Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Dealers & Artists Writing Samples
“Salvaging the Past: Adding Antique House Parts to Your Remodeling Project Can Lend Patina to Your Home,” Cape Cod & Islands Home, March 2009 Arizona was where Harry and Jeanine James were living in the 1990s.   They had jobs and a house, but they didn’t really have roots in the state. The place that captured their imagination was New England. Visits there were the occasion to appreciate the centuries-old buildings and verdant landscape. “Harry and I were gypsies,” says Jeanine, explaining the decision to leave the Southwest for Massachusetts. “We are adventurous and were very capable of finding jobs in our fields.”  Shortly after they moved east, they stumbled upon a cluster of old houses that were scheduled to be torn down.  The houses were not really important, architecturally or historically, but the James’ were horrified.  They bought the salvage rights, which meant they could strip the houses of the sinks, tubs, mantels and windows.   Although they had no contacts or experience in construction, it seemed like the right thing to do.  There were logistical problems.  They were living with Jeanine’s sister and had to figure out a way to store and dispose of the things. Somehow, though, they managed. Those first impulsive acquisitions lead to the founding of New England Demolition & Salvage, which opened its doors in Wareham in 1998.  The business outgrew the original space, so two years ago, Harry and Jeanine moved the stock to New Bedford where they took over the old Berkshire-Hathaway mill. At 80,000 square feet, the new location has plenty of room. The average home fixer-upper store it’s not.  “It’s like Home Depot for the 1800s.  We carry radiators instead of heat pumps,” says Harry. While the cavernous two-story space is arranged by category, there is no computerized inventory system.  Looking for a newel post?  Start sorting through the dozens and dozens that are lined up on shelves.  Nearby are propped the columns and pedestals. And if you’re trying to match the shutters on your summer saltbox, there are stacks of them in all sizes.  For salvage novices, some preparation is in order.  At the top of the list: a tolerance for (in Jeanine’s words) “cracks, dents and dings.”  Condition tends to be less than pristine, even after professional TLC. The place is heated—or rather, Jeanine says, “We pay for heat,” so warm clothing is recommended.  A tetanus booster might also be necessary.  Everything is kept indoors, so there’s no tramping around a rusty-nail strewn yard in search of the perfect bathtub. Instead, the tubs—all 600 plus—are neatly arranged on the second floor as are the sinks and hardware—the faucets, soap dishes, and sponge racks that ensure period precision. Prices vary based on rarity and demand. A typical five-foot long cast iron bathtub sells for $350.  Add to that the time and cost of re-glazing ($500) and it is obvious that incorporating salvage into a renovation is not always efficient or frugal. So why do it? For one, the old version sometimes works better. Cast iron retains heat more effectively than fiberglass—a point to consider in anticipation of those blustery Cape winters. Then there are the existential reasons where the hunt for a door takes on the status of a quest.  There are thousands of doors at New England Demolition and Salvage: French doors, Dutch doors, pocket doors, panel doors, doors with mirrors, and doors with stained glass.  If you’re fixing up a Victorian Gothic cottage, you can root around for one in oak with an arched top and iron hinge straps.  Or let’s say you want to separate the kitchen and pantry from the dining room.  In that case, you might check out the swing doors that were used for the servants’ quarters.  Choosing the right one is a private epic that can unfold over two or three Saturdays.  And once the door has been bought, you can turn your attention to the bins of knobs and hinges. Salvage works not only in historic renovations but in recent construction.  “People want the character that an old door or mantel brings.” says Jeanine.   The pursuit of authenticity often includes stripping and painting. “They want to put part of themselves into it and make it theirs.” The history of New England Demolition and Salvage coincides with the boom in house prices. The James’ are not discouraged, though, by the market collapse. “I think people will want to fix up the houses that they are in instead of trying to sell them,” Harry says hopefully. The company benefits from the growing popularity of recycling.   “Anything that can be reused” seems to be the James’ philosophy.  There is no cut-off date, so building materials from the last thirty years are mixed in with the old stuff. Vinyl windows are sold alongside Victorian fanlights and portholes.  Also in stock are new cabinets and garage doors that were acquired as “seconds” from retailers, like Fairview Millwork.    Most of the stock is old, though. A visit to the store is a lesson in how people used to live.  Like many salvage dealers, they do a flourishing rental business with visiting film crews in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.  The “Bride Wars” and “Hachiko: a Dog’s Story” are two big- budget releases that depended on the store for props. Occasionally, Harry and Jeanine are called in to strip a Newport mansion.  Most pieces, however, lack a fancy provenance.  Instead the focus is on everyday fixtures that sometimes go overlooked in history-rich New England.  When she was new to the region, Jeanine noticed that the locals “were so used to looking at this stuff, they didn’t really see it anymore. It was heartbreaking to see it all going to the dump.”  At New England Demolition & Salvage these relics from another age are being safeguarded for today’s homeowners.
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971