WILMINGTON –– When all other preservation options have been exhausted, Legacy Architectural Salvage helps facilitate the rehoming of historic materials so their legend can live on.
Tucked behind the Ace Hardware on Dawson Street, Legacy’s warehouse is full of recovered pre-1960s wood, windows, and other trinkets and household items either donated or pried by hand by a team of volunteers.
Among preservationists, keeping historic structures intact and in place is preferred; restoration and rehabilitation come next in that chain, with salvaging serving as the best-case option in a worst-case scenario.
“This is the last alternative we have to pull out of the hat,” said Travis Gilbert, Historic Wilmington Foundation’s executive director.
Such was recently the case with Shandy Hall, one of the region’s last sound-adjacent historic homes off Greenville Loop Road. Believed to have been constructed in the 1850s, the home is being replaced with a modern version of itself; its new owners have enlisted a design firm that has rendered an enhanced replica of the historic property.
The plans unsettled neighbors who never anticipated the new buyer would raze the cherished home.
When these situations arise, HWF first advocates for preservation, if it’s structurally feasible. Education on historic tax credits and programs that incentivize maintaining a historic structure’s integrity is generously offered.
“We always want to advocate for saving,” said Deb Helms, manager of Legacy Architectural Salvage. “But if you’re not able to, the Historic Wilmington Foundation has us as their last best tool to be able to salvage and save what we can.”
Isabelle Shepherd, HWF’s outreach and development coordinator, participated in her first deconstruction mission Saturday off Shandy Lane. As a preservationist, there’s a mix of awe, honor, and even sorrow that comes with dismantling a historic structure.
“We are a relatively new country, you know, and as such, I think it’s important for us to save as many pieces of our built history as possible,” Shepherd said. “So of course, there’s a sadness there, there’s a type of grief. But ultimately, it’s really beautiful to see.”
Uncovering the markings of a historic home’s origins inspires a sense of curiosity, Shepherd explained, quenched by Legacy’s knowledgeable backbone of volunteers.
“It’s a beautiful opportunity to see what’s beneath the surface in a historic home –– the massive floor joists, the solid wood beams,” she said. “It’s a fantastic learning experience.”
Beneath exterior lap siding, volunteers uncovered a pillar post braced with a mortise and tenon joint (a wooden peg fastened into a beam). This feature and others told volunteers the structure was built earlier than was previously believed.
The team methodically pried out reusable materials, taking care not to damage them in the process.
“Every architectural element in a home tells something about its construction. It tells something about the people that made it, what style of craftsmanship were they doing, what funds they had,” she said. “When you’re doing a deconstruction mission you’re learning so much while you do it.”
A mission to save
Remnants of Shandy can be found all over Legacy’s warehouse. It’s not their biggest haul, Helms said, but it’s a significant one.
A team of Legacy volunteers has been at the site this week, aiding in demo efforts to collect unique and reusable features. The owners are keeping some, too –– full logs used as joists under hardwood flooring will be incorporated into the new rebuild in some way, Helms’ husband Don said, also a Legacy volunteer.
Don was gripping a handheld miter saw, slicing off the ends of hand-cut, rectangle-head 19th-century nails protruding from long pieces collected from Shandy as sparks spattered.
“This was a threshold,” he said while patting a thick slab. “If you look at the grain here, you see how tight that is? It means it’s old growth,” he said. “Look how thick that is … it’s all about the grain.”
Old-growth wood grew in natural conditions, likely with competition in a forest, resulting in tighter-wound rings from expanding slowly each year. New growth represents most lumber available today, grown in timber farms with conditions designed to maximize output, producing wider rings and softer wood.
Deforestation has depleted the supply of old-growth wood –– it can’t be found in generic home-improvement stores.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, that’s old, why would I want to [buy that]?’” Deb said. “The reason you want to buy it is because it’s pest-resistant, rot-resistant, warp-resistant, and it’s been around for 250, 300 years already.”
Don calls the pieces “unobtainium.”
“Basically the materials that we’re salvaging for this house, they’re no longer available,” Deb explained.
Legacy volunteers recently discovered a modern shell of drop ceilings and drywall had encased beadboard for decades, and other century-old features on Shandy Lane. The historic harvest includes about a dozen old windows with wavy glass, a couple of transom window pieces, thick doors with porcelain knobs, corbels, and plenty of paired shutters –– “a lot of the time we just get onesies and twosies,” Deb said.
Legacy regulars can make their way onto a call list for certain specialty items as they await just the right fixture. When a new old batch arrives, Helms makes her way down the list, letting the customers know the pieces are there for them to pick through.
“We’re gonna tell our customers where the doors came from, where the windows come from,” she said. “Our customers love the story.”
‘It’s a treasure’
Launched in 2015, Legacy is a project of HWF, with all proceeds benefiting the foundation’s preservation efforts. The shop is propped up by a dedicated volunteer base of about 25 who regularly show up to demo sites in the Cape Fear region on a whim.
Reliant on word-of-mouth, Legacy aims to be in owners’, contractors’, realtors’, and really anyone that touches historic homes’ minds before major renovation or demolition work begins. The operation isn’t bound to Wilmington alone –– one of Helms’ favorite finds was 65 unpainted wood doors and 2,400 square feet of tin ceiling panels out of a railroad-facing early 1900s hotel in Warsaw.
“We couldn’t do this without our volunteers,” Helms said. “We’re just blessed to be able to have the opportunity because if we were not here, this stuff would go into the landfill and it would be lost.”
Helms joined Legacy the year after it opened as a volunteer. Now as manager, she’s landed her dream job.
“For me, it’s a dream come true. Because I love history. I love historic preservation, and being able to work in a place where I’m surrounded by historic materials, and then all the proceeds from the sales of these historic materials are going to preserve and protect the irreplaceable in the Wilmington community,” she said. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Don takes his role as caretaker ushering the pieces to prepare for new homes seriously.
“The way I put it is, you take ownership and I take ownership of every single piece of old-growth pine we get,” he said. “Because it’s a treasure and you know it’s never coming back.”
Legacy Architectural Salvage is open Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Thursdays until 5 p.m. Those interested in volunteering for deconstruction efforts should email email@example.com or call Legacy at 910-338-6443.
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