Photo: Susan B. Sheldon (Shutterstock)
When it comes to home design and decoration, everything old is new. From patterns and colors to furniture and home decor, many of the current trends are out of date at all. And while it’s easy to find a new mid-century Art Deco lamp or modern couch online at Target, there are some parts of older homes that just aren’t made anymore – like certain types of lights, windows, mantels and other architectural details.
But luckily, thanks to architectural salvage businesses, they aren’t necessarily extinct. If you’ve never visited one before – or you’re not entirely sure what they are – here’s a quick guide on how to shop at one.
What are architectural rescue businesses?
Architectural salvage stores sell used items and parts from residential and commercial buildings that were either removed prior to demolition or remodeling. For many people – whether architects, professional designers, or homeowners – the main draw is the opportunity to find historical treasures that are no longer made and / or that would be unaffordable to reproduce today.
There is a wide range of architecture junk shops to choose from, from high-end stores with carefully curated goods (with prices to match) to those that look more like an indoor flea market or junkyard (which are far cheaper).
Sometimes construction scrap deals are affiliated with a nonprofit organization, such as Habitat for Humanity ReStores (they also sell furniture, appliances, and building materials) or Building value in Cincinnati (which is operated by Easter seal) and tend to have prices on the lower end of the spectrum.
How to buy from construction scrap stores
Here are a few things to consider if you’re new to architecture rescue:
Go inside with realistic expectations (and an open mind)
If this is your first time looking for architectural remains, it helps to have an idea of what to expect. First, the inventory in these stores is constantly changing. Just because you’ve seen a 1950s refrigerator there once doesn’t mean they don’t always have it in stock.
And while some rubble dealers sell furniture and appliances, the focus is mostly on parts and furnishings from a house or building – think mantelpiece, fittings for closets, doors, entire windows and / or frames, sinks and other bathroom fixtures, handrails, mounted lights etc.
If you are looking for a specific item, chances are it doesn’t have it in stock. But that doesn’t mean you are out of luck. Take a look around and stay open-minded: you never know what you will notice in your home that you have not thought of before.
Pay attention to the condition of an item
Although most of the items sold in construction scrap stores are needed (there may be some new items, such as leftover building materials), you still want to make sure that they are in working order; or, if they need some work, that you can do it yourself (or are willing to pay someone else to do it).
In an interview with Old House Journal, Bob Falk, co-author of Unbuilding: Salvaging the Architectural Treasures of Unwanted Houses, shared several strategies for assessing the condition of an object:
- For items made of wood: Do the type, patina and workmanship go well with your home? How weathered is the item and can all parts be moved easily?
- For lacquered wood: Proceed with caution – there is a good chance it contains at least some leaded paint, which a Health hazard.
- For doors and floors: How many nail holes have been made in the wood over the years?
- For wooden floors: Have the boards been reground and if so, how often? Are there any breaks, cracks or other signs of rotting wood? Will the thicknesses of older planks work for your room?
- For everything: Check for missing parts. “You can always find parts for the interior of an antique lamp,” says Falk, “but the decorative parts are hard to beat.”
If you are not sure what something is or how it is used, ask a representative
Most of the time the people who work in architecture rescue businesses are pretty passionate about their job and happy to answer any questions you have – including “What is this?” Even better, they can not only explain the original purpose of a piece to you, but they can also suggest non-traditional ways to use it in your home (especially on home improvement projects).
See if the negotiation is on the table
Some architecture firms are willing to negotiate prices with you; others don’t. This is important information that you should know before proceeding to checkout.
How do you know if a place is open for negotiation? In some cases, stores post this information on their website. If not, check out Yelp or other reviews to see if people have left comments on whether a particular store is willing to negotiate prices with customers.
If all else fails, ask someone who works there and say something like “Is there room for these prices” or “Are these prices fixed?” The answer may be “no”, but at least you know it.
Follow some shops on Instagram
Whether you’re a newbie to architectural rescue or a long-time fan and customer, it can be helpful (and interesting) to see what items different stores across the country have in stock. That’s partly because its inventory tends to reflect local history, including the era of the city’s heyday, its basic industries, and the types of building materials that were most commonly available in the area.
Even if you don’t live in this area and / or can’t purchase that particular item, it will at least be on your radar. It will also give you ideas on how to use similar items that are available to you locally (or just find out what they are).
Some architecture rescue Instagram accounts you might want to follow are: Xchange conversions (Cleveland), Old good things (Locations in New York, Los Angeles and Scranton, PA), ReHouse (Rochester), Architectural Salvation of San Diego, Hudson Valley House Parts (Newburgh, NY), Portland Architectural Salvage (Maine) and NorEast Architectural Antiques (located on the MA / NH border).