Adding fine old items for `instant character'

Homeowners are turning to architectural salvaging to give new or remodeled houses a touch of vintage furnishings and past craftsmanship.

December 19, 2004|By Scott Waldman | Scott Waldman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

From ornate cast-iron radiators to hand-carved trim molding, the detritus of Baltimore's past increasingly is being sought by local homeowners looking to add the right touch to their new or remodeled house.

"When you put an old item into a house, it has instant character," said Jeff Roth, who has installed numerous items from bygone eras in his mid-19th- century Ridgely's Delight home.

Interest in home remodeling and decorating has mushroomed during the past several years thanks to extraordinarily low mortgage rates and record homeownership. And many homeowners still yearn for building materials, amenities and styles that grew out of favor years ago - even if they're buying a new home or renovating an existing one.

So many have turned to architectural salvaging, a term given to the preservation of items from older buildings, that the number of salvage yards across the country is growing. There are more than 100 such places nationwide listed on OldHouseWeb.com, a Web site devoted to the restoration and preservation of historic buildings.

Many of the pieces of older homes such as trellises, mantelpieces, hardwood flooring and claw-foot bathtubs are popular simply because the craftsmanship that went into their creation is not common today, said Mark Foster, owner of Second Chance Inc., a Baltimore salvage yard. And the demand from homeowners, interior decorators and builders continues to grow.

"If we don't preserve it," Foster said, "it's going to go into the dump."

The rise in popularity of these older materials likely is a result of an increased do-it-yourself ethic, said Tom Silva, general contractor for This Old House, the company that produces television shows, Internet sites and magazines that reach 52 million adults each month.

While Silva can still recall the look of some of the stained-glass windows and wooden mantelpieces he found at a salvage yard, he warned that potential buyers must also be careful. Though good deals can be found at salvage places, he said, sometimes the buyer will get only what he or she pays for.

"Try to get the best condition you can get," he said. "It can be expensive to get it resurfaced."

More importantly, cautioned Silva, make sure the piece meets today's standards. For instance, an old sink with separate spigots for hot and cold water could lead to burns if it does not have a way to regulate the temperature.

Not all worn materials are as old as they look either.

Antique reproductions of household items have caught on as well and home improvement companies such as Home Depot and others are capitalizing on the interest.

During recent years, Home Depot began offering a number of reproductions of trim molding, light fixtures and door handles and hinges. They have been selling well, said Don Harrison, a Home Depot spokesman, particularly near larger cities where there are a lot of older homes.

At Second Chance in Baltimore, shoppers can peruse 100,000 square feet of salvaged material in four Warner Street warehouses south of the downtown stadiums. Foster soon will open a similar store in Philadelphia. He has been approached by officials from Chicago, Columbus, Ohio, and Northern Virginia to help start similar businesses in their area.

Because Second Chance is a nonprofit company, finding donations has not been difficult, Foster said. Property owners and developers that donate unwanted buildings or pieces of homes to Second Chance are entitled to tax breaks.

Foster now has 30 full-time employees, about half of whom he has trained to "deconstruct" a building, or take away anything from it that can be used. Crews have driven throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and New York to retrieve pieces of buildings.

A recent project was the removal of a 5,000-seat arena from the University of Pennsylvania's campus in Philadelphia. Second Chance carted away 12 tractor-trailer loads of material from the property that would otherwise be taking up landfill space now.

People from all walks of life including contractors, retirees, artists or newlyweds shop at the warehouses in search of the perfect complement for their new homes.

"It's easier to say who's not here, than who's here," Foster said.

Area homeowners said they like the look of the vintage materials.

Though her house was built during the 1990s, Woodbine resident Mary Guy spent a recent weekend looking through a salvage yard for things to decorate her bathroom. Guy, a social services research analyst, found a lamp and towel rack at a salvage yard and hopes to add more, smaller items that will make her house feel more eclectic.

Adding a vintage flourish to a new building can transform the place, said designer Kim Carlson. For a recent project, she installed a Victorian mantelpiece in a home built during the 1950s. Architecturally salvaged items tend to make a home feel more comfortable to her clients, she said.

"They're looking for things that make their house more homey and lived in," Carlson said.

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