by Bethany Parisi
If you love weathered and rusty, if worn paint and patina make your heart flutter, and you think reclaimed wood and repurposed furniture beats anything shiny and new, do we have the store for you!
Over the past 30 years, Significant Elements has evolved from a small, volunteer-run effort into a full-fledged nonprofit architectural salvage store. Residing in an 1880s warehouse on Center Street in Ithaca’s Southside neighborhood, Significant Elements is the go-to regional resource for building renovation, restoration and DIY inspiration. The store is a program of Historic Ithaca, Tompkins County’s 55-year-old nonprofit historic preservation organization.
Significant Elements has grown dramatically over 30 years since its founding by Charlie Pomada and Historic Ithaca. In its infancy, located in a late 1880s barn, it was open to the public once a week. “The preservation movement was still very young,” says Pomada. “Our area was a treasure trove of 1820s-1860s buildings, and back then there weren’t the endless reproduction items that we see today.” Without a place to source missing hardware parts, pieces of hardwood flooring or period doors, people were throwing away house parts and antiques that they couldn’t repair.
“Significant Elements opened with the idea that, through salvage, we could rescue usable items from the landfill and sell them to raise money for Historic Ithaca,” Pomada recalls. “Most importantly, it became a place of outreach and education. We advised homeowners on period appropriate furnishings, why preservation is important and just how sustainable salvage can be.”
This role as a community resource continues today, when there is growing recognition that our built environment needs to be sustainable, environmentally friendly, economically sound and socially responsible. Salvaging renovation and demolition materials helps reduce waste, and many vintage items were made of better-quality materials and built to last.
Some of the most in-demand items at Significant Elements are unique architectural pieces such as doors, stained glass, corbels, newel posts and mantels – decorative features that bring back character or add a sense of uniqueness to a home.
Exploring the store when you’re planning a project allows for more flexibility to incorporate reclaimed materials in your design.
Significant Elements customer Sheila Squires shared a story about a small renovation that made a big difference. Her home is in a converted turn-of-the-century elementary school; when the building became a housing co-op, care was taken to retain many of the building’s original features. However, all new interior doors were installed. “They stood out, and not in a good way,” Squires says. “They were solid wood, but lacked any architectural details,” which was something the rest of the apartment has in abundance.
A long-time customer of Significant Elements, Squires knew just where to go. Expecting to dig through an endless sea of reclaimed doors, she was pleasantly surprised when store manager Sara Johnson asked for the measurements and said she would give her a call with options. “The staff at SE truly makes it a special place,” Squires says. “Their professionalism is unmatched.”
A month later, in a truckload of new arrivals, Johnson located three unpainted interior doors that were a perfect fit. Looking around Squires’ home now, you would assume that the doors were original to the building. They have a warm, rich patina that only comes with age, making them a perfect match with the other doors in the building.
For the Significant Elements staff, this combination of patience, problem solving and serendipity is what makes the work so satisfying, whether it’s finding the perfect-fitting $10 mortise lock to make a door work smoothly or sourcing a client’s dream Arts & Crafts-style light fixture.
Significant Elements is more than just a preservation resource. For more than 10 years, Significant Elements has been home to Work Preserve, Historic Ithaca’s job readiness and placement program. Participants build transferable job skills, confidence and independence through hands-on work at Significant Elements.
For the youth and young adults in Work Preserve, Significant Elements is a welcoming and inclusive workplace to learn and practice soft skills for success in employment. During training, participants set employment goals, build a resume, practice interviewing and apply for jobs, all with the support of Work Preserve’s staff.
When Michael O’Bannion started Work Preserve in July 2019, he had just finished high school and was unsure about his career path. In January 2020, he transitioned to a retail job at the Cornell Store, where he is still employed. Work Preserve Education and Outreach Coordinator Suzanne Onodera supported O’Bannion each step of the way. O’Bannion opened a bank account, learned to navigate bus routes and took a driving course.
Noticeably more confident than when he began his training, O’Bannion gives a proud smile when he acknowledges his success. He says that without Work Preserve, “I wouldn’t have been ready for this job.” This life-changing experience for O’Bannion would not have been possible without Work Preserve and community support for all of Historic Ithaca’s programs.
Support comes in many forms for Historic Ithaca, from grants to the generosity of individuals in the community who value its mission and the economic and cultural opportunities the organization provides. Individual giving plays a major role in providing the resources for Historic Ithaca staff to advocate for preserving Tompkins County’s architectural legacy.
Significant Elements would not exist without donations of vintage house parts, furniture and decor. The unique inventory is donated by community members, contractors, businesses and institutions from around the Finger Lakes Region. Items come from renovation projects, barn cleanouts, the basements and attics of supporters, and occasional demolitions. The ever-evolving inventory makes every visit to Significant Elements a new and exciting treasure hunt.
Frequent shoppers Ashley Jones and Dave Martin became part of the Significant Elements community during their restoration of a Victorian house as their home and bed & breakfast in Burdett. Through the store, Jones and Martin built a network of “finders and fixers” to locate items and connect with tradespeople who could help the first-time homeowners and new business owners with their renovation.
Martin and Jones have fully embraced the Historic Ithaca community and are now giving back, donating vintage treasures that they no longer have space for. Martin sums up what Significant Elements is to the shoppers, the donors and the general public when he says that supporting and shopping at Significant Elements “is more than just a spent dollar. It is a symbiotic business model that focuses on community, and in the meantime is saving buildings, training skilled workforce and providing shoppers with educated information on historic one-of-a-kind pieces that you cannot find anywhere else.”
Friends of Historic Ithaca support the ongoing efforts to preserve the houses, public places and historic sites that give the community its character and vitality. With a gift of $35 or more, you become a Friend of Historic Ithaca and receive discounted admission to workshops, tours and special events, as well as 10 percent off at Significant Elements. That 10 percent discount can go a long way – and for more than just purchasing salvage. Significant Elements also offers a range of repair services for furniture and lighting to promote sustainability.
212 Center Street, Ithaca, NY 14850
Monday – Friday: 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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