NEW YORK – Making what is old new again is one of the simple pleasures of recycling antiques and vintage goods. The act of taking things destined for landfills and giving them a new look or imbuing them with a new purpose is sometimes called upcycling. Decorating with architectural salvage is one of interior decorating’s most popular trends and has been going strong since the early 1980s. It is also something that many people can feel good about as going green and reusing items instead of buying new is good for the environment, keeping goods out of landfills and reducing demand for new items.
“Incorporating architectural salvage into design is a wonderful homage to the past. It creates a story and adds texture in your home,” says Kristin Crump, owner of Foxtrot Home in Ridgefield, Conn., who routinely salvages old architectural pieces and furniture for herself and in her business. “I’ve made corbels into bookends for myself and clients. I take remnant tile and create decoupage coasters and trivets. I also love to decorate with old windows, taking salvage antique leaded glass windows to create wall art. The craftsmanship that goes into homes and furnishings built over a hundred years ago is exquisite and tells a story.”
Besides roadside finds, tag sales and dumpster-diving (the latter we don’t recommend), there are many outlets for finding architectural salvage. You can frequent flea and antiques markets; some of our fave big outdoor ones are Brimfield, Mass; Round Top, Texas; Madison Bouckville, N.Y.; and Alameda Point (Calif.) Antiques Faire. Salvage stores and auctions are also great sources for finding unique pieces. Popular examples of pieces that work well in decor include mantels, doors, windows and shutters, wrought iron, reclaimed flooring, fretwork, metalwork and finials.
Kamelot Auctions in Philadelphia is well known as a source for architectural antiques. Co-owner Joe Holahan began buying salvaged items about 15 years ago and soon incorporated them into the auction business. People today prefer lightweight items over heavy items, which can be expensive to move and install, he said. “They look for three-dimensional objects. Something that stands up on its own is much more salable than things that are flat and have to be sort of put up against a wall,” he said. “When you get a 3-D object … I am staring at a copper finial we just sold, you can put it anywhere you want in your backyard or your house.” Collectors today often look for old items but don’t worry about the distinction between an antique object versus one that is vintage, he said. “People, in general, are not fixated on age today. They are not that concerned how old things are. It’s more about the look and does it fit in and work for them,” he said. “Mid-century modern architectural elements are just as salable if not more so than 19th century items.”
Crump said there are millions of ways to work in architectural salvage into your home and just about any piece of salvage can become a one-of-a-kind artwork. “Windows become art and doors leaned up against a wall with great patina create a focal point in your room,” she said, noting she found an antique pediment that came off a building slated for demolition. That piece is now a framing element atop her front door.
Going to a store and finding a striking piece of salvage that will be an accent piece in your home makes for a great shopping experience but becomes even better when said purchase can benefit the community. Fran Normann, executive director of Housatonic Habitat for Humanity in Danbury, Conn., which operates the Housatonic ReStore, explains ReStore outlets are a treasure trove of antiques and secondhand items, sold well below retail value. Inventory ranges from antiques to hammers to kitchen cabinets and there are about 900 ReStore locations nationwide. ReStore profits fund Habitat for Humanity chapters, allowing them to fulfill their mission of providing affordable housing in the communities they serve.
“Many big-name big-box stores are regular contributors and we are recycling almost new kitchen cabinets and counters from area homes. People shop to fill in their homes with budget-friendly furniture or to upgrade their gardens with pallets of pavers,” Normann said, noting DIYers will also pick up interesting decorative pieces like salvage that they can refinish or repurpose into their home decor.
Holahan likens architectural salvage to art. “I’ve always said it’s underpriced art. People are looking for unique pieces, something their next-door neighbor does not have or you can’t find in your local big-box store,” he said. “It’s cheap art. You can buy a really cool architectural element for $1,000 or less, but walking into a paintings gallery to find something for $1,000 or less it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to do.”
So if you share a fondness for rough-around-the-edges pieces in need of some TLC or pieces that wear their history on their sleeve and have character, definitely make architectural salvage part of your home. When looking, however, keep size in mind. You’ll need to think about what room a piece will go and how it will fit so the item does not overpower a room. Smaller pieces can go most anywhere but larger pieces, while striking, may limit your placement options. Holahan said pieces that came from notable families, especially wealthy ones like the Rockefellers, tend to inspire buyer excitement. “It’s part of history and often times it came off a famous building. People love to buy things that were owned by multimillionaires,” he said.
Above all else, buy what speaks to you. “Vintage salvage, furnishings and decor tend to always be very nostalgic,” Crump said. “Remembering simpler times can also add a sense of calm and tranquility to your space.”