Recycled ruins

In the back of the room, a 10-foot-tall white wooden fireplace, complete with a marble mantel and just a bit too much gold leaf trim, towers above you. A stone bust of a woman, a loose gown barely covering her bust, is built into the center of the display. A piece this ostentatious would dominate most antique stores, but at the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, it's got a lot to compete with, including a giant vintage Parisian clock-face nearly 5 feet in diameter, miles upon miles of oak floorboards and moldings and two honest-to-goodness Murphy-in-a-Door wall beds, all within haggling distance.

Every item in the 5,000-square-foot retail space at the corner of Warren and Grand River avenues in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood was salvaged from homes about to be demolished or renovated. According to ASWD President Carolyn Mosher, as much as 85 percent of the materials in a home, everything except the plaster and the roof shingles, can be salvaged and reused or sold.

"People are always surprised because the general conception is that salvage is junk," says Mosher. "So, they're always amazed that they're finding such spectacular materials."

ASWD uses two primary methods to acquire its inventory, called "skimming" and "deconstruction." When a house is skimmed, a crew comes in and takes out easily removable items like sinks, ovens and light fixtures. When it is deconstructed, the crew tears the house down to its foundation, salvaging reusable items along the way.

Mosher began to study architectural salvaging in 2004, after a city planner friend of hers expressed concern about the Detroit's architectural legacy.

"He felt that the history of Detroit had been going into the landfill," she says.

She took a look at other salvage operations around the country (about 500 then, more than 1,500 now), and in 2005 opened her warehouse and began doing deconstructions. Since then, the nonprofit organization has performed about 60 skimmings and five full deconstructions. Compared to traditional demolition, which takes less than a day and requires a crew of two or three, deconstruction takes a six-member crew about a month. It's painstaking and expensive. And the warehouse tries to keep prices low. Hundreds of light fixtures sell for less than $100 a piece; kitchen sinks go for as little as $35; and a full oak staircase is listed on the Web site at just $650.

Which is why the group is holding its second annual Urban Alchemy fund-raiser Thursday. This year's event will include an auction called "Windows to the Future." The auction will feature art created from found objects, including 15 (you guessed it) windows salvaged from area homes.

ASWD partnered with Woodbridge gallery the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) to select the 19 area artists for the show. Many of the windows in the exhibit come from the warehouse's collection. But a few of the artists work with what ASWD advisory board member Anne Fracassa calls "curbside finds." No stranger to this type of project, Fracassa has used discarded bricks from around the city as her canvas of choice for over five years.

She is also responsible for bringing two Detroit elementary schools into the show.

ASWD will be auctioning 21 birdhouses built and painted by students of the George Crockett Academy just across the street from the warehouse.

Fifty special education students from Ralph Bunche Elementary on the city's east side collaborated to paint 10 salvaged doors that will also be auctioned off. Fracassa says the 7- to 10-year-old students became "completely absorbed" in the project once they began.

"If you said these were graduate students, nobody would know the difference," Mosher says.

Last year's fund-raiser brought in about $12,000, says Mosher. This year they're aiming to fetch around $15,000. And to her, it's a worthy cause beyond the obvious environmental and preservationist benefits. It's also a way for low-income city residents to learn a trade. Thus far, she's trained 36 people, many from the lunch line at St. Leo's Church Soup Kitchen next door.

"I tried to come up with a mission that worked for Detroit," she says. Some salvage organizations, she said, "just concentrated on job creation. Some of them were just for historic preservation. Some were environmental. I felt Detroit needed all three."

Mosher has had some difficulty getting that message across to city officials.

"The city has had problems working through their bureaucracy," she says. "We've been easily embraced by Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe and Troy and Birmingham. Everyone wants to work with us, but the city has not been inclined."

But, she adds, Detroit City Council President and Woodbridge resident Ken Cockrel Jr. has recently begun to express an interest in a partnership with the organization, specifically because of the job-creation initiative.

"That has really sparked the interest. If you just think about all the work that could be created with all the demolition that's going on in the city."


The Urban Alchemy fund-raiser will be held Thursday at the Architectural Salvage Warehouse of Detroit, 4885 15th St., Detroit; 313-515-0399; and at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd., Detroit; 313-899-2243. Tickets are $85 and include cocktails, live auction, live music at CAID and a tribute to local preservationist Douglas McIntosh. Transportation between the two venues provided.

Send comments to [email protected]

Scroll to read more Culture articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.