Treasure Trove

In need of a Victorian doorknob, or an enitre door? Albany's Architectural Parts Warehouse is the place to go for building treasures from the Capital Region's past.



Treasure Trove

 

Neoclassical ceiling medallions, Art Deco glass, an arcane piece of 19th-century hardware: You¡¯ll find them all ¡ª and lots more ¡ª at Albany¡¯s Architectural Parts Warehouse

 

by Ann Morrow

Photographs by Michael Dzaman

 

Talk about your hard-to-find items. On a recent Saturday, historic house owner Henry Madej re­called his search for a replacement for the bar that connects the doorknobs on either side of his entrance door. ¡°I went everywhere, but because of [the door¡¯s] age and size, I couldn¡¯t find anything right,¡± he says. ¡°I tried all the big-box stores, but the widths were different.¡± Nor were any of the bars jointed like the original, which enabled it to turn with the key. He came to the Architectural Parts Warehouse in Albany ¡°on a lark,¡± Madej says. ¡°And I was able to replace it.¡±

 

Warehouse manager Mark Brogna remembers that, in fact, he had two jointed ¡°stems¡± on hand that day, explaining that in-stock items (like doorknob sets) that are not in salable condition are often broken down into usable parts. ¡°They have these incredible bits and pieces ¡ª like a 100-year-old stem,¡± enthuses Madej. ¡°Things that contemporary America doesn¡¯t use anymore.¡± Busily selecting wooden window-molding corners out of a large pile, he adds: ¡°And if you¡¯re not an expert, someone will help you.¡±

 

A division of Historic Albany Foundation (a nonprofit organization that advocates for the preservation of the city¡¯s historic environment), the Architectural Parts Warehouse serves one of the foundation¡¯s stated aims: to encourage the reuse of architectural parts. All 11,000 square feet of the warehouse is crammed with bits, pieces, and even whole sections of historic buildings, all of it donated or salvaged. A partial listing of the inventory ranges over a lumberyard¡¯s worth of milled wood; a vast expanse of bathroom sinks; rows of radiators in various styles; stacks of assorted doors and windows; lighting fixtures from every era ¡ª as well as ceramic tiles, plaster ceiling medallions, and an array of kitchen appliances. (On a recent visit, a vintage white-and-black stove appeared to be waiting for its shelter-magazine close-up.) Not to mention the occasional stained-glass transom, floor-to-ceiling rococo mirror, or the glass case filled with antique hardware (including Art Deco wall sconces and delicate cast-metal escutcheons). And yes, people do come in just to look.

 

Brogna ¡ª a former historic-properties manager and civil engineer who has been with the warehouse for two years ¡ª also acts as a one-man salvage operation, picking up large donations and rescuing as much as possible from demolition sites. ¡°I like recycling and keeping things in useful circulation,¡± he says of his move to the nonprofit sector. ¡°I hate to see anything sitting in a dump if it can be reused.¡± The warehouse¡¯s clientele includes architects, contractors, and historic-house owners, as well as artistic types and do-it-yourselfers looking for elements that will give their homes character. One popular and inexpensive material is the ¡°wavy glass¡± found in pre-1930s windows. ¡°People find it more interesting,¡± says Brogna, angling a pane into the light to show
its ripple effect.

¡°They bring it to a glass cutter to fit their own windows.¡±

 

Another instance of creative reuse comes from the owner of a 1920s house who bought the doors to a butler¡¯s pantry (¡°in great condition¡±) and used them as window treatments. ¡°It gives you a lot of options for maintaining the original integrity of your home,¡± the owner says of the warehouse.

 

The Architectural Parts Warehouse was started in 1978, four years after the formation of Historic Albany Foundation. Elizabeth Griffin, HAF¡¯s executive director, explains that a warehouse became necessary ¡°because in Albany in the 1970s, there were so many items coming out of rehabs and renovations and going into landfills, and [at the same time] so many ongoing projects, that there was tremendous demand for parts and pieces.¡± Griffin characterizes the warehouse today as both a service and a resource: clients are given how-to advice to go with their purchases and, if needed, the names of expert craftspeople whose talents match the challenges of their project.

 

Griffin reports that the warehouse has steadily grown not only in size, but also in its customer base and the range of its donations. In 1998, the warehouse moved to a larger location within a former office-supply warehouse. Itself a donation, the brick building is undergoing capital improvements in keeping with the foundation¡¯s mission to utilize historic buildings.

 

The capacious structure comes in handy for another of the foundation¡¯s services: storing important architectural elements from the city in the hope that they will be returned to their original purpose. A few years ago, HAF saved an entire parlor from demolition.

 

¡°The parlor was oval,¡± says Griffin, ¡°with a marble mantel, French glass doors, and exquisite iron balconies. The individual elements were sold to an Albanian who planned to recreate the entire room in his home.¡± Currently, the warehouse is hosting the well-known verdigris copper cornice from the endangered Wellington Hotel. The sea-green cornice, with its decorative lion¡¯s heads, is proving to be something of a draw.

 

Although HAF does promote the reuse of its historic parts within the city, sales are not limited to residents. Manager Brogna mentions that one regular customer is a contractor from Hudson with a preference for six-over-six windows. Yet despite the warehouse¡¯s impressive inventory, he cautions that ¡°this isn¡¯t retail¡±; occasionally customers do go away disappointed. The owner of the 1920s house was looking for a porcelain Crane shower handle ¡ª the only original piece missing from her 1928 bathroom. She found several Crane handles, but none were the right size. According to Brogna, most customers realize that it¡¯s catch as catch can, and many come in with a long list and the understanding it will take time to acquire each item. ¡°And that¡¯s okay, because restorations take a long time,¡± he adds.

 

Repeat customers almost always find what they need at some point; after all, one person¡¯s castoff is another person¡¯s prized find. And at this second-hand outlet, the manager and his volunteer staff are as committed to the hunt as the client. Says Brogna: ¡°I love it when someone is doing an accurate restoration and they¡¯re looking for, say, a three-inch lift-off hinge. And I happen to have one. Or two.¡±

 

The Architectural Parts Warehouse is located at 89 Lexington Ave., Albany. Hours are Wed.-Fri. 12-5 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 518-465-2987 or www.historic-albany.org ¡ö

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