Finding the right fixtures for historic renovation

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

James Kelly and his wife and business partner, Barbara Kerr, discovered the kind of lighting fixtures most needed for old buildings by rejuvenating a few elderly structures themselves -- such as a vacant and condemned three-story commercial building which they paid $1,000 for and then restored. ``We had so much trouble finding things when we were renovating that we decided what Portland needed was a store where other couples like us who were redoing old houses could find some help and the spare parts they needed -- be they salvaged doors, windows, bathtubs, sinks, old hardware, or lighting fixtures. We thought we could gather up a few things that would prove useful to people attempting restorations.''

At that time, in 1977, Barbara taught at a Montessori School and James was working as a carpenter. But with a $2,500 investment, they started, on the side, a firm called Rejuvenation House Parts. They began to collect items by working with housewreckers who were demolishing buildings, or contracting on their own the right to salvage in a building. They specialized in architectural parts that people could reuse. When the old Park Haviland Hotel came down, they were on hand to salvage 600 doors, brass hin ges, pedestal sinks, wood molding, clawfoot tubs, and an old oak staircase.

Barbara and James soon became caught up in the rising tide of house renovation in Portland, with people rehabbing the big old Victorians as well as smaller bungalows. It wasn't long before recyling house parts became the couple's primary concern, and teaching and carpentering went by the wayside. Gradually, their business began to focus more and more on lighting fixtures.

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``Many of our customers were afraid of wiring and they'd bring in old light fixtures for us to repair and rewire,'' James recalls. The two also noticed the quick sales of salvaged period fixtures from demolished Victorian houses and realized they could expand their business not only by finding more old fixtures but by re-creating new ones that had the authentic look of the old.

``Our biggest struggle was to find companies to manufacture the parts for both the old and new fixtures, but now we have about 50 suppliers,'' says James. ``And of course, once the suppliers were found, we had to prove our adeptness at putting together the parts. At the beginning we only had the experience to make simple wall and ceiling fixtures, but it wasn't long before we were able to reproduce the handsome chandeliers and ornate fixtures of other times.''

Some of the parts the husband-and-wife team use are stock parts that have been continuously made for many years by lighting parts manufacturers. Others are parts for which companies still have the old molds and which they will produce again.

``Sometimes we must ask for new parts to be made because we do no metal fabrication here,'' explains James. ``We do the assembling, polishing and wiring. We keep learning as we go and continue to research for period authenticity.''

Today they offer more than l00 fixtures in solid brass and other quality materials. Their 13 employees can assemble more than l,000 variations of the various models. Reproductions range in period from the late 18th century to the early 1930s, and Barbara and James believe they are filling a ``hole in the market'' for fixtures that date after the Victorian era.

They now sell mail order all over the United States and in other countries as well, with their fixtures in demand not only for renovated homes but for historic restoration of museums, libraries, churches, city halls, hotels, and office buildings.

This year, about 70 percent of the couple's business is in lighting, although the house parts end remains brisk as well. ``Customers and other people have been bringing us things over the years, and the more well known we get, the more people bring in to us,'' says Barbara.

``We have tried to be a resource,'' she says, ``with lots of books and information available to people on how to appropriately renovate, and we try to help those who ask for our help. Our philosophy is that old houses should be properly restored and then maintained and that people should be able to find the right parts to do that job.''

Rejuvenation House Parts was one of the Expo exhibitors at the recent annual conference of the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Seattle. Their mail-order catalog is available for $3 from Rejuvenation House Parts Company, 901 North Skidmore, Dept. CSM, Portland, Ore. 97217.

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