Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Wrecking yards can yield treasures for home decorating

If you want to decorate with the every unusual object these days, you head straight to the site of a fine old building that is being knocked down, or to a wrecking yard or store that deals in architectural elements from such demolished structures.

You spy out the salvaged treasures that are dear to your own heart, and then bargain to buy such artifacts of past craftsmanship as carved doors, newel posts , brass door fixtures, chandeliers, classical columns, stained glass windows, gargoyles, ornamental ironwork, and Victorian fireplaces.

About these ads

These and any number of other rescued building components and fanciful fragments of interior and exterior architecture are what Apartment Life magazine describes as "urban archaeology" -- a new art form that has become a fast-developing decorative trend and national collecting movement.

One dealer in New York, Leonard Schechter, has even taken the name Urban Archaeology Limited as the title of his SoHo gallery at 137 Spring Street, where he sells everything from pot-bellied stoves to Corinthian capitals, church altar rails, cast-iron balusters, and other nostalgic pieces of ornament once connected to great buildings of the past. His odd assortment of city relics has also been known to include a single barber's chair, post office boxes, and an old-fashioned soda fountain with its original fixtures.

The bits and pieces of cityscapes are hung on walls as art, used as wall brackets to display other objects, and converted into table bases, plant holders , pedestals, bedposts, and seating elements.However they are used, they add a touch of class and character to modern boxlike rooms that are too often bereft of ornament or distinction.

Jo McDonald, whose Wrecking Bar Inc. at 2601 McKinney Avenue in Dallas is now 17 years old, is another entrepreneur who is fascinated with bygone architecture and eager to preserve its various components for "adaptive reuse."

Mrs. McDonald keep material from demolition sites in the US and Europe flowing through the big old former Baptist church building that she uses as her business headquarters. Specializing in 18th- and 19th-century European architectural antiques, she travels abroad several times a year to replenish her stock, but also tracks sources in the United States.

Like other dealers in this field, she is on the lookout for those mansions and large estates that, because of high taxation and exhobitant maintenance costs, have become "white elephants" and are soon to be demolished by developers or renovated for new purposes. In the past, she says, far too much fine interior architecture and ornament has been tossed out and taken to the dump.

Today, Mrs. McDonald and other dealers confirm, the movement to salvage and recycle architectural artifacts from old houses, churches, theathers, and office buildings is strong and constantly growing. These building relics from our opulent architectural past provide a much-needed ingredient in many modern homes and commercial establishments since they are rich quality and integrity of materials and workmanship.

About these ads

The Wrecking Bar of Atlanta Inc. (a separate entity from the Dallas emporium) is located at 292 Moreland Avenue and also is owned and operated by a woman, Mrs. Wilma Stone, who says she deals in 400 years of architectural art from two continents.

Mrs. Stone has sought such art for shops in both New Orleans and Atlanta, where she has been in business for the past 11 years. She has dispersed the architectural elements of great Southern plantation mansions as well as the Victorian houses built in the industrial cities of the North in the years between 1880 and 1900.

She herself lives in a 1913 house in which she has used portions of fluted columns for fern stands, and fine pine corner cupboards from an old Southern hotel. Her garden is decorated with granite balustrades from a vintage bank building.

Right now, Mrs. Stone's inventory includes an antique brass doorknob for $5 and a carved overdoor from an Italian palace for $8,000. As much as she enjoys buying and selling components of old buildings, Mrs. Stone says her biggest satisfaction lies in the fact that, by saving and presenting the artifacts, so many more people have become aware of the value of saving vintage landmarks instead of destroying them.

One of the older outlets, the United House Wrecking Company of stamford, Conn., has been sprawling over six acres and overflowing five buildings for over a quarter of a century. Ray Bowling, one of the four owners, says the company ceased wrecking buildings about 12 years ago and now deals entirely in what other wreckers wreck.

It is considered the largest such operation in New England, and its gorgeous clutter has been described as " a junk store with both class and personality." Its bargains, sought by children and adults alike, run from 25 cents to $5,000. They might include a ship's hatch cover, brass bird cage, hinges, door knockers, church bells or pews, weather vanes, pieces of cornices and corbels, newel posts , turnings, and handcarved fretwork and ornamental woodwork.

The Cleveland Wrecking Company in Cleveland, Ohio, the Architectural Antiques Exchange (specialists in Victorian salvage) in Philadelphia, Pa., and the Old Mansions Company in Mattapan, Mass., which specializes in New England architectural antiques, are three other sources in different parts of the country.

One man, John P. Wilson, last June staged his tenth annual architectural antiques auction in Los Angeles but has now dropped auction sales in favor of a retail warehouse in Santa Monica known as the Golden Movement Emporium. He continues to sell such fascinating items as Tiffany windows, entire English chemist shops, large ornate fireplace mantels from around the world, and 19 th-century greenhouses with leaded stained-glass panels.

Since the home that is one man's castle can today be dismantled to become the castle that is part of someone's home, it isn't surprising that Marcel Raymaekers, a dealer in Genk, Belgium, specializes in selling the elements of old Belgian and French castles and chateaus. These include Gothic window frames and archways, hand-carved ceilings, stone cherubs and carved animals, baroque moldings, gargoyles, and parquet floors. He sees about five castles a year razed and demolished because of high taxation and soaring upkeep costs.

Plenty of antique stores, junk and secondhand stores, and flea markets around the United States also offer a fair share of architectural artifacts such as posts, pillars, pedestals, columns, capitals, and interesting bits of woodwork.

Some of these outlets even offer interior furnishings of old grocery stores, diners, restaurants, and turn-of-the-century drugstores.

All of the dealers offer examples of craftsmanship that would not, or could not, be repeated today. Prices are going up and up, but bargains still exist for those who take the time to look for them. One suggetion is to go straight to a demolition site and seek to buy directly from the wreckers or inquire where their demolition yard is located. Another is to check country auction notices in local papers as well as those listings in architectural auctions that often follow estate sales and are often posted in antique trade papers. Many architectural antique buffs also watch for signs of "modernization" of local municipal buildings, courthouses, police stations, churches and schools, because it is moment when great old clocks, pews, bronze work, stained-glass windows, moldings, railings, and paneling suddenly become available.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.