Salvage Secrets

A common pitfall of designing with old architectural details is that chance that your home itself may begin to resemble a salvage warehouse. Some noted architects and designers discuss the problem of how much, how often?

Sam White, partner, Buttrick White & Burtis; great-grandson of Stanford White; author, Houses of McKim, Mead & White (Rizzoli, $70): “I use salvage in homeopathic doses only,” says White. “Though if someone could use an entire ballroom from the William Collins Whitney house, I know an antiques dealer in Virginia who has one… . You have to realize that you’re never going to save a nickel with salvage, because it’s difficult as anything to fit them into a newer scheme… . Things like brass hardware, crystal knobs, and pendant lights are the little things which can give a house a certain credibility, and work almost as a garnish to the architecture. But I think salvage works best when the craftsmanship of feature pieces” – say, an unusual gate or mantel – “that once sat in the background is moved to the foreground.”

Carey Maloney and Hermes Mallea, partners and co-owners, M(Group) (clients include Edward and Norah Burden, Matthew Bronfman, and the Ziff family): “For God’s sake, take your contractor with you when you go to the salvage warehouse,” says Maloney. “People buy claw-footed tubs all the time, forgetting that they may have to move all sorts of plumbing and drains to fit them in.” Mallea adds: “One of the trickiest things has to do with the finishes of salvaged items. They’re usually pretty distressed, calling much too much attention themselves in a finished, new interior.” Though you may see “a lot of shelter magazines piling layer upon layer of old shutters and column capitals into the same space” lately, exercise some restraint.

James W. Rhodes, partner in charge of historic preservation, Beyer Blinder Belle, restorers of Ellis Island and Grand Central Terminal: Rhodes feels that while the most common uses of salvage (“doorknobs and mantels, and sometimes large plaster pieces – you know, cupids with trumpets”) are often the most successful in residential settings, “there’s still more room for larger pieces” in commercial projects. “The problem is that it’s so difficult and expensive to take these things down carefully and store them when you don’t know yet what you might use it for. The best bets are familiar pieces, which are especially valuable if people remember them from their old locations.”

Hugh Hardy, partner, Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer: “One has to be careful not to trivialize fragments of real architecture. People sometimes apply salvaged elements like they were sticking gumdrops into the icing of a cake. If you don’t do it with some sympathy and understanding, you trivialize what you claim to be celebrating.” And then there are the perils of pedantry: “It’s easy to take a curatorial point of view too far. No one wants to go over to someone’s house for dinner to be lectured all night about the history of each of their possessions.”

Salvage Secrets