Salvaging the Past

Stepping into Significant Elements, the architectural salvage warehouse in downtown Ithaca, is like entering a madman’s personal museum. The musty smell of an old library, like the yellowed pages of an aging book, saturates the chilly air of the three-story building on Center Street. Every inch of floor space is crammed with vintage hardware and home furnishings, from the smallest tiles and screws, to claw-footed bathtubs, ceiling beams and wooden banister spindles. Dozens of rusty drawers are filled with little odds and ends, like doorknobs, bin pulls and rim locks, and the massive shelves are lined with window frames, porcelain sinks and pink and green glass lampshades.

On a wintry Saturday afternoon in November, Significant Elements is a flurry of activity. Some customers are looking to buy, while others are stopping in to donate an item or two. Kristen Olson, a preservation associate at Historic Ithaca, the organization that sponsors the non-profit shop, bustles around the warehouse in a sweater and down vest to keep warm. She answers the shoppers’ questions and tries to make room for new donations, heaving around boxes of what looks like junk. Two contractors ask if she’d be interested in some unusual tile they just uncovered while remodeling a bathroom. One of them mutters something about never seeing anything like this type of tile in his life, and Olson enthusiastically says yes. Satisfied, the two men wander off together in search of a walnut interior door.

One man comes in toting a ceiling fan and an old stovetop for drop-off, with nothing but the burners nested in a bed of tin.

“It’s funny,” Olson says, smiling and nodding knowingly. “Someone was just in here yesterday looking for one of those.

On occasion the staff will comb antique fairs for new finds, but most is salvaged. About 60 percent of their supply comes from newer recycled building materials dating to the post 1950s era, with about 20 percent comprised of architectural salvage from much older homes and properties in the area.

“People aren’t always looking for antiques,” says Olson. “Sometimes they just want to save a couple of bucks.”

A young couple strolls leisurely around the maze of artifacts. “Cool!” cries the woman, gingerly touching an ancient Singer sewing machine, complete with table. The man peers into the shiny surface of a large brass knocker. Clearly, inspiration and creative nudging happens here.

But Significant Elements isn’t just for innovative homeowners, folks on a budget or builders looking for specific restorative pieces. Local theaters have an almost constant reciprocal relationship with the shop.

“We go there when we are doing a period show,” said Rachel Lampert, the artistic director at the Kitchen Theatre. Lampert’s design team has found items like pipes, radiators, trim, hardware, doors, columns and dozens of windows for their productions.

“This is a terrific way to help things to be recycled and not end up in the dump,” she said.

Since most of Significant Elements’ inventory comes from donations, it worked out well when the Kitchen Theater decided to upgrade its seating a few years ago.

“We gave our older seats to SE,” Lampert said. “A lot of them were in perfect condition but we just didn’t have replacement parts for those that were damaged. I keep expecting to come into someone’s house and see a few of those theater seats neatly set up in front of a great picture window or TV set.”

The Internal Revenue Service usually considers a donation of property that merits historical preservation to meet the test of a charitable contribution for conservation purposes. Donors are eligible for tax credit receipts, and any private individual restoring a decrepit income-generating property can apply for a 10- or 20-percent tax credit under the Federal Preservation Tax Incentives program. Improvements to an owner’s private residence are not eligible for these tax incentives. The rationale is that maintaining an interest in historic preservation helps give a community a sense of identity, stability and orientation. It’s the local government, however, that has the most power over what is protected, and in rural areas with low property values, or where the property is too remote to be a part of a specific district, preservation becomes economically difficult.

“The City of Ithaca, like many other municipalities, has a landmarks ordinance that protects designated landmarks and districts from demolition or alteration,” said Olson. “But the more rural areas in Tompkins County and the Finger Lakes Region lack this protection. Add to that the demise of the family farm and loss of rural population over the past century, and you can see why rural preservation is such a challenge.”

