Salvaging the Past

Want to visit the past? It's easy. Just visit an architectural salvage shop where you'll bump into rusted iron gates that could've come from old English estates, religious statues from crumbling churches, window frames with chipping paint and dusty crystal chandeliers that Miss Havisham could love. No wonder movie set designers love to haunt these places.

"I was originally a restorationist, and I hated seeing good stuff thrown away," says Skip Willett, owner with his wife, Janice, of Architectural Detail in Pasadena. "There's a renewal of interest now in salvage since people don't want to throw things in the dump."

"Skip, who used to have a reputation as the 'restoration Nazi' because he is a purist, has switched his focus to an environmental one," explains Janice Willett. "The first purpose it to keep this stuff out of the landfills. Secondly, we want to preserve the quality and craftsmanship of the past."

Located near Pasadena's Old Town, the shop's ever-changing inventory can include everything from stained-glass windows, marble mantels and old stoves to porcelain plumbing fixtures and glass chandeliers.

For another view of old-is-new-again, there's Venice's Bountiful. Owner Sue Balmforth recently opened a "backyard" for outdoor furniture as an addition to her labyrinthine shop, which sometimes requires the agility of a mountain goat to maneuver around in.

"We're selling more than ever, more architectural columns, headers, huge mirrors. People are pretty savvy about how to use salvage now and are asking architects and builders to incorporate those elements into even new projects," Balmforth says.

At Ruins in Laguna Beach, Lisa and John Genesta's Coast Highway store showcases 18th century Gothic-revival gates and black-lacquered mother-of-pearl Victorian vanities. A carnival roulette wheel sits next to religious figures and wrought-iron side tables hold ceramic figures. Items come from Transylvania, the American Midwest, Europe. They recently received a shipment from Catholic churches in the Midwest that included statues and even altars.

"We specialize in iron gates and grilles, garden statuary, iron and bronze period lighting and furniture," says Lisa Genesta. "Not too long ago, newness was associated with wealth," she says. "Today, people like to have things with a past, a history."

These are just three of the local salvage stores where one person's junk is reborn as another's jewel. Plus, there's always the hope of finding a forgotten Tiffany lamp or even a '60s collectible that's quadrupled in value. The secret: Return over and over until you spot a great find--and look behind everything to see what's lurking there.

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