"Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful," wrote 19th-Century tastemaker William Morris. This good advice was easier to follow when labor was cheap.
Today's homeowner--eager to restore an old house, add distinction to a bland one or create a neoclassic--soon learns that period architectural details are hard to find and cost a small fortune to duplicate.
The problem may be resolved by a tour of local salvage yards, which offer both the useful and the beautiful at bargain prices.
In these pop museums, heaped with the rubble of our city's past, alert treasure hunters are apt to discover arched French doors stacked with aluminum sliders, antique chandeliers hanging beside fluorescents, claw-foot tubs stored amid fiberglass fixtures, prized crystal and porcelain doorknobs submerged in a bin of hardware--perhaps even a beveled-glass fan light or a Victorian mantel hidden behind a rusty water heater.
Block-long salvage yards are an endangered species. Most have closed during the last five years because of rising insurance and real estate costs.
These days, when wreckers tear down a sumptuous old hotel, mansion or theater, they seldom bother to rescue its magnificent hand-carved moldings, inlaid ceilings and parquet floors. All but the priciest surviving yards subsist by selling used building materials and/or cut-rate kitchen and bathroom cabinets.
The majority are in downtown Los Angeles. Three years after the closing of what seems to have been Orange County's last salvage yard, Orange County's last architectural antique shop moved to Carmel.
The most elegant local yard is now Architectural Imports, a cavernous warehouse with hundreds of antique windows and doors from $300 up--including Belgian etched glass, English stained glass and massive panes from a century-old church.
Elaborate oak entryways with leaded or stained-glass transoms and side lights start at $7,000. A baroque copper mantel, one of many period fireplace-surrounds, costs $1,500. There are also ornate corbels, arched over-windows and over-doors inset with hand-painted glass, and chandeliers ranging from 1890s gaslights to 1920s holophanes.
Another fancy salvage yard is Scavengers' Paradise, overflowing with choice antiquities: windows and doors from $15 to $1,200, an oak-and-leaded-glass entryway for $4,500, hand-carved mantels from $150, '20s claw-foot tubs and pedestal sinks from $250, plus archaic door hardware, crystal knobs, rococo corbels, built-in Craftsman buffets, planters, indoor and outdoor wrought iron, garden statues and fountains.
Other delights include massive iron driveway gates, a pair of crystal-hung wrought-iron wall sconces 5 feet tall, the old bronze elevator from City Hall and, for $2,500, Rock Hudson's 15-foot inlaid mahogany bathroom vanity with copper sink and fittings.
All the other salvage yards stock lots of vintage doors, windows, screens and shutters from $5 or $10, and substantial amounts of good, budget-priced used plumbing, electrical and building materials.
MRM Contractors, which wrecks Pasadena mansions, sells red Spanish mission roof tiles for 69 cents each. Old porch columns start at $50, claw-foot tubs at $65, china pedestal sinks and leaded-glass windows at $100. French doors, some arched, range up to 9 feet high. A pair of arched windows 10 feet tall cost $375. Salvaged from the 1889 Childs estate: a 6-foot, 6-inch wooden mantel with beveled mirror costs $450, and a fine oak entryway with leaded glass costs $500.
Although both Cleveland Wrecking and L.A. Wrecking have been demolishing old buildings since the early 1900s, architectural salvage is no longer a major source of income. However, L.A. still has '30s tubs and sinks from $95, plus a few original porcelain fittings. And Cleveland still offers old street lamps and big, round stained-glass church windows, plus life-sized teak horses hand-carved in Thailand.
Architectural Salvage, another old-timer no longer retailing general salvage, now confines its business to Spanish wrought iron but still has a few antique bathroom fixtures. Pull-chain toilets start at $500.
At the rest of the yards, where 8-foot 2-by-4s cost about $1 and used bricks cost about 35 cents, there are always unexpected treasures. Big 10 has wooden pillars from $100 and entryways from $250. Southside Wrecking has handsome used hardwood flooring. B & B Lumber has a charming white-wicker-look residential elevator for $200. Aztec Stone & Brick has $60 claw-foot tubs. Frank Daniels has inexpensive wrought iron.
There is also a salvage yard for used and unclaimed glass and mirror in all sizes, thicknesses, tints and styles. Preferred Glass discounts it all: skylights, greenhouse windows, screens, burglar guards, mirrored wardrobe doors, sliders for patio, tub and shower--even salvaged windshields. Window latches cost a dime. Table tops cut to size cost $1 per foot. A rare 52-by-20-inch etched mirror commemorating the 1984 Olympics costs $195.