Friday, July 31, 2015

Comparing Two Architectural Salvage Shops in Chicago

Urban Remains, Grand Avenue, Chicago
Recently I decided to take a field trip to a couple of stores known as architectural salvage. As the name implies, this sort of store, usually housed in huge warehouses or former industrial spaces, collect bits of interior and exterior building parts from places are are torn down or remodeled.

Two cool items in the entry corridor.

Lovely bronze.
They focus on vintage or antique items, the sort you can't buy at a hardware store - things that aren't made anymore, and can't be purchased new. Examples include antiques lighting fixtures, fireplace mantels, vintage industrial and office furniture and fittings, stadium seating, wood moldings, stained glass windows, and the like.

An amazing bit of a church, perhaps?
A long time ago (maybe about twenty years or so?), I remember going with my mom to Salvage One, the biggie in Chicago salvage retail outlets, but I wanted to see what, if anything, had changed in the salvage biz. I didn't have anything particular in mind to buy, but am always on the lookout for cool stuff, cheap.

Entry of Architectural Artifacts

Antique storage drawers

Antique apothecary items

A view of the room.

Vintage pharmacy

Lots of personality in these carousel horses

Inspiring textures and patterns - not sure what this is!

Really wanted this trunk but it was $5000!

A jumble of metal bits

A beautiful (maybe store showroom?) brought in its entirety to the warehouse.

Some CREEPY doll parts from an old factory.
The last time I went, I remember being overwhelmed by the piles of items everywhere. Very few prices were marked, so everything had to be asked about. It wasn't very buyer-friendly, from my perspective. It seemed like Salvage One catered more to high-end designers and architects, than the average home owner looking for a little something - not too expensive - to add character and vintage charm to their home. I did my research on Yelp and settled on two warehouses to visit in one afternoon. The first place I visited was Architectural Artifacts in the Ravenswood neighborhood, on 4325 N. Ravenswood Avenue.
Lovely patina on an entrance along Grand Avenue
I was able to find street parking right along the train tracks, at around noon on a Thursday, after circling the block a few times. While the signage outside is subtle and easy to miss, the building is a huge showroom (80,000 feet, according to their website). It did not feel overcrowded or overwhelming. The collection of items seemed quite curated - not just a big jumble of junk. As you enter, a long corridor leads to a very large open space with three floors.

 A plethora of old office furniture at Urban Remains
The area was brightly lit and felt spacious, not cramped. Most of the items I saw had prices marked, and were grouped in appealing little vignettes of like-items. Some of the first things I saw included a whole table covered in a variety of plastic letters used for signage. Another table was covered with antique apothecary fixtures; and another with bits and baubles of crystal. It was cool to see all the interesting vintage items arranged in such an artistic way, but I couldn't really picture bringing any of the things into my home. The prices seemed a little high to me - comparable to what you would pay for new furniture and accessories at places like Room and Board. Unlike when I go to flea markets, this warehouse of treasures seemed geared toward a different market than what I am financially able to afford. I couldn't imagine paying as much for one piece of imperfect furniture as I'd spent on my last vacation! It was all pretty neat to look at, though, and daydream about the stories connected to each of the time-worn artifacts. In fact, on the lower level, there was what looked like an entire room of crystal, wood, and glass, that had been scooped up from its original location and plopped down inside this warehouse in one piece!

A common sight at architectural salvage : sooo many doors!
On to warehouse no. 2, Urban Remains, at 1850 W. Grand Avenue. Urban Remains has three storefronts, right next to each other: the main salvage warehouse, the gallery (open by appointment) and a showroom, where the owner, Eric Nordstrom, showcases and sells some of his personal collection. This stretch of Grand Avenue housed several interior design boutiques, and a few other trendy shops, plus plenty of free street parking (yippee). I entered the main warehouse and came upon two of the employees seated at their desks, gossiping together, in a small front office. They looked up expectantly at me and paused their conversation. I asked if it was okay to go in to the warehouse, and one of the guys said, "Sure! Sure! Have you been to the showroom yet?" I answered in the negative and he told me that the showroom held a high-end, curated collection of their best stuff, and that everything being sold was also online. Their website states that there are over 20,000 artifacts available online! I made a mental note to check them out when I got home.

Many signs said "do not touch". A collection of fireplace frames.
I stepped into the huge open space, stacked floor-to-ceiling with stuff. Touching the items for sale was actively discouraged by the many signs posted everywhere. This was a bit of a turn-off for me, because I love to explore the texture and feel of things. Prices were pretty high. I saw a really cool pink cast iron pedestal sink, some amazing chandeliers, gorgeous carved fireplace mantels, and zillions of file cabinets, lockers, office chairs, and even a metal vanity dresser, the sort of which I'd never seen before. A lot of the metal pieces had been stripped and buffed to a smooth brushed gray. As I wandered around, I wondered about the owner of this business. I was the only person in the warehouse aside from the employees, and I was trying to imagine having the capital to purchase and store all of these goods until someone came along to buy them. But perhaps most of their sales were through the Internet. Really, items were priced about three times what I would expect to pay. I asked on of the employees if they ever had store-wide sales to clear out some of the merchandise, but he said only occasionally and not more than maybe 25% off. So it seemed like the prices were pretty much set.

Antique hitching posts, or maybe lobby rope poles?
So my conclusion was (much like it was on my previous shopping trips 20 years ago), that though there were plenty of interesting and appealing items available from salvage warehouses, these two  stores, at least, were out of my league, financially. I will have to continue to get my vintage goodies from flea markets and ebay, which have much better prices. From an artist's perspective, though, I enjoyed visiting both warehouses for the inspiration provided by huge rooms of times-gone-by patina and style.

Metal vanity that I lusted after, stripped and buffed, ready to paint.

So much beauty to awe and delight!