February 23-March 1, 2006
cover storySalvation Army
Linda and Lara don't want your change. They want your claw feet.
Late-morning sun sheds light on an old soda fountain dispenser, complete with ceramic inserts and stainless steel pumps. Across the room, there's a rack full of painted white staircase spindles, stacked one on top of the other. And way in the back, tumbled on their gleaming porcelain sides, bathroom sinks in all colors, but mostly bubblegum pink and cornflower blue, betraying their decade of origin. "Now we're getting some aubergine in," says Lara Kelly, who oversees this emporium of architectural delights with her business partner, Linda Lee Mellish. ReStore, their now three-year-old architectural salvage store in Port Richmond, is a wonderland of what some might call, well, junk. To the rest of us, it's pure bliss.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"The whole premise of the store is to keep usable house parts and keep them from the landfill. We're sort of the SPCA of housing parts," Kelly says, laughing.
ReStore's inventory is comprised of salvaged material from houses bought and sold, soon-to-be demolished buildings and even churches and commercial properties clearing out the old to make way for the new. It works like this: When someone's getting ready to trash their old bathroom sink or out-of-style kitchen cabinets, they think twice and call ReStore, which goes on-site to assess the situation. If there's anything salvageable, Kelly and Mellish remove the items, load them into their cargo van and take them back to Port Richmond for dusting off and moving on to a new home. For some of the larger projects, they'll hear about a buiding demolition and seek out the parties involved, or they're contacted by someone working on the demo. Most architectural salvage outfits, says Kelly, look for older, primarily decorative items, so there's not a whole lot of competition for what they're after.
"We don't solicit, it's all word of mouth," says Kelly. "Since we don't pay for anything, we don't buy anything off the street either. Generally people just give stuff to us." Mellish adds, "We're still a for-profit organization. We can't offer people tax breaks, but we can offer them store credit to make it more appealing." "Really," says Kelly, "if we can just make a living, we're good."
Their scavenger hunts have taken them to some interesting places.
That's why, when going through their inventory, provenance is part of the conversation. Several heavy wood panels with ornamental carvings came from a church in Manayunk that someone was renovating into a home. "We took stuff from the recreational and social areas mostly," says Kelly, who notes just as happily what got left behind. The couple who owned the house took pains not to just gut and reframe the house; they used what was there, such as stained glass windows, to retain character. Kelly has a similar story about a Polish Catholic church that was getting leveled. "It was a 100-year-old stone church, and we read an article saying they hoped it would be salvaged. Other people were interested in this giant woodwork. We went for the rectory with our cargo van and took doors and lighting fixtures. We spent two days in the snow digging through this stuff."
ReStore is something of an as-is situation. Mellish and Kelly will do some basic cleaning and polishing of their finds, but no refinishing or major restoration. They leave that to the buyer. Merchandise ranges in price from $1 for a cabinet pull to $2,600 for a mantelpiece.
Stacked on shelves are plastic tubs filled with tiles of all kinds, sorted by size, shape or price. One contains dozens of 100-year-old ceramic tiles from a West Philly Victorian. "We never get enough for an entire bathroom, they just don't survive," says Mellish. "So people use them for backsplashes or decorative borders." Arranged artfully and categorically around the warehouse space are towel bars, doorknobs, faucet handles, medicine cabinets, heating vents and grates, shutters, cornices, and indoor and outdoor garden items like birdbaths, railings and iron gates. Doors are lined up on a rack for easy access. "Everything is easily accessible for our customers. We don't want them to have to dredge through stuff," says Mellish. The doors, of course, Kelly says proudly, are all solid wood, no composites.
And then there are the claw-foot tubs, complete with chain drain stopper and the lip you can hang the crook of your arm on. Best of all, though, are the feet. "If a tub isn't worth salvaging, we ask if we can have the feet," says Kelly. Hence the peeling, rusty but otherwise beautiful, carved claw feet that, if you're asking, could be used as fancy doorstops or maybe a coat hook.
Historically significant objects sometimes find their way into the store as well. Kelly remembers an old 10-inch brass bell from the Lucy Smith Housea ladies' hotel when there were such thingslocated on Sansom Street near Rittenhouse Square until it was gutted to build condominiums. The bell's now part of the permanent collection of the Betsy Ross House. When a house in Germantown was being cleaned out, the owner contacted ReStore to take a look. Kelly and Mellish found a system of servants' bells, on which residents could ring up help from anywhere in the house, and servants could tell where you were depending on the bell's tone. Original to the house, the bells were snapped up at ReStore by a western Pennsylvania historical society.
