Rescuing Architectural Treasures
You might say the Salvage Barn is a temporary refuge. Architectural castoffs from another time (or, more accurately, times) line the walls, drawers, and shelves. Even the rafters get in on the act, with a antique plow and copper rain gutters hanging high over visitors’ heads.
Walk through the aisles, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by rescued pieces that barely escaped burial in the landfill: wooden corbels; tongue-and-groove flooring; antique light fixtures; drawers full of doorknobs; a hundred-year-old, oak staircase; and even a picket fence.
True to its name, the Salvage Barn sells architectural items that have been saved from buildings in the nick of time, before being lost forever to the wrecking ball.
The origins of the Salvage Barn date back to 1991, when Roger Gwinnup, a board member of Friends of Historic Preservation, was approached by the City of Iowa City to transition its architectural salvage operation to a local group. The original salvage operation was intended to help a low-income housing project.
Gwinnup recommended that Friends of Historic Preservation take over the operation. After a year of negotiations, training and organization, the Salvage Barn opened its doors. Friends of Historic Preservation operates the Salvage Barn and salvage operations and the City of Iowa City provides the storage location.
From the beginning, the Salvage Barn focused on rescuing reusable, hard-to-find building materials suitable for use by homeowners and builders to use for repairs and additions or changes to historic buildings. The FHP operates the Salvage Barn as a service to the city of Iowa City, keeping reusable building materials out of the landfill. It resides in a large pole barn on the grounds of the Johnson County landfill.
Volunteers meet on weekends at the invitation of property owners to carefully remove pieces of architectural interest from buildings that are in excess of 50 years old. “Experienced members work along side enthusiastic newcomers to ensure that the materials are removed properly,” the Salvage Barn website says. Often, some of the volunteers are the intended recipients of the day’s salvaged goods.
While Shelly Slaubaugh and Thomas McInerny were planning their new house, they wanted it to have the look and appeal of an early 20th century home. The couple helped the FHP salvage the floorboards, doors and trim from a house in Belle Plaine, Iowa. “I wanted an old house,” Shelly says, “and Thomas wanted nothing to do with the upkeep. He’s an architect, so he designed a Victorian arts and crafts house around the millwork we bought from the Salvage Barn.”
“We must have been pretty successful with the look and feel we were aiming for. We had some electrical work done recently,” Slaubaugh says, “and the inspector wanted us to place an outlet in the trim board we’d salvaged. When I objected, he asked, ‘How old is this place?’ He was very surprised when I told him it was just one year old; the walnut millwork already has a patina.”
Proceeds from the Salvage Barn assist the FHP in their mission to preserve historic buildings in Iowa City. On occasion, however, owners of an historic home in another part of the state may benefit. Nik Conner and Sal Leanhart’s home in rural Cedar County was a hotel back in the days of stagecoaches and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Conner and Leanhart had been working with the Salvage Barn, finding just the right wood pieces to finish renovating their home, when the floods came. The first floor of their historic home had to be gutted, and the wooden floorboards were a complete loss.
When the director of FHP, Helen Burford, and Salvage Barn manager, Paul Kinney, heard the Conners’ news, they stepped in to help. The FHP donated antique wood flooring for the couple’s dining room. With the help of relatives, Conner and Leanhart cleaned up after the river’s withdrawal, then removed the ruined walls and floors. They installed beautiful, period flooring that makes the room look warm and inviting.
From the Salvage Barn they also received a door for their renovated kitchen and wooden spindles, which they use to support a counter top. The home is now a showpiece, with only a watermark on the stairway door to remind them of the hip-deep flood that had ravaged their property.
“We’re very grateful for the generosity of the Salvage Barn,” Conner said. And, for their part, the FHP is equally grateful that the architectural items they painstakingly remove from one home end up used and appreciated in another. It’s all part of the ethic of conservation that keeps members volunteering and the public donating, house after historic house.
“The Salvage Barn is one of the reasons why Iowa City is a special place,” says FHP Director, Helen Burford. “It is full of treasures that never cease to inspire homeowners, builders, architects and even artists to reuse or find new ways to use beautiful materials.
“It may take a little effort, but beneath a coat of paint, the intricate metal designs or even the warmth of old, long-grained wood are easily revealed. Working with these materials is a rewarding experience, one that is very different from buying something new.”