ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Bill Falkenthal has created a New York City skyline in his Northeast Heights basement using an item most people would probably consider trash.
The Brooklyn native has built models of some of the city’s most historic and recognizable landmarks using wine corks. Falkenthal said he can’t remember exactly when he started or why but he thinks it’s been a decade.
“I’m gonna be 86 in January and my short-term memory is bad,” he joked. “My distant cousin came to visit me some years ago and brought me some magazine from Brooklyn. I think that’s what got me started.”
He said he’s not sure why he decided to use wine corks either but it’s turned out to be a pliable and readily available material. Friends and acquaintances donate used wine corks to him by the dozens. Along the southern wall of his basement are boxes of unused corks waiting for his next project, the Seagram Building, which is located in Midtown Manhattan on Park Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd streets. The skyscraper was completed in 1958 and features glass and bronze but Falkenthal’s version will contain mostly one building material – cork.
Falkenthal’s creations are a mixture of whole corks and slices that he cuts with a small saw. Each installation takes between one to three months.
“I’ve probably made 12 to 13 million cuts over the years,” he said. “Some pieces I cut four times. I got so involved. I was hypnotized by building these.”
Scattered throughout his basement are the Statue of Liberty; the Empire State Building, complete with King Kong; the now destroyed Twin Towers; the new Freedom tower; the iconic Flat Iron building; the Chrysler building; and most noticeably, the Brooklyn Bridge.
Falkenthal’s home is east of Tramway along Interstate 40 just off the frontage road. The house was built into the mountain and the basement was constructed around two large boulders crews were not able to move. The floor of the basement is covered in artificial turf with putting holes, remnants of the miniature golf game the family used to play there.
Falkenthal has constructed his cork Brooklyn Bridge over two boulders, arching over the putting green. He placed toy cars on the miniature bridge and bushes and animals atop the boulders.
Another noticeable project is his replica of Levittown, New York. After World War II, Levitt & Sons built several homes in planned suburbs on the East Coast. The neighborhoods were created for returning WWII soldiers. As a teen, Falkenthal helped construct the Levitt community on Long Island. The replica in his basement features several rectangular homes, a train depot and train tracks surrounding the community.
Falkenthal moved to New Mexico three decades ago after his father and brother passed away, saying he and his wife were ready to leave behind the crowded, fast-paced life many live on the East Coast. He ran a carpet store before retiring.
The couple had purchased land in Rio Rancho that was heavily marketed to New Yorkers decades ago. When they arrived, they found it was not exactly what they expected.
“They take you out there and it’s this lot in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “I told them this isn’t exactly what they advertised. Then I sold it to some other dumb New Yorker and moved to Albuquerque.”
A friend built them their east side home about 20 years ago. He and his wife of 54 years also once owned a home in Mexico, which they sold last year, and a cabin in the Jemez Mountains that they also sold. Falkenthal’s one-time hobby was hunting and the walls of his “Man Cave” room at the house is covered with mounted heads and furs.
“I was once an avid hunter,” he said. “I can barely kill a fly now.”
As far as his NYC landmark creations, Falkenthal said he will keep at it as long as he can walk down the stairs to his basement.