A massive curved panel with a thick pane of glass covering its top half, has a note taped to its edge: "The story goes this was once a part of the revolving door cage at Lit Brothers, and the doors would sweep by it as people exited and entered the store." Kelly says, "The funniest thing about that door, is that everybody loves it but nobody wants it. We've had it forever, and we'll probably have it forever." Maybe nobody knows what to do with it, with its curved structure and large thick glass. But then again, who knew that an old garage door could be turned into a room partition, or that a wrought-iron railing could be used as a pot rack? Kelly and Mellish know that some people might look at a shutter and see just a shutter, and might need a push to see it as a decorative item or see it functioning another way. So throughout the store, they've attached torn-out magazine pages with similar items, decorating ideas and handwritten suggestions: "Was a garage door. Can be used as a partition wall"; "easy maintenance stainless steel sink and counter."
Queen Village residents Tracy and Mia Levesque bought one of those diner-style stainless steel sink and cabinet units; it's 6 feet wide, with corrugated doors and hefty pulls. "It's amazing," says Tracy. "And here's the best part. It's got a double sink top that sits right on top, looks like it came from the '60s and the logo says 'Tracy.' It's great to find something so unique. You're not going to find this at Lowe's," she says. "We're completely renovating our kitchen. I mean we're using IKEA stuff too, but it's cool to mix it with unique retro items." First-time homeowners, the couple is renovating a former stable and storehouse. They're replacing and fixing up "shoddy" '80s-era renovations, says Tracy. They bought a glass-and-wood door from ReStore as well"we're using it to section off part of the house to make a separate guest room or meditation room"and have another item in waiting, big wood panels with diffused glass. "We want to hang them barn-door-style from rails to separate the bedroom," she says.
ReStore items have been used as props on movie shoots (The Woodsman, Rocky Balboa), and Trading Spaces asked them to stay open late one night so they could film one of the house-swapping families shopping. Commercial entities are both donors and buyers. A building contractor working on a local bank gave them cast-off pilasters and cornice decorative pieces. El Fuego, The Standard Tap, Siam Lotus and several other local restaurants have incorporated salvaged elements into their decor. The owner of New Jersey restaurant Chop House cleaned out the store's supply of opaque white "schoolhouse" lamps. Ellen Mogell of Northern Liberties favorite Honey's Sit n' Eat has shopped at ReStore for both her home and her business. For Honey's she bought a butler's pantry that's been the main piece behind the counter in the dining room, making a useful serving station. For her home, she was on the lookout for a lighting fixture for her foyer, and found a Depression glass one at ReStore. "It's a great place for someone like me, whose house is 120 years old and missing the one porcelain knob from the claw-foot tub, or a doorplate or a doorknob," says Mogell.
Stories like these are encouraging to Kelly and Mellish, whose mission is to make people think a little more green when working on their homes. It's part of the reason these armchair archaeologists got into this business in the first place.
A native of the Philadelphia area, Kelly had lived all over the country, managing the art departments of film studios. "I really wanted to get out of it," she says. "TV and film is one of the most evil industries. It was sucking the soul out of me." Frustrated by the wastefulness in the industry, she was always looking for a more soul-satisfying situation.
When Kelly did get out, she bought "a framed shell" of a house in Northern Liberties, and set about renovating it. "I needed a contractor to help me finish," she says. She found Mellish through a mutual friend, and soon, their business partnership was born. Rural Pennsylvania native Mellish was a carpenter and contractor who had rental properties she was also retrofitting and renovating. "I was never conscious of what I was putting my hands on before this. Now that's all I can see when I'm working," says Mellish.
It simply made sense for them to put their heads together. To their delight, their vision seems to be taking hold.
"People are starting to see the quality in the old stuff," says Kelly. "A lot of the customers are buying and renovating an older house but they want some of the old character. They're mostly getting rid of drop ceilings, hollow-core doors. They're looking to mix it up. Or people that have a house that's completely new construction, and they want to add old elements."
Agnes Howkins, who lives in Ardmore, shops at ReStore once a month or so. "The first thing we did was purchase a lot of old shutters," she says. "The new ones are such garbage and really expensive." Howkins goes on to list her ReStore finds: doorknobs, switchplates, antique locks and doors with full-length mirrors. She's used much of her ReStore booty to overhaul the newer addition to her house ("It had horrible plywood doors"), as well as a garden house out back, for which she bought a stained glass window and French doors. In fact, she says the garden house is "built all from trash, all recycled stuff." She's a fan of ReStore's mission. "I like it because I really can't stand new construction. I see million dollar houses with plastic windows and I can't stand it," she says. "They're just great for doors. In fact I'm going back there because my daughter's roommate's dog ate through her door and she needs a new one."
It seems, then, despite what looks like a swell in city-sized McMansions and skyrocketing condo towers, that some people really do value handcrafted, well-made household objects. "People are finding that you can't slam a hollow-core door," Kelly says, laughing. "You can't get an efficient."
ReStore, 3016 E. Thompson St., 215-634-3474, www.re-store-online.com.