Unlike Europe, the United States has never had many reservations about demolishing its old buildings to make way for the new. The vast array of exquisite materials squandered during the modernist era — when ornamentation was held in contempt — could make a grown person cry.
After World War II, countless Victorian homes filled with ornately milled hardwoods, marble, leaded and colored glass, brass and bronze were blithely destroyed to make way for the sedate, blank surfaces of the "new" age.
Nowadays, any green designer or builder worth his salt recognizes the value of quality salvaged items. Yet ironically, long before the green movement, it was wrecking contractors who first saw value in such items.
Over the years, their equipment yards became stockpiled with items hastily stripped from old homes in the last bleak hours before the Caterpillars arrived. These stockpiles eventually grew into organized salvage yards featuring a huge array of architectural materials.
With money as scarce as it is today, many remodelers have turned to salvaged materials as a way to save a few bucks. And rightly so: If you know what to buy and what to avoid, the salvaged items can be a real bargain. With luck, you may even come across an architectural treasure or two. Don’t expect perfection, however; remember that these items have already lived one lifetime. Consider a chip or scratch here and there as a badge of honor.
Probably the most useful salvage buys are metallic items like high-quality cabinet hardware, railings, escutcheons and grilles. They’re easily stripped of paint and reused, and their quality is generally far higher than similar items you can buy today. Also worth searching out are fireplace mantels and other stone or marble items that are very expensive purchased new.
Panel doors can also be a bargain as long as they’re in good condition. Except for really one-of-a-kind items, though, don’t bother buying doors that are badly weathered or otherwise damaged; repairing them simply isn’t cost effective. Also, try to use salvaged doors in new openings made especially for them, not in existing openings. Modifying old doors to fit an existing opening (or vice versa) can be a real headache.
Salvage yards frequently have leaded or colored glass windows, too. Many have interesting muntin patterns or unusual shapes, and can fit nicely into remodeling plans.
However, the more mundane types of double-hung or casement windows are seldom worth buying for new construction (nor will they usually meet modern energy codes). By the time you’ve gotten them properly refinished and in smooth working condition, you’ll wish you’d simply bought a new window. Save your rehab efforts for windows that are worth the time.
Unless they’re in near-perfect condition, salvaged plumbing fixtures are also seldom worth the trouble. Many old fixtures (as opposed to the reproductions some salvage yards sell) are difficult to connect and may require modification, and many won’t comply with modern water-conservation standards.
Claw-foot tubs are especially impractical unless they’re installed so you can get at all sides of them. Otherwise all kinds of unpleasant things will start growing in places you can’t reach.