Salvage business full of adventure, danger, reward

Joe Malseed, the owner of Retrend Philly, reuses old floorboards, joists and rafters to make wine racks, picture frames, window boxes, dining room sets and more. Located in Fishtown, he works in his warehouse to create reuse creations for friends and clients. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Joe Malseed, the owner of Retrend Philly, reuses old floorboards, joists and rafters to make wine racks, picture frames, window boxes, dining room sets and more. Located in Fishtown, he works in his warehouse to create reuse creations for friends and clients. (ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 23, 2012

Lots of people know how to construct buildings. Chris Donna knows how to deconstruct them. "Given enough time," he said, "I can completely take a building apart, in reverse from the process in which it was built. I could save every single nail that comes out of it."

But Donna, one of the owners of Provenance in Northern Liberties, usually isn't given enough time as he attempts to dismantle crumbling churches, warehouses, and hospitals.

"A lot of times, people don't want to admit that a building needs to come down until it's too late," he said. "So then it gets to the point where the building is unsafe or there's financial issues, and the building has to come down very quickly."

This is the world of architectural salvage, a treasure hunt made glamorous by TV shows like American Pickers and trendy by an environmentally conscious class of young urban homeowners. It encompasses endless drive-by appraisals of shuttered warehouses in the hope that an owner will show up and let them inside; the adrenaline-pumping suspense of sifting through the unknown; the perils of urban exploration, and the occasional 3 a.m. meetings with Ralph Lauren buyers willing to pay $5,000 for a haul of dusty old piano covers.

This obsession-cum-business has taken Donna and his partners into the depths of the Divine Lorraine Hotel (the "holy grail" of Philly salvage at one time, according to partner Bob Beaty) to extract toothbrush holders and chandeliers; to Independence Mall where they'd been called in to pry up 600 marble slabs, and deep into the innards of dozens of churches, seminaries, and factories condemned or razed to make way for condos or rehabbed into Buddhist temples. (While curbside finds and Dumpster debris are fair game, Donna and his competitors typically take materials on private property only with permission. Theft occurs, of course, but Donna said businesses like his are legitimate ones, operating strictly within the law.)

"The thing about reclaimed material," Donna said, "is it's all around you, so you just have to open your eyes and see it."

Salvage, he pointed out, isn't new to Philadelphia: Many turn-of-the-century Main Line mansions featured interiors imported from older European estates. But in the last decade or so, he said, it has crept into the mainstream.

Chris Stock, the owner of Philadelphia Salvage, began tracking down reclaimed material for his construction company about seven years ago, and now sells it out of his West Mount Airy shop. It started, he said, when he began noticing the waste all around him. "I would see someone throw out a door or whatever and I would think, ‘It's such a great door. I can totally use that for a client's home.' Then I would see them knocking down old homes, and I would see they were just destroying all the vintage subway tile in the bathrooms."

Soon enough, contractors and demolition companies got to know him, Stock said: "I'm the guy that wants their stuff they'd normally throw away. But back then I'd get it for free, and now I'd have to pay for it because they all know it has value."

Architectural salvage is still rare enough that there are deals (and almost steals) to be had. Stock recently picked up an "amazing" fireplace mantel for free from a property owner who didn't know what he was tossing out; he sold it for $1,200. But with more competition among a growing number of salvagers and pickers, that's becoming less common.

So it becomes a game partly about networking — "you have to get the message out there," said Donna, to contractors, to the city, to preservationists, and to property owners — and partly about sheer persistence and keen curiosity.

Stock said he frequently makes his way to little-traveled corners of the city, peering into old buildings and leaving his card in doors. "I've been driving by this one building for years and finally, one day, the gates are open," he recalled. "So I pull over and introduce myself and make a deal." It paid off: The five-story North Philly tool factory yielded a bumper crop of industrial lighting, wood floors, fire doors, metal pallets, and other "tchotchkes."

The tools of this trade: "Flashlight, a spelunking light on your head — and a weapon of some sort, like a hammer or a gun or knife."

Yes, a weapon. It's not the safest career choice. Stock once received a call to grab what he could from a building that was to be demolished the next day. The five-story warehouse just next door was already in the process of demolition — and it partly collapsed while his crew was on the scene. Another time, he received permission to go into the Budd Co. car and train body factory at Hunting Park and Wissahickon, and found a different danger: "There's people in there stealing copper. When you walk in the door, you take a hammer out and beat it on metal to announce you're there, and they scurry out the back like cockroaches."

Once he does negotiate a haul, the risk is also financial. Boards can splinter when you try to pull them up, or hidden rot could lurk underneath.

But it can be worth the hunt. When Stock recently bought some old wooden barrels, the owner said he'd have to take the 60-year-old pieces of fabric stuffed inside them, too. Those ended up being $5,000 piano covers, soon to live again as Ralph Lauren denim wear. At another factory, in Germantown, Stock hauled away 200 heavy round knitting-machine bases for $10 apiece — and ended up selling each for around $400 or $500 as bases for dining tables.

Other items come to dealers like Stock and Donna through ad hoc Dumpster diving, purchases from professional and amateur pickers, and tag sales or auctions of newly shuttered office buildings or hospitals. (In these cases, everything must go, and it does: Brian Lawlor, owner of Mid-Century Furniture Warehouse in Fishtown, said he once sold at auction a morgue table from a Pittsburgh hospital that had been dismantled.)

Still, not everyone is hunting for treasure. Joe Malseed, who launched his Fishtown business Retrend Philly last year, just likes the idea of reuse and sees the potential for greatness in old floorboards, joists, and rafters. A carpenter who sometimes helps friends rehab Philly rowhouses, he began taking home the discards to make wine racks, picture frames, window boxes, and dining room sets.

Like a chef preaching snout-to-tail cooking, Malseed doesn't believe in waste. "When I go into a house, I'm taking everything. It's so in demand right now."

A year into his business, he now gets calls from demolition companies eager to avoid disposal costs — and from local residents and businesses, hungry for decor with character and perhaps for a story to go with it.

Donna said the gospel of reclaimed goods — and their versatility, for use in modern design or traditional context — is spreading.

"For a long time, Americans were addicted to this idea of the new-car smell," he said. "Now, people are looking at things that have age and texture and history."

Still, like Malseed, Donna often finds it's necessary to perform the alchemy of restoring or reimagining for his customers. "We've focused a lot on how you can process something: How can you turn a sidewalk into a countertop; how do you turn a countertop into wood flooring? How can you turn light fixtures into furniture?"

Given the time the owners spend on marketing (not to mention scavenging and restoring), Provenance is able to take in less than one-tenth of the materials available to it.

Mark Charry, the owner of Architectural Antiques Exchange in Northern Liberties, said he has the same experience. "There's a lot of low-end stuff out there and the dealers can't absorb that many doors and moldings. There's stuff being thrown away every day."

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