by Maxine Carter-Lome
For six years before relocating to Sturbridge, MA to purchase this magazine, I was Chair of my town’s Historical Commission. The Commission, which was also responsible for the town’s archives and local history museum, presided over two historic districts dating back to the town’s incorporation in 1760. In the Massachusetts 1980 Historic Homes Census, a state-wide inventory of historic assets in historic districts across the state, our town has over 100 homes and buildings on the list.
Preserving and protecting a town’s historic resources is a stated and inherent part of a historical commission’s charter. A town’s historic buildings, architectural elements, and craftsmanship give a community its character and tell their story; however, what happens when a property owner’s desire to demolish an old and rotting structure on their land, significantly alter the look of their home, or change its use is in conflict with town historic preservation bylaws, today’s building codes, and well-meaning historical commission members?
Local zoning and planning boards, historical commissions, and residents in historic towns and villages across America are debating and trying to build consensus around such questions as: Are all ‘old’ buildings worth saving or preserving? Is complete demolition the only way to remove an old structure or home on a property? Should historical significance outweigh or infringe on a homeowner’s rights? What happens when restoration comes in conflict with modern building codes? What does a “pre-existing non-conforming use” property actually mean? In the absence of consensus, the old order prevails, and towns are rapidly losing their historic assets to deterioration and demolition while the debate rages on.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the building trades recycled and reused everything that went into and came off of a standing structure, more for reasons of value, scarcity, and frugality than as an act of preservation and re-use as we think of it today.
Today, the items salvaged from an old home are being re-used in ways our founding craftsmen and builders could never imagine: old barn doors being turned into decorative wall units, tables, and interior room dividers; period windows finding new views in art or restoration projects; old wood living on in a re-use project … Cable TV is full of channels, shows, and builders turned cable celebrities that celebrate the re-use – or ‘upcycling’ – of the elements that defined our past.
One such show is Salvage Dawgs on the DIY Network, now in its 9th season. The DIY Network has just recently been added to my cable package so I spent a snowy weekend over Christmas week catching up with a marathon of Season Seven. As we were putting the editorial together for this issue I was pleased to be able to interview Mike Whiteside, co-founder of Black Dog Salvage Company and co-host of Salvage Dawgs. His business, like many long-running salvage businesses and antiques flea markets around the country, is enjoying an image ‘upcycling’ of sorts thanks to the DIY and Maker Movement sweeping the country, and the appreciation a new wave of customers have for what can be done with something once discarded for age, use, and taste, or what it could be worth today.
Inspired by such shows such as American Pickers, Salvage Dawgs, and Flea Market Flip, and sites such as Pinterest and Designspiration, a new customer base of particularly young people is taking a second look at what they see by the side of the road, and haunting antique shops and shows, salvage yards, and flea markets on their weekends looking for authentic elements and the unique find that can be re-used or has been repurposed to give it a new life. They appreciate the beauty and craftsmanship of original elements, and “finds” with “good bones.” They see added value in both the item’s history and the adventure that led to the find. This interest is leading a Makers Movement among a new generation of artists, artisans, and craftsmen that repurpose salvaged elements of our history to create one-of-a-kind pieces.
On the other end of the spectrum is the preservationist movement that reminds us with a sense of urgency that we need to preserve, protect, and promote our architectural heritage before it is gone. Today we have the technology, scholarship, and craftsmanship to restore a historic home in painstaking original period detail. Builders and architects specializing in historic properties are seeing renewed interest among historic home owners to renovate (invest) with an eye towards preservation, and a respect for historic accuracy and authenticity. The demand for old doors, window sills, cornices, exterior embellishments, hinges, fireplace mantles, and other structural and decorative elements that are period and design specific has never been higher. Nor have the prices.
Thank you to those who salvage, restore, preserve and re-purpose elements of our past, and to the buyers who see value in the original or re-purposed vision of an artist or craftsman. Together and in different ways, you help us respect, value, and live with the past.