By Wendy K. Leigh
Long before Seattle was a city, the native population inhabiting our rainy Pacific Northwestern enclave were storytellers, handing down objects like culture bearers from one generation to the next. Now a new army of old-soul architectural salvage entrepreneurs are making sure the tradition is not only restored and respected, but is lifted way-high on the list of trendy ways to design a new business, revamp home décor and outfit some of the hottest restaurants in town.
Earthwise and Second Use, two bustling architectural salvage warehouses in the SODO district, are veritable museums of the city’s colorful past, chock full of rescued pieces from historic pubs, Victorian mansions, shipyards, foundries, schools, restaurants, bowling alleys and more – and everything is up for grabs to the paying public.
From Tuscan-style carved marble columns to deco-glazed and handpainted tiles, vintage stained glass, hardwood beams, 1940s light fixtures and chandeliers, burled walnut mantels, antique doorknob sets, solid brass nautical lights and caryatid-carved iron fireplace surrounds, literally thousands of architectural remnants jump like ghosts from endless aisles, overstuffed cubbyholes and outdoor lots. Pop-culture collectibles abound as well, such as Seattle Seahawks goalposts, bowling alley hardwoods, bright red vinyl restaurant booths and retired city street signs.
Working hand in hand with progressive partners such as a the City of Seattle, Historic Seattle, the Master Builder’s Association and countless independent designers, builders and developers, salvagers from Earthwise and Second Use snatch up treasures before they go crashing into landfills or dump yards. Because of a 2014 ordinance passed by the city, any demolition or remodel of a space more than 750 square feet must obtain a deconstruction and salvage assessment from a certified agent, such as an employee of an architectural salvage yard.
The Second Use operation on Sixth Avenue South saves more than 3,000 tons of local building materials from landfills every year. It offers free removal of non-structural, reusable materials from home or job sites, noting that salvage is beneficial to the environment, reduces the cost of waste and demolition and creates a mechanism for passing on the stories that inhabit the region’s homes and businesses.
A wildly popular reclamation project at Second Use involves 14,000 colorful wooden foundry molds and templates previously used to cast machinery parts for the agricultural industry in the late 1800s.
“Typically, sand would be packed around the pattern in two halves and then pattern would be removed, leaving a cavity in the sand. The foundry then poured molten metal into the sand cavity and destroyed the sand mold once the metal was solidified, leaving a metal casting, and the wood pattern was used to make another mold,” explains Mary Anne Carter, the Community Outreach Coordinator at Second Use.
The patterns were retired to the Acrowood Foundry in Everett and are now available at the Second Use store, where they’re being scooped up and repurposed by artists, designers and home decorators who turn them into everything from clocks to shelving, tables, home bars and stand-alone art pieces.
One of the most interesting products available at Second Use is old-growth Douglas fir and western hemlock rounds once used as boom logs on the Columbia River. The rounds, some more than 500 years old, feature teredo saltwater clam wood bores, leaving a distinctive pattern that is highly valued for use in paneling, fencing and furniture.
Lovers of literature can get their hands on at least 90 pieces of memorabilia from the beloved and recently demolished Richard Hugo House, a Victorian literary arts center with more than a few tales of Seattle ghosts from its former use as a funeral parlor. Pieces at Second Use include the iconic Hugo House hardwood mantle, industrial lighting, columns, wood windows and its original sign.
Earthwise, occupying a smaller but perfectly packed lot on Fourth Avenue, specializes in preserving the architectural heritage of both Seattle and Tacoma. Experts such as Aaron Blanchard, Director of Salvage Operations at Earthwise, literally get on hands and knees to unbolt, unearth, rip up, cart out and transport everything from deco-style pedestal sinks to wavy handblown glass windows, faded wooden carousel horses, and 1925 theatre-style seating from Stewart Middle School in Tacoma.
A recent project retrieving 33 cast-iron pedestal bathtubs from a 1901 Capital Hill apartment complex with a broken elevator had the team carting massively heavy tubs for weeks from the five-story building.
“It’s a lot of hard work,” admits Aaron, “but at the end of the day, when you turn around and see a truckload of treasures otherwise destined for the dump that will now have a second life, you know it was all worth it.”
Another recent Earthwise rescue in Shelton produced a supply of bowling alley maple and pine lanes now available for repurposing into tables, counters or even dance floors. A collection of vintage energy-efficient hot water radiators can be reinstalled in modern homes – or reinvented as enamel-painted tables or shelving bases. Wandering deeper into the outdoor stalls and sheds brings you to a collection of antique fireplace surrounds and freestanding fireboxes with embossed mythology motifs. Indoors, you’ll find signage from famous Seattle restaurants, hundreds of vintage door knobs and plates, and even some of the purple glass tiles embedded into the sidewalks of Pioneer Square.
Dozens of businesses in Seattle incorporate local salvage pieces into their core design features. One of the most devoted and creative companies is Weimann Maclise Restaurants, owners of popular eateries such as Bastille, Poquitos, Rhein Haus, Macleods Scottish Pub and Stoneburner Pizza– all containing salvaged treasures.
The back bar chandelier at Bastille came from Earthwise, as did the light boxes, made from reclaimed air vent grills. The entryway barrel vaulted ceiling of Stoneburner once graced the Dolce Vita building in Ballard, while its maple floor and park bench came from a local school. The prominent neon sign at Poquitos was salvaged from a 1970s Mexican restaurant on Greenwood Avenue, and the mezzanine railings at Rhein Haus came from the McCaw mansion in Medina.
For the same price as picking up materials from big-box home improvement stores (and sometimes far less), these dedicated salvagers prove that it’s possible to inject history, magnificent architectural details and cultural icons into living or working spaces, passing on and recreating stories of the city as it continues to evolve.