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Discover Mid-America— March 2011

Collectors salvaging
architectural artifacts

Once upon a time you could go to a salvage yard and find wonderful remnants from old building interiors and exteriors for little money. These days they have found a second life in decorator showrooms and fancy antique shops, as well as in architectural artifacts stores. Prices can range from $45 for a decorative stone that once was part of a building to several thousand dollars for old bathtubs. Even old commodes are considered collectible.

Periodically, interesting examples come to auction, such as fireplace mantels and leaded glass church windows. Depending on the age, materials used and decorations, fireplace mantels can sell for over $2,000. More reasonably priced items would be a late 19th century oak mantel with a beveled mirror priced at $575. Listed two years ago, in a Millers Price, was a rare, early 19th century, Federal pine mantel that had an auction estimate of $3,000 to $4,000.

Cast Iron Classical Summer gas fireplace cover, 25.5" x 31" x 7", $350 (photo courtesy of Foundation architectural reclamation, Kansas City, MO)

When it comes to strictly architectural artifacts, the price depends on if the architect is well known and the piece can be attributed to architect. Names like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright mean big bucks. Familiarizing yourself with them and famous architects from the past in your area can pay off. Many furniture designers, such as Thomas Chippendale and Thomas Sheraton, also designed architectural ornaments for their clients.

Size is never a problem in this collecting category. Massive items such as a three-and-a-half-ton bronze pocket door from the Corn Exchange Bank in Chicago, offered at Salvage One, sold several years ago. Small pieces of figural hardware such as doorknobs, hinges and doorknockers have long been collected, and sold by specialty dealers. Collectors look for unusual brass and bronze doorknobs with pressed designs. They often mount and frame them as art.

Other possibilities include old wood floorboards, light fixtures, carved newel posts and even staircases. Interesting collections can begin with fragments used as decorative accessories. Among them, are carved wood and metal fragments that were once part of a staircase or a fireplace mantel. The same holds true for terra cotta building decorations popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

Nothing is too humble to be considered collectible. An example would be a cast iron heat grate. They can be surprisingly decorative and are priced accordingly. Prices can range from $45 for a simple design to well into the hundreds for an elaborate and uniquely shaped design with an arched top rather than the conventional square form.

Collectors also eagerly seek wrought iron door latches, dating from the 18th to early 19th century. When they make a rare appearance in a dealer’s shop prices can skyrocket from $3,000 to $40,000. (And no, that extra zero isn’t a typo!)

Art Deco terra cotta panel with love birds, Maxwell Street, Chicago, 30.25" x 25", $650 (photo courtesy of Foundation architectural reclamation, Kansas City, MO)

Old doors, door knockers, and bell pulls and pushes were often quite elaborate. Collectors don’t care if they have to refinish the doors, covered with layers of paint. After all, there is beautiful wood waiting to be discovered. (And sometimes, the patina or peeling paint that’s developed over the years is the look one desires.) Stylized designs reflecting the Art Deco era make novel garden or porch ornaments. Anything in the Arts and Crafts and Modernism eras are collectible and affordable.

Often historic hotels and restaurants that are going to be demolished and their contents sold offer great opportunities to buy at affordable prices. But know that you’ll be competing with dealers for these prized pieces. To get acquainted with architectural artifacts, read your local paper to learn what buildings are going to be demolished and when. There will likely be a mention of items that will be for sale before the building is torn down. Be there early!

Anne Gilbert has been self-syndicating the ANTIQUE DETECTIVE to such papers as the Chicago Sun Times and the Miami Herald since 1983. She has authored nine books on antiques, collectibles and art and appeared on national TV. She has done appraisals for museums and private individuals.

Trends in architectural salvage

  • Reclaimed wood flooring used for floors, countertops and building.
  • Square-head nails used when installing architectural salvage.
  • Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Mid-Century, especially the 1950s.
  • Victorian hinges, doorknobs, locksets, back plates in cast brass or cast bronze.
  • Victorian cast bronze mechanical doorbells.
  • Lighting is always popular, from chandeliers to lamps.
  • Installing antique and vintage fireplace mantels in newer homes.
  • Placing eaves brackets below a kitchen bar to give it an interesting architectural look.
  • Using ceiling tin as a kitchen backsplash or as a backdrop in cabinets.
  • Massive mirrors leaned against a wall.
  • Ceiling-suspended doors, wainscoting, stained glass windows, clear windows and mirrors to serve as room dividers.
  • Iron furnace grates or fireplace grills as wall art, either hanging on the wall or leaning against it.
  • Antique and vintage hinges, knobs and pulls to replace hardware on doors, cabinets and drawers.