In a book called The Restoration Economy, author Storm Cunningham posits that making things is big business, but remaking things is an even bigger business. Our American economy and culture are concentrated on making things. But I know three counter-culture characters who would rather salvage and restore something old than make something new.
John Seekircher of Seekircher Window Repair has restored over 1,000,000 steel casement windows over 40 years. He learned to love steel while working on the railroad, along the Hudson River in Peekskill, New York. His “mettle” was tested along the way when his shop and warehouse burned to the ground in 2005.
But next year, Seekircher Steel Windows celebrates their 40th anniversary. They began the fanfare early this year with the grand opening of a new expanded warehouse, which beautifully showcases the largest inventory of salvaged steel and stained-glass windows anywhere this side of the Rust Belt.
Downstairs from Seekircher’s warehouse, a half dozen craftsman lovingly restore steel as if it were the jewelry of architecture, which it surely is. I’ve never seen steel wool so gingerly applied, to windows and doors large and small. Each part and piece is cleaned, polished, repaired, and reassembled to create metal masterpieces to be installed and reinstalled in buildings old and new. Like the hefty grip and quiet, solid slam of a luxury car door, these old steel casements have an old-world touch and seem fit for a king’s castle.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s hard to believe anyone would throw these steel windows away in the first place. But then they don’t know what Seekircher does: salvage and restore rust and ruin into a rainbow of steel and stained glass. He has worked on buildings in 38 states; one of his signature projects is Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece in western Pennsylvania.
Another bohemian character I’ve encountered in my travels is Richard Richardson of Good Time Stove Company. Nestled below a mountain crag, overlooking a reedy bog in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, Richard’s antique stove and fireplace showroom looks, from the road, more like an amusement park, with eclectic outdoor sculpture and bright-colored junk. Once inside the “barn,” a visitor is surprised by the old-time charm of iron stoves gleaming in sunlight that finds its way in between the rafters.
Customers as eccentric as the proprietor come from all over the world to shop this collection of unique, restored pot-belly parlor stoves and Franklin fireplaces dating 1840–1930. Some stoves are as big as Volkswagens. They look like art objects but perform as well as a Viking range without the snobbery. Chunky and bright with chrome, standing solid on all fours, these one-ton electric, gas, wood, or coal stoves deserve a period kitchen addition all their own.
In juxtaposition to the permanence of 150-year old iron appliances, a meditation garden and sanctuary just outside the showroom, built in memory of Richards’s brother and daughter, reminds us that old stoves are forever but life is not.
As materials go, paper is more ephemeral than iron and steel, until it’s been scanned into a PDF and catalogued for posterity. That’s the case with Mike Jackson’s Building Technology Heritage Library, a free online archive of period architectural trade catalogues and technical documents. This archive was created by the Association for Preservation Technology International to serve both members and the general public.
The Heritage Library salvages old publications to give them new life online. Besides enjoying the fun and folly of reading catalogue copy written in Victorian and prewar prose, we appreciate that this is a deep resource to inform restoration. Every trade catalogue, house-plan book, and product brochure dates to before 1964; I’ve just been perusing “The Builder’s Hardware and Tool Catalogue” of 1926.
Three architectural salvagers—John Seekircher, Richard Richardson, and Mike Jackson—are conserving embodied energy, intrinsic value, and beauty. Their enterprises bring the past into the present, and remind us that “they don’t make ’em like they used to.”