Everything old is new again

Architectural salvage takes on new life as popular home decor

The bathtubs stand in formation like a platoon of Marines. Nearby, marble sinks, like those in an English boys' school lavatory, squat along a wall. Upstairs, French doors open onto nothing, their delicate frames bumping against each other like debutantes at a party.

This is Salvage One, an 80,000-square-foot warehouse on Chicago's South Side that sells architectural salvage - remnants of buildings that have been demolished in the name of "progress." These can include copper cornices, marble columns, light fixtures, fireplace mantels, hardware, tile, doors, and garden statuary.

But more than anything, the company - and hundreds of other establishments around the US and overseas - sells "instant pedigree," says Mark Steinke, managing director.

For years, architects and designers have been hip to the uses of architectural antiques, but more recently apartment dwellers and homeowners are catching on. And not all of them are restoring old houses.

Salvage companies estimate that 50 to 60 percent of their customers are looking for unusual pieces to use as ornament - they want an antique signboard or stone column to give their home drama and a touch of history. These people are well-educated, well-heeled, and expect one-of-a-kind items they can't pick up at the likes of Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn.

To appeal to these buyers, some salvage merchandisers are shedding their grungy warehouse image. Instead of dusty items crammed floor-to-ceiling, places like Salvage One create vignettes to conjure a mood and demonstrate how items can be reused. For example, one area on the first floor resembles a medieval "garden" complete with carved stone urns, a wishing well, benches, and an ancient stone arch from a church in Scotland. The only thing missing is chanting monks.

Mr. Steinke says this approach brings in buyers. "We've become a destination," he says.

Homeowners Wendy and Jeff Bittner traveled from Ottumwa, Iowa, to search for pieces that would lend history to their new house. "We were on a decorating mission," Mrs. Bittner says. On separate trips, they bought two stone fireplace mantels and a Gothic chandelier. "This is a place where people and items find one another," she says.

Another factor inspiring buyers is the proliferation of articles in home-design magazines that feature architectural antiques adapted for new uses. Examples include mercury-glass doorknobs used as coat hooks, English downspouts wired to make wall sconces, English refectory tables used as kitchen islands, and leaded-glass windows converted to wall mirrors.

This "adaptive reuse" is a powerful force that drives up the cost of architectural antiques.

The situation today, says Bill Raymer, owner of Restoration Resources in Boston, is that of more money chasing fewer objects.

The effect of urban renewal

The reason: The business of salvage isn't what it used to be. In the upheaval of urban renewal in the 1960s and '70s, buildings were torn down at a phenomenal rate. The aim of city officials was to eliminate slums through massive new building projects. Demolition companies were called in, and in their haste, threw out tons of material. The few salvage companies that existed were primarily interested in raw materials such as brick, timber, and stone. The rest was discarded or hauled away by a handful of prescient collectors.

In Boston, one such collector was the late Jorge Epstein. His son, Norman, recalls accompanying his father on foraging runs. He tells the story of King Gillette, of Gillette razor fortune, who abandoned a mansion in Brookline because he couldn't stand the neighbors. The house, which stood boarded up for years, was slated for demolition. The senior Epstein arrived in time to see the wrecking ball go through a Louis Comfort Tiffany window. He threw the crane operator out of the cab, forcing a halt to the demolition.

Epstein's collection grew from his backyard to 20 storage spaces until he opened Old Mansions Inc. in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood. He made money by riding the '70s nostalgia wave, and sold vintage signs and bric-a-brac to chain restaurants such as TGI Friday's.

These days, Norman Epstein is pessimistic about the salvage business. He recently sold Old Mansions to an auctioneer who is liquidating the warehouse. "It's time to quit," he says.

Mr. Raymer calls the '60s and '70s "the good old days" when salvage was plentiful and few people knew its value. Now, he says, it's not unusual for two or more companies to bid against him for salvage rights. Unlike Salvage One, which mostly handles pieces already in circulation, Raymer prefers to have his own team remove objects, so he can keep a watch on how pieces are disassembled.

In Raymer's shop, the inventory is small but in good condition. A soapstone sink, its surface worn to a satin smoothness, stands upended in the corner, marked "Sold." Such sinks might sell for between $450 and $850. Pedestal sinks go for $150 to $600 depending on condition, and marble mantels can be had for between $1,000 and $8,000.

Salvage One has a copper cornice from a Pittsburgh bank that will set you back $38,000. It sells claw-foot bathtubs for between $350 and $3,500, and door hardware ranging from $5 to $125.

Raymer says architectural antiques are popular because they "give people a certain comfort level." So much that is built today, he says, "is fairly sterile."

And that sterility is one reason, Raymer and others say, that people building new homes, or rehabbing a loft apartment, gravitate toward the old.

Architectural salvage companies aren't alone in spotting this market. For consumers who can't afford the real thing, retail companies such as Restoration Hardware happily sell reproductions.

'Craftsmanship has deteriorated'

It's ironic that retailers like Restoration Hardware - by mass-producing antique-looking products - actually contribute to a feeling that everything looks the same. For example, old schoolroom lights became collectible, and before long, reproductions showed up in the Pottery Barn catalog. While these companies help democratize good design, they also force the cognoscenti into an ever intensifying, and costly, search for rare items.

What about the future? Are we throwing away objects today that might prove valuable? Raymer doesn't think so. "Very little is being produced that people will want to salvage in 20 or 30 years," he says. "The craftsmanship has deteriorated."

He continues: "Modern houses can't compare to Victorian or Gothic houses; they just aren't as memorable in design and detail."

*For a list of salvage companies on line, visit: www.traditional-building.com

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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