As a branch of Historic Ithaca, Significant Elements’ main effort is to encourage reclamation and reuse of building materials when the demolition of a building is inevitable. The organization then provides these used materials at an affordable price, and its value in the community has only grown since it was founded in 1991. In addition to encouraging preservation, the store promotes an environmental message. In 2001 Significant Elements formed a partnership with the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division in order to reduce the amount of material sent to area landfills. Together they are able to help rescue “irreplaceable architectural elements and reusable building materials, giving them new useful lives.” Olson emphasized, “It’s important to note positive aspects of the interconnectedness of historic preservation with a lot of other quality-of-life issues—like sustainability, housing and food systems,” adding, “Building partnerships with people working in those fields is a tremendous opportunity for preservationists as the approach continues to broaden.”

With the recent hiring of Alphonse Pieper as the new program manager, Significant Elements is looking forward to more changes. Pieper, a Cornell University alumnus with a master’s in historic preservation planning, worked for Historic Ithaca in the 1990s as the preservation director, before leaving to start his own architectural salvage business in Homer. He brings 30 years of experience in historic preservation construction and services.

Pieper is especially invested in his new “Conservation Lab,” which offers members of the community opportunities to participate in classes designed to teach them how to restore their homes. “Preservation staff will now be available for consultations with customers at the Significant Elements building during peak business hours,” said Pieper. The lab will be a means for homeowners or contractors to get direct technical guidance and advice from a trained preservationist if they are taking on a project.

Pieper is also looking to reinvigorate their volunteer assistance. “We would love volunteers!” He said, adding that he is in need of anyone to help out customers during shop hours. For more information or to volunteer, contact Significant Elements at 607-277-3450, or stop by at the corner of Plain and Center streets.

More Architectural Salvage Warehouses

Shaver Brothers
32 Perrine Street
Auburn, NY 13021
Shaver Brothers has thousands of doors and windows. They also carry hardware, porchposts, radiators, clawfoot bathtubs, sinks, shutters, hardwood flooring, corbels, stained glass windows, lighting, fencing, old moldings, antiques and more.

1473 E. Main Street
Rochester, NY 14609
ReHouse diverts quality reusable antique, vintage and modern building materials from the landfill by offering them through their store. As of the end of 2007, the organization had prevented more than 500 tons of material from entering local landfills.

Historic Houseparts
540 South Avenue
Rochester, NY 14620
Historic Houseparts specializes in architectural salvage but also carries vintage and reproduction hardware, plumbing, decorative accessories and more.

Architectual Antiques
37 Chandler Street
Buffalo NY 14207
Horsefeathers offers restoration materials for wholesale, retail and trade as well as prop rentals. The showrooms feature a large area of hunting, fishing and Adirondack items, hardware, doors, mantels, lighting fixtures, stained and beveled glass, bars and complete interiors, urns and garden furniture, fencing, statuary, signs, antique furniture and accessories and Oriental rugs.

New York Salvage
35 Otsego Street
Oneonta, NY 13820
Architiques started in 1989 offering architectural elements and garden items at antique shows. The company also offers custom home furnishings and accents, custom designs and framing and operates a salvage yard, New York Salvage.

Buffalo ReUse
298 Northampton Street
Buffalo, NY
The ReSource store provides building materials and household items, DIY ideas, green education and community outreach.

Historic Albany – Architectural Parts Warehouse
89 Lexington Avenue
Albany, NY 12206
Historic Albany Foundation advocates the preservation of all historic buildings and encourages the retention of parts in their original settings. They accept donations only of historic salvaged parts that would otherwise have been destroyed or lost and sell to architects, contractors, designers and do-it-yourselfers.

Olde Good Things
400 Gilligan Street
Scranton, PA 18508
This company has several locations. Its national headquarters in Scranton boasts lots of decorative terra cotta, miles of aisles of columns and a large selection of mantels, molding, tin ceiling panels, doors, glass, iron, bathroom fixtures and more.

by Nina Boutsikaris

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