Collecting Forgotten Tales: The lost worlds of architectural salvage

2013-06-02T00:45:00Z 2013-06-05T12:51:04Z Collecting Forgotten Tales: The lost worlds of architectural salvageCarolyn Purnell
June 02, 2013 12:45 am  • 

Perhaps it will be an old baptismal font, a 19th-century apothecary’s chest, or a cherub-shaped corbel. You probably won’t know it until you see it. But chances are, when you walk into an architectural salvage store, you’re going to fall in love with something.

Salvage shops have become increasingly popular destinations for designers, collectors, and home remodelers. There are now more than 300 salvage shops in the United States, and the products at these stores run the gamut. Tile, millwork, antique furniture, signage, curiosities, stonemasonry, doors, windows, mantels, stained glass, lighting, hardware–the list goes on and on. In fact, it’s much easier to explain what you won’t find there: anything new or mass-produced.

Architectural salvage shops were born of a desire to save expert craftsmanship from the rubbish bin. Generally, when a building is being demolished, demolition firms have the task of discarding all the materials. While some elements can be recycled or sold as scrap, there’s little differentiation in style, which means that pieces of finely crafted ornamentation are often treated the same as run-of-the-mill lumber, equally destined for the trash heap, incinerator, or recycling plant. Architectural enthusiasts were aghast to see these antiques going to waste, and in the 1980s, pioneer salvage vendors began making deals with demolition firms in order to save these treasures and pass them on to interested buyers.

Some shops are hunting grounds for bargain seekers, but many of the largest salvage shops cater to high-end clients looking to add character to their homes. A number of interior designers adore these stores because salvaged objects can instantly add detail, warmth, and architectural interest to modern homes. While there are certainly items with the industrial, weathered look that you might expect of salvaged pieces, there are equally many that would appeal to shoppers whose tastes tend toward the new and shiny. Many salvage shops employ craftsmen who can refinish older pieces, giving them a fresh look. A further selling point is the practicality of salvage shopping; many articles are crafted out of hardy substances, and in an era where many people are trying to be greener, there’s no better way to be eco-conscious than to reuse materials.

Stuart Grannen, the owner of Architectural Artifacts, a salvage store in Chicago, has described himself as an “urban archaeologist,” and his company’s mission statement declares, “The focus has always been on pieces of intrigue, objects of a lost world, the aesthetic and the beautiful.” It’s precisely this mix of intrigue, beauty, and history that appeals to buyers. With salvage, every piece has a story, and to purchase a salvaged object is to become a collector of forgotten tales.

This strong connection between the past and the present has spoken so deeply to so many people that Salvage One, a store in Chicago, has become a popular wedding venue, often booking ceremonies up to a year in advance. Lauren Berger, a bride who will be married there in January, explained why the setting appealed to her: “I can't help but daydream about the history of it all–the salvaged windows, doors, doorknobs–and the places these pieces once lived in. I love that our guests will get to explore and discover pieces from the past as we celebrate our future as husband & wife.”

It seems that such daydreams, or at least imagination in some form, are central to the appeal of salvage. Some collectors love imagining the former lives of objects, while others would rather imagine how to put them to new use. Many salvage stores incorporate these re-imaginings into their décor, using old staircase spindles to create room dividers, repurposing wooden crates into a shelving system, or using Persian rugs as luxurious canopies. Urban Remains, a Chicago store whose collection includes a large selection of vintage industrial and medical furniture, updates their Facebook page daily with ideas for creative use: put an old surgical table to work in the garden; display your clothes with vintage garment racks; use vintage locker bins to organize your office.

Architectural salvage stores seem to be so popular because they offer the chance to see the objects of the past with fresh eyes. Beauty, quirk, originality, or timelessness–whatever you seek in home furnishings, there’s probably something waiting in a salvage shop for you. All it takes is a bit of imagination and a willingness to reuse, restore, and reinterpret.

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