first attempt was very experimental. Kelly knew the pine would work well for the guitar's body, as early 1950s Fender Telecasters, after which Kelly models his guitars, were made from pine as well. But as Kelly tells it, no one had ever used pine in a guitar's neck before.

To his surprise, that first guitar, which Jarmusch now owns, worked better than expected. That experiment led to something very special.

So what is it about these guitars that has made Bob Dylan, Bill Frisell, Patti Smith, guitarist Lenny Kaye and countless others fans for life?

The white pine Kelly uses, which he calls the "bones of old New York City," is over 300 years old. The density of the pine, combined with the alchemy it has undergone-constantly changing hot and cold stages over the past 150 years-has made the wood very resonant, what Kelly calls "a magical combination."

But one can't help but notice another magical combination: Kelly's loves of art, music and New York City history blended into the perfect creative outlet.

His 420-square-foot workspace for this outlet is a termite's dream, with a distinct smell of pine as inviting as it is potent. It's filled to the brim with dozens of unfinished bodies and necks and piles of old pine boards 10 feet tall leaning against every available wall. Each is marked in chalk with its origin-the famous Bedford speakeasy Chumley's, The Chelsea Hotel and random Bowery addresses.

"There's a lot of history in these guitars," said Kelly, "If these timbers could talk about what they've seen?they've seen 'em all."

And although Kelly says he'd love to find the landfill where all of the city's old wood ends up, he's got enough timber to fill his current 100-plus orders-and then some.

Aside from the lumber he gets from architects working on the Bowery, friends living in old brownstones in Lower Manhattan and people who know about his shop and clue him in to renovations going on around town, Kelly gets a lot of his wood from good old-fashioned dumpster diving.

"People are always tipping me off to dumpsters," he said, "I'm always on my bike, always hunting around. When I see scaffolding, I always look for a dumpster and every dumpster I see, I look inside it."

Kelly is currently working on No. 44 in his Bowery Pine series, which cost about $1,500 each. With a seemingly endless supply of this reclaimed lumber, he hopes to continue making them as long as the orders keep pouring in.

"I'm sure I'm getting my fifteen minutes of fame," said Kelly. "But I'm hoping it lasts longer than that."

Above: Craftsman Rick Perry, owner of Carmine Street Guitars, working on an example of his "Bowery Guitar" series. Left: His workspace, piled high with repurposed lumber is a termite's dream. Below: Perry in his West
Village shop. Photos by Annie Lubin